By the end of the Civil War, Texas hadn’t much left to offer a newly united country…except BEEF! Historians have long debated aspects of the Chisholm Trail’s history, including the exact route and even its name. Although a number of cattle drive routes existed in 19th century America, none have penetrated the heart of popular imagination like the Chisholm Trail, especially in Texas.
As early as the 1840s, Texas cattlemen searched out profitable markets for their longhorns, a hardy breed of livestock descended from Spanish Andalusian cattle brought over by 16th century explorers, missionaries, and ranchers. But options for transporting the cattle were few. The solution lay north, where railroads could carry livestock to meat packing centers and customers throughout the populated east and far west. Enter Joseph G. McCoy from Illinois, who convinced the powers-that-be at the Kansas Pacific Railway company to allow him to build a cattle-shipping terminal in Abilene, Kansas.
The new route cattle drivers used to push the longhorn to Kansas shipping points became known as the Chisholm Trail, named for Jesse Chisholm, a Scot-Cherokee trader who had established the heart of the route while transporting his trade goods to Native American camps, and it eventually inspired the link between the great movement of longhorns from South Texas to central Kansas to the Chisholm name. Before the Chisholm was shut down in the late 1880s (by a combination of fences and a Texas fever quarantine) the trail accommodated more than five million cattle and more than a million wild mustangs, considered the largest human-driven animal migration in history.
Explore the history of the legendary Chisholm Trail with the following Texas Historical Commission travel resources:
Mobile Tour – Go mobile with the Chisholm Trail mobile tour, featuring a rich blend of images, videos, first-person interviews, maps, and useful visitor information for exploring historical sites across Texas.
Watch our Chisholm Trail video series to learn more about the Chisholm Trail in Texas.
TRACING THE CHISHOLM
The Chisholm Trail, the famous route used by cattlemen to drive livestock from a gathering point in south Texas to railroad cattle terminals in Kansas and Missouri, ran through the heart of the Texas Brazos Trail Region. Georgetown, Round Rock, Belton and Waco were among the central Texas communities who saw millions of cattle, wild mustangs, and horses pass by on their way to markets farther north and across the country. River crossings were key, providing water for both livestock and cowhands along the dusty trail. Brushy Creek in Round Rock, the San Gabriel near Georgetown, Salado Creek springs near downtown Salado, the Bosque River in Clifton, and the Brazos River in Waco all served as water crossings year after year for the great migration of longhorns, drivers, and wranglers. The Chisholm was not the only cattle drive route in Texas history but Hollywood may have made it one of the best known. Modern cattle drive heritage enthusiasts trace the Texas section of the route via highways, stopovers, and historic locations like the Waco Suspension Bridge over the Brazos River. Cattlemen paid a toll for their herds to cross, but there is no fee today to stroll this National Historic Landmark, enjoy the impressive engineering, river view and bronze sculptures along the Riverwalk.