John Chisum and the Chisolm Trail
September 24, 2015
By Sam Allen
A couple of days ago I was on my way from Houston to Catoosa, Oklahoma to interview Blaine Davis, whose family owns the Blue Whale. I usually go through Dallas when headed that way, but I was going to hit the evening rush hour, so I used my GPS to find an alternate route. I found a great one. I got off of I-40 in Buffalo, Texas and headed to Palestine. From there I followed Texas Highway 19 all the way to Oklahoma, and I did not get on an Interstate highway until I was just outside of Tulsa. It was a beautiful country ride through hilly farmlands and some wonderful lakes.
This route took me through Paris, Texas, which is where New Mexico rancher John Chisum is buried. John Chisum was one of the first to establish a significant ranch in New Mexico. He started with a small spread along the Pecos River. His ranch eventually had over 100,000 head of cattle. He formed a partnership with Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Goodnight owned the JA Ranch in the Texas Panhandle, which by many accounts was the largest cattle ranch in history. Oliver Loving was another cattle rancher. Together they formed the Goodnight-Loving Trail, which went from Fort Belnap, Texas through the Llano Estacado to Forth Sumner, New Mexico.
As an interesting aside, the death of Gus McRae in the Larry McMurtry book Lonesome Dove was based on the historic death of Oliver Loving. Loving was attacked and wounded in the leg by a band of Comanches while on a cattle drive. He escaped by floating down the Pecos River during a storm, and later died after refusing to allow the amputation of his leg.
Chisum is known for his tangential participation in the Lincoln County War, which was a range war fought in 1878 in Lincoln County, New Mexico. The conflict was over control of the cattle and mercantile businesses in Lincoln County. James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy had a monopoly on these businesses, and they were trying to drive out English born John Tunstall, who had established a competing ranch and general store. Billy the Kid worked for Tunstall. Tunstall's murder and its aftermath gave rise to the legend of Billy the Kid.
John Chisum died on December 23, 1884 in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, while seeking the healing waters of the area to treat complications from surgery that removed a growth from his jaw. He was being transported home for burial, but wound up in Paris, Texas.
By now you must be wondering what this has to do with Route 66. The answer is Jesse Chisolm.
Jesse Chisolm was a mixed-blood Cherokee Indian for whom the Chisolm Trail was named. It was developed over several decades that preceded the cattle drives of the 1870's and 1880's. It started in 1826 as a trail to Wichita, Kansas that Jesse established for a gold seeking party. In 1830, Jesse blazed a trail from Fort Gibson to Fort Towson, Kansas. These and other trails in which Jesse was involved became parts of the Chisolm Trail.
Its route during the cattle drive years is the subject of debate. Some historians claim it started in Donna, Texas or San Antonio, Texas. Others assert that no part of the Chisolm Trail was in Texas. They note that there is no evidence that Jesse Chisolm ever was in Texas, and that cattlemen of the day recognized that the Chisolm Trail started at Red River Station in Montague, County, Texas, where the trail crossed into Indian Territory (present day west-central Oklahoma).
Regardless of where it started, tt went through the present day Route 66 town of El Reno and crossed into Kansas at Caldwell. It originally ended in Abilene, Kansas. Newton, Wichita, Caldwell and Newton, Kansas all later served as the terminus of the Chisolm Trail.
Jesse Chisolm died in 1868 near the Route 66 town of Geary, Oklahoma and is buried there.
So, oddly enough, cattleman John Chisum never sent a cow up the Chisolm Trail, and Jesse Chisolm died nearly a decade before the first great cattle drive on the trail named for him.
Sam Allen wrote The Motorcycle Party Guide to Route 66. He also created and operates www.route66mc.com, which is the most complete single source of information about Route 66 available on the web.