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:
Texas Time Travel website – Use the map and links below to explore Chisholm Trail historic sites in Texas.
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.
The original Chisholm Trail crossed the entire state of Texas south to north, from Brownsville to Nocona, before heading to parts farther upcountry and out of state. But the Rio Grande and its borderlands, the soul of the Tropical Trail region, was where many cattle drives began. Every year, longhorn cattle were gathered all along this southernmost region and driven northward. The livestock were pushed onward to Kansas in order to reach the nearest railroad shipping depots so folks in Boston and Philadelphia could continue enjoying their beefsteak. Museums and state historic sites across the Tropical Trail region commemorate the Chisholm's cattle-driving history as many of our Rio Grand Valley and coastal communities played an integral part in its heritage. Although the Chisholm Trail route was known by many names over the years, "Chisholm" finally stuck. But many Texans will always think of it in terms of the one particular name-The Great Texas Cattle Trail.