It is an unlikely place for ground zero.
There is no hint of prairie. The river is not close. Nothing remains or offers clues on the site where Wichita’s first business began.
This year marks the 177th anniversary since Jesse Chisholm first came to this area of Kansas, and the 150th anniversary of when he opened Wichita’s first business – a trading post.
The trading post, opened in 1863, was west of where I-135 now crosses 18th Street.
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Chisholm operated a few cabins, a trading post and a corral there for about five years, until his death in 1868. Had he not have come, undoubtedly others would have come in his place – but not at that time.
Chisholm began using an American Indian trail from Wichita to the North Canadian River, in what is now Oklahoma, to carry trade goods. He was the Sam Walton of his day, creating small trading posts throughout Oklahoma and Texas.
“I don’t think we realize the value of his name or the fact that he was part of the makeup of our beginnings,” said Bill Ellington, a retired Wichita historian. “Dallas and Fort Worth hand out these nice-looking, handsome brochures that deal with the history of the Chisholm Trail, and we ignore it.”
In the five years he was in Wichita, Chisholm built up a thriving trading goods business. The second trading post he built in Wichita was where the Twin Lakes Shopping Center now sits.
He developed an impeccable reputation among American Indians and the Southern and Northern governments and their militaries. His aunt was married to Texan Sam Houston, which helped open doors.
He helped the federal government negotiate treaties – the 1865 treaty near Wichita and the 1867 treaty near Medicine Lodge. Because he spoke 14 languages, he served as a guide throughout the territory.
“Because he was mixed blood he had credibility with both sides,” said Jim Hoy, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University.
“He fits in with the entrepreneurial spirit. He picked a natural passageway not everyone would have recognized. He had the right instinct.”
Right man, right time
The fact is Chisholm was the right man in the right location at the right time.
In 1863, the clock was ticking.
The Homestead Act – which made federal land available to settlers at little or no cost – had recently been passed. President Lincoln signed it “so that every poor man may have a home.”
Kansas, at just two years old, was a wide-open slate. Settlement was a given.
And, in the south-central portion of the state, there was the confluence of two rivers – the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers – where wildlife was as abundant as the American Indian tribes that populated the area.
It was, for Chisholm, an ideal place to begin a business.
Making his way to Kansas
Born in 1805 in eastern Tennessee, Chisholm was the son of a Scottish trader and a Cherokee woman.
During the 1830s, when gold was discovered on Cherokee lands in Georgia, the U.S. military uprooted the entire Cherokee nation and drove the people into what is now Oklahoma.
Chisholm traveled with the Cherokees and eventually settled at Fort Gibson, Okla., near Muskogee, where he began trading.
Old newspaper clippings say Chisholm came to the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers in 1836. He was leading a group of men searching for a gold mine, based on a map published in New Orleans in 1757. No mine was ever found.
Chisholm chose this area when he was asked to bring nearly 1,500 American Indians, mostly Wichita Indians and affiliated tribes, into Kansas in the fall of 1864 as part of a government relocation project.
The Indians were removed from what is now Oklahoma for their safety during the Civil War and placed under the supervision of Chisholm.
By then, Chisholm’s trading post was already built and in business. He used cloth, buttons, sugar, flour and other staples from his business and traded it to the Indians in exchange for furs.
Had Chisholm not established the trail, it’s doubtful that Wichita would have grown with the intensity and energy that fueled it into becoming the state’s largest city.
“If the cattle trail had not come through when it did, I don’t think Wichita would be what it is today,” said Jim Gray, a longtime rancher and cowboy historian from Ellsworth who publishes the Kansas Cowboy newspaper.
“The existence of his wagon road guaranteed a natural route for the cattle to come up. Without that wagon road in place, the Texas guys headed north could have chosen any number of routes. The town would not have received all that early business, which would have weakened the town to the point it would have been just a river town.
“But it was the circumstances of everything coming together when they did that made Wichita a great city.”
Chisholm didn’t capitalize on the trail the way others following him would.
In 1865, he became a partner with James R. Mead – one of the early developers of Wichita – and sold trade goods in what is now Oklahoma City.
After the Civil War, Joseph McCoy came up with the idea of building stockyards along the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He built the stockyards in Abilene and had surveyors measure the most direct route from Wichita to Abilene. The route ended up being the trail Chisholm had used.
From there, vast cattle herds were driven from Texas to Kansas cowtowns.
Today, U.S. 81 follows much of what was the Chisholm Trail.
Chisholm died before seeing any of that come to fruition. On March 4, 1868, near what is now Geary, Okla., he ate rancid bear meat and grease, which poisoned him. He was 63.
After 150 years, what would Chisholm think of that trail and settlement now?
“His legacy was to bring Native Americans and white people together to make a common ground with everybody,” said Wichitan Bobbi Meairs, a great-great granddaughter of Chisholm.
Without Chisholm, there may not have been a Keeper of the Plains – which is built at the confluence of the two rivers – or a Mid-America All-Indian Center. His grandson, Calvin Chisholm, was one of the founders of the Indian center.
“The Chisholm history is kind of lost when it gets to Wichita,” said Beverly Murphy, another great-granddaughter of Chisholm. “I’m sure it is not taught in schools today.
“But to have the Chisholm name – I wear it every day.”