Story by Edith Emeralda Photo courtesy of Cattle Raisers Museum Denton Live Fall-Winter 2015
The aroma of hot, thick, black coffee wafts in the still, cool predawn air. Bacon fat frying in cast iron crackles over a fire and plump, soft biscuits rise in a deep iron crock.
Cattle and cowboys snore rhythmically across the quiet sea of grass while Venus smiles brightly from the dark blue expanse above. Cookie is up earlier than the others, preparing breakfast from the back of his chuck wagon. Morning on the trail is off to a good start.
Dentonite Jim Daugherty, the young trail boss, is also up early preparing to leave. After double-checking his saddle, Jim sits down, leaning on the big wagon wheel. Cookie hands Jim a full tin plate.
“Thanks, this looks good,” Jim comments, biting into the bacon. “Do we have enough supplies until Baxter Springs?”
“Think so, so long as you lay it easy on the bacon,” says the cowboy.
“Morning, Jim,” John Dobbins, the foreman, yawns his greeting. “What’s the plan?”
Jim started his small cattle drive of 500 steers –bought from his previous employer- out of Denton towards Kansas. When he went ahead alone on the trail to scout the way to market, he heard rumors and reports about trouble brewing on the route.
A band of outlaws called the Jayhawkers had killed a drover and stampeded a herd from the Indian Territory. Rushing back to his own herd not far from Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, Jim tells his six men, “Stay alert and be on the lookout – the Jayhawkers are out for blood.”
Cattle driving is slow going, 10-15 miles per day. As Jim’s herd moseys across the northern edge of Indian Territory, Jim once more leaves his men and the herd, riding hard and fast to Fort Scott on the southern edge of Kansas near the Missouri border. There he meets with Ben Keys, contracting to deliver his herd to the fort. Happy to have secured a buyer, Jim rides back to the herd once more.
Taking the road on the border between Kansas and Missouri, the dusty cattlemen continue leading the tired steers while keeping their six-shooters nearby. In the late afternoon, scarcely twenty miles from Fort Scott, fifteen to twenty riders ambush the herd from all directions. Yells and dust swirl around the confused cattle. “Do not move!” orders the head Jayhawker.
Suddenly all hell breaks loose. John Dobbins, riding in the lead with Jim, tries to protect the younger cowboy. He starts to draw his six-shooter when a Jayhawker shoots him dead in his saddle.
The sight of blood and the loud rifle shot cause the cattle to stampede, scattering cowboys and animals in all directions. Jim is disarmed and taken away to Cow Creek.
The vigilantes tie Jim to a tree with his own picket rope and whip him with hickory switches. After what seems to be forever, they leave Jim bound under the scorching sun while they discuss what to do with him and his herd.
Jim, John and Cookie drove cattle for a living, first on the Shawnee Trail then the Chisholm Trail, which opened in 1867, a cattle commerce route that saved the Texas economy after the Civil War. At a time when the state was “poor in cash but rich in cows,” the trail gave Texas ranchers access to the northern beef markets.
In anticipation of the Chisolm Trail’s upcoming 150th anniversary in September 2017, the National Park Service has just completed a feasibility study, recommending that Congress designate the Trail as the 21st National Historic Trail.
These designations of National Historic Trails have had major economic impacts on the regions around the trails, says the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau Vice President Kim Phillips.
“That designation brings attention to all of the communities up and down the trail in a way that will never happen otherwise. The NPS designation will include federal funding that will help development,” Kim says.
The Chisolm Trail was officially introduced by businessman Joseph McCoy, who was able to unveil the new trail after finding a loophole in a restrictive Kansas law banning the interstate transport of Texas longhorns. The Park Service study found that the trail passed by the west side of Denton County near the line of Wise County. It continued almost straight north into Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma before entering Kansas toward Abilene or Ellsworth.
Some historians believe the trail originated in San Antonio. Others say that it started farther south in Kingsville or Mexico. In his book The Chisholm Trail, Wayne Gard compared the trail to an upside-down tree with many branches going through Texas.
Along the trail there are many dangers that made the cattle drive even harder than it already was. Outlaws have always been abundant in the old West, but quarantine laws in states such as Kansas and Missouri encouraged vigilante groups to drive out Texas longhorns. People believed longhorns carried ticks that infected local cattle populations. As settlement expanded westward, the quarantine laws also moved west to protect ranchers’ herds.
Besides outlaws, other dangers on the trail were the lack of adequate grass and water, gopher villages and terrain challenges and Native American marauders.
In the 1868 season, the second year after the trail’s official introduction, Joseph estimated that 75,000 cattle were driven to Abilene, and from there around 45,000 were shipped by rail.
Between 1866 and 1890, according to estimates by Henry B. Jameson in The Miracle of the Chisholm Trail, 10 to 14 million longhorns were driven north out of Texas. The net result was that more than $300 million of new money flowed into southwestern cattlemen’s pockets.
By 1875, less than a decade after Joseph McCoy introduced the Chisholm Trail, changes in Kansas quarantine laws stopped drivers from going to Abilene. Starting in 1876 they used part of the Chisholm Trail in Texas before diverging to the Western Trail toward Dodge City or Ogallala.
Other factors that drove the cattle west were the railroad coming into Texas and widespread use of barbed wire to protect grazing land and watering holes. But perhaps the biggest reason why the Chisholm Trail ended is Joseph himself, according to historian Robin Cole-Jett.
“He invested money into refrigerated railroad cars, so the cattle could be processed locally,” Robin says. “He was based in Illinois and Kansas then moved to Denison, Texas and started a refrigerated cattle car business.”
Joseph wanted to improve the cattle handling and shipping process by creating the Chisholm Trail, but he made it even easier to simply ship the dead beef from any railhead in Texas.
“He undid his own cattle trail,” Robin says.
In Texas the trail has almost no clear markers. Each herd could go differently based on word-of-mouth, hoof tracks, wheel ruts and personal experiences about stops and crossing places.
Sometimes cowboys would leave signs along the Trail on trees and rocks, but it wasn’t until Kansas where Joseph and Jesse Chisholm built dirt mounds to help herds stay on track and out of trouble with the law. Now that the markers are gone the trail is even harder to find.
This is why the minimum effort to preserve the trail would be to put up trail markers, according to Alan Schiegg, co-chairman of the Denton County Historical Commission Chisholm Trail Project. The National Park Service may also have its own markers.
Schiegg describes little signs frequently found along the trail today as white concrete obelisks a few feet off the ground with the words “Chisholm Trail” painted in black vertically. Some counties have round brass medallion signs with a longhorn image in the middle framed by stars on the top and a chain of cactus on the bottom, with an inscription that reads, “Going up the Chisholm Trail, Texas, 1867.”
Other efforts underway are visitor-viewing experiences such as museums, viewing platforms, cultural centers and so on.
“Right now, Denton County really does not have any visitor viewing experience,” Alan says, “Many other counties do, so that will be our logical next step.”
A national research study in 2009 on US Heritage Travel by Mandela Research found that 78 percent of all US leisure travelers participate in cultural and/or heritage activities while traveling, which translates to 118.3 million adults each year. On average, cultural and heritage visitors spend $994 per trip, versus the average U.S. traveler spending $611.
“When people are in the area (along the Chisolm Trail) they are going to find out about this national trail even if they are not heritage tourism-minded. When people travel, they want to experience the area,” Kim says.
The Chisholm Trail is an important historical route that benefitted the economy back then and also today. The national designation will put it on the rader of future visitors who might otherwise miss Denton.
You can’t hear the twangy drawls and soft singing of cowboys lullabying longhorns under starry nights on the endless prairie anymore. The hostiles are gone now, along with the cattle drives, cowboys and the trail itself. But the adventures of Jim, John and all the rest live on along the Chisolm Trail.