The Old West and everything people associate with it – cowboys, cattle drives, cowtowns and cowboy hats – started in Kansas.
That will become even more evident this year as the Chisholm Trail – which launched many of those iconic images – celebrates its 150th anniversary.
“The American cowboy was born on the Chisholm Trail,” said Jim Hoy, a fifth-generation Flint Hills rancher and Kansas historian.
“There were herders, drovers and people working livestock all over the world for centuries, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War when the American folk-type cowboy came into existence on the Chisholm Trail.
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“Kansas is home to the cowboy.”
Beginning in 1867, vast herds of cattle were driven up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to the cowtowns of Kansas. The trail is named after Jesse Chisholm, who had a trading post in Wichita and frequently traded with American Indian tribes throughout much of the region.
The cattle markets were in Kansas. So was the railroad, to ship the beef back East.
Without Kansas, there wouldn’t be a cowboy.
Jim Hoy, fifth-generation Flint Hills rancher and Kansas historian
“Without Kansas, there wouldn’t be a cowboy,” Hoy contends.
“The Kansas cowboy boot and the cowboy hat … may not have been as symbolic of the Old West as we know it.”
Indeed, the idea for a broad-brimmed hat came to John Stetson while he traveled across western Kansas.
Kansas had little towns eager to become prosperous cowtowns.
And, as those cowtowns grew, there were villains and numerous troubled souls to fill the streets – and cowboy lawmen like Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp to clean up after them. Even Billy the Kid called Wichita home when he was a child.
Celebrating 150 years
To acknowledge the legacy of the trail, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are combining to hold events throughout the year.
There will be special exhibits in area museums, bus tours, presentations and cattle drives. The theme for this year’s Symphony in the Flint Hills is all about the Chisholm Trail.
In October, the Delano Fall Fair in Wichita will honor the trail’s anniversary. Delano was spawned by the Chisholm Trail, a place where cowboys – after collecting their pay at the end of a cattle drive – could enjoy its many saloons.
This month, the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County have issued proclamations honoring the trail. The state of Kansas will issue one later this year, according to Mary Lou Rivers, Sedgwick County 150th Chisholm Trail chairwoman.
A Chisholm Trail 150 website – chisholmtrail150.org – has been created, listing the upcoming events and information about them.
You don’t have to go far in Wichita to see the legacy of the trail and the names that have sprung from it.
There are Chisholm Creek Park, Chisholm Trail Elementary School, Chisholm Lake Apartments, Chisholm Creek Pet Resort, Chisholm Trail State Bank and Chisholm Trail Parkway. And the descendants of Jesse Chisholm helped found the Mid-America All-Indian Center.
In its heyday from the late 1860s through the 1880s, the Chisholm Trail stretched roughly from Lockhart, Texas, to Abilene, Kan., and served as a cattle pipeline leading herds from the Texas ranches to the stockyards and railroad hubs in Abilene, Newton, Wichita and Caldwell. The herds were driven a distance of 750 to 1,200 miles.
The trail was an economic lifeline for Kansas, helping to promote the railroad and make ranching profitable. In Wichita alone – which was incorporated in 1870 – more than 230,000 head of cattle were shipped out from 1872 to 1876.
Most historians see the Chisholm Trail as one of the three great byways that crossed the country. The Oregon and Santa Fe trails were east-west migrant and commercial trails, while the Chisholm was a north-south cattle trail.
The trail was developed by Joseph McCoy, an Illinois livestock trader who had the idea in 1867 to drive Texas cattle from near San Antonio north through Fort Worth into Oklahoma through Duncan and Enid and then on to Kansas. A branch of the Chisholm also cut off at Caldwell and stretched north to Ellsworth.
The Chisholm Trail is one of the most recognized names in Western history.
Jim Gray, Kansas historian and writer
“The Chisholm Trail is one of the most recognized names in Western history,” said Jim Gray, a Kansas historian and writer.
Gray, a Geneseo rancher who is also director of the National Drover’s Hall of Fame in Ellsworth, said the history of the trail represents the founding of the American beef industry.
“It is nationally significant,” Gray said. “And Kansas is significant because Texas had all these cows with nowhere to go with them. We provided the outlet for them to market the beef – we, meaning Kansas.
“Kansas was in the right place at the right time as new railroads were coming across the state.”
The year 1867 is tremendously significant on the Kansas prairie, Gray said.
“A lot of things happened: The first railroad is coming across Kansas, the Union Pacific Eastern Division. Ellsworth was established as a military/railroad end-of-track town. All the military posts had been upgraded just the previous fall.
“And it is the beginnings of the Hancock Campaign – when Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock is sent to the Kansas Plains to negotiate with the Cheyenne and Sioux. He was supposed to be establishing peace with the Indians, and what he did was ignite a war.”
The trail’s impact
Rivers’ voice falters, and she begins to tear up when she talks about the legacy of the trail.
“I feel like if it weren’t for all those cattle that were shipped out of Wichita, we might never have been a big town,” said Rivers. “I think about all those cows going back to the East Coast, shipped by railroad from Kansas towns.
“The trail was that important. The cows were desperately needed back East.”
The trail played a pivotal role in establishing the economies of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas after the Civil War. It also helped establish Kansas as one of the leading beef states – a designation that continues today.
“It all began with those first herds coming up the Chisholm Trail and spread into cowtowns,” Gray said. “We were the clearinghouse of where cattle came in and went back out again.”
To prepare for the trail’s sesquicentennial, the Symphony in the Flint Hills partnered with Flint Hills Design in North Newton to create a traveling exhibit that is scheduled to be in Kansas museums this year, including the Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum.
The exhibit, “Chisholm Trail Sesquicentennial: Driving the American West 1867-2017,” will be on view at the Wichita museum March 9-May 2.
It includes interactive displays, video interviews with historians and scholars, video and audio clips of movies and songs and life-size longhorn cattle.
Major funding for the exhibit came from Lost Trail Soda.
“Our job was to provide a basic understanding of the phenomenon that led to the Chisholm Trail, what it was and what closed it,” said Nathan Bartel, curator of the Chisholm Trail project.
“A lot of our local identity as Kansans on the I-135 corridor comes from the Chisholm Trail as well as the larger themes and values behind it – representing opportunity, perseverance and individualism and how much of those things still persist today in our local culture psyche.”