The Chisholm Trail and the Cow Towns

The Chisholm Trail and the Cow Towns

The Chisholm
Trail and the
Cow Towns

Lieutenant Colonel William H. Emory

Lieutenant Colonel William H. Emory was the first white man to use the route of the Chisholm Trail that mostly parallels present day Route US 81. In 1862, during the Civil War, he marched 750 Union soldiers and 150 non-combatants from Texas to Wichita guided by a Delaware Indian called Black Beaver. This route was not called the Chisholm Trail at that time but was just another Indian trail. Emory used it because Confederate forces blocked other routes.

Jesse Chisholm (1805-68) was a half-breed of Scottish and Cherokee descent living in Kansas who had a trading post near present day Wichita. Chisholm claimed to be a stepson of Sam Houston.

After the civil war Chisholm backtracked the trail that Emory had used and it was forever after to bear his name. As his mother was Cherokee Chisholm used this connection to make contact and trade in the Cherokee Strip and other parts of the Indian Territory.

The Chisholm Trail had many starting points, from as far south as Brownsville and Corpus Christi, as far east as Houston, and west from Pecos and Lubbock. However, they all converged at the Red River Crossing where the trail became one road. The Red River Crossing is just north of Belcherville on the US 81 and the river really is red!

The Chisholm Trail

From there the trail moved north following what is now the route of US 81 to the west of Oklahoma City. At that time the area was called Indian Territory because so many tribes had been relocated there; later it was to become Oklahoma. The Chisholm Trail crossed into Kansas just below Caldwell into what was then the Cherokee Strip. Caldwell was named after U.S. Sen. Alexander Caldwell.

After Caldwell the trail divides going either north to Ellsworth or east to Wichita, Newton and finally Abilene. The total distance from the Red River Crossing to Abilene is around 500 miles. The Chisholm Trail, the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, make the three most historic Trails in the annals of the Old West.

Baxter Springs: First Cowboy Town

Baxter Springs on the Chisholm Trail

In 1866 Baxter Springs in the south east of Kansas became the first of many Cowboy Towns. Farmers and (1)jayhawkers held up the cattle from travelling further north so the (2)cowboys kicked their heels in Baxter Springs. The problem was at that time the route through Oklahoma to Baxter Springs followed the (3)Shawnee Trail, which ran much further east than the Chisholm Trail. After 1866 the Chisholm Trail proved an easier route North, and this combined with the deterrent effect of the farmers and jayhawkers spelled the end of Baxter Springs. As a cowboy town Baxter Springs lasted one short turbulent summer.

Abilene: First Cowboy Boomtown

In 1867 Abilene became the first of the cowboy boomtowns, much loved by Hollywood, and Abilene set the trend that all other cow towns followed. Between 1867 and 1872 more than a million (4)Texas Longhorns went through the stock pens built by (5)Joseph McCoy in Abilene.

Abilene on the Chisholm Trail

Joseph McCoy, Illinois stockman

Abilene – The First Cowboy Boomtown

McCoy was a northern speculator who was the first to see the potential of shipping longhorns from the South, where they roamed in abundance, to the more populated North where there was a great demand for beef. When he first arrived in Abilene it was nothing more than a whistle stop on the Union Pacific Line consisting of ten log huts and lots of mud. In just two months McCoy transformed it into a roaring cattle centre with stock pens, livery stables, barns and offices plus the first Drover’s Cottage where the more wealthy ranchers and cowboys could stay. McCoy could, and would be called the father of the cow town.

The clash between the farmers and solid businessmen of the north and the free-living Texas cowboys was inevitable and Abilene was to become the first great battlefield.

South of Abilene’s railroad tracks stood ‘Texas Town’ with famous saloons like the Bull’s Head and the Alamo, names that evoked home for the Texas cowboys. Texas Town was also where all the (6)‘cathouses’ and places of ‘horizontal refreshment’ stood.

It is a fact that, although the Texan’s went on regular rampages through the town and spent time ‘shooting up the city’, no killings occurred until the advent of the law officer. In September 1869 Abilene was incorporated as a third-class city and could appoint a law officer. The first Marshal to try the job in July 1870 was ‘Bear River Tom’ Smith. Smith brought some kind of order to the town, not with his guns, but rather with his fists. Although Bear River Tom carried a gun he preferred using his fists, being an ex-boxer. The Texans found this hard to understand. Most of the cowboys would prefer to be shot down rather than knocked down, because it seemed to them that to end up on the floor knocked out was much less dignified than being on the floor with a lot of holes in them.

Tom ‘Bear River’ Smith 1830-1870

Nearly all the cowboys came from the South and the law officers came exclusively from the North. The South still clung to its code of honour where a man would rather die than back down from any challenge. Herein, lay one of the basic problems that plagued Cow Towns. The problem had its roots in the recently ended American Civil War and the fights between the cowboys and law officers became almost a continuation of that war.

Mr. Smith was killed in the end, not by the wild cowboys, but by two of the stolid Abilene settlers Andrew McConnell and Moses Miles, over a land dispute. Both were tracked and arrested but the posse neglected to lynch them so they both got away scot-free. The murder took place in November 1870 so Mr. Smith lasted just five months.

Wild Bill Hickok 1837-1876

1871 saw the arrival of James Butler Hickok better know as ‘Wild Bill’. He made his office in the Alamo saloon to help supplement his Marshal’s wages with a bit of gambling on the side, as did a lot of lawmen at that period. With his reputation as a gunman, Hickok kept the lid on the town until 5th October when he killed another gambler called Phil Coe in a dispute over a woman. Just after the gunfight was over his friend and deputy Mike Williams came running out of a side road and thinking that his friend was in trouble, called out Hickok’s name. Hickok, after the custom of the time, shot first and asked questions later. However the question came too late as by this time Williams had been shot twice through the chest. Shortly after this event the good citizens invited the Texans to ‘stay away from Abilene’, so they did. That was the end of the first real Cow Town on the Old Chisholm Trail.


Ellsworth, in 1873, was the successor to Abilene and with a vengeance. The Kansas Pacific Rail Road ran through the middle of town, and Ellsworth also had stock pens, bathhouses, barbers shops, saloons, a Drover’s Cottage and a marshal. Ellsworth also boasted the only strip of sidewalk west of Kansas City. It was only twelve feet wide, made of maghesia limestone, and ran just the length of the Grand Central Hotel. But it was a sidewalk and Ellsworth was proud of it. About half a mile outside of the town proper was Nauchville which was Ellsworth’s equivalent of ‘Texas Town’ with brothels, saloons and gambling houses, in fact everything a lonesome cowboy could dream of. Most of the trouble in Ellsworth started and finished in Nauchville.

Ellsworth on the Chisholm Trail

Ellsworth Main Street

There had been some shooting and trouble in Ellsworth in 1871 but the real trouble started in 1873 when the gunmen, gamblers, whores and sundry hangers-on arrived from Abilene. The first killing took place in August ’73 when Ben and Billy Thompson, both notorious gunmen mistakenly shot and killed Sheriff Whitney who was really their friend. The good citizens of Ellsworth were so in awe of them that Ben just rode quietly out of town and no one made any attempt to stop him. There were several other shootings that summer but by the autumn Ellsworth was finished as a Cow Town.

Historical Notes

I should point out here that there was not just one trail to follow in Kansas. After the herds arrived in Caldwell, the Chisholm Trail diverged to different (7)railheads in the state. There was a lot of opposition to the Texas herds by local farmers as cattle could, and did, trample and destroy large areas of crops and break down fences. Ranchers also had problems as the trail herds brought ‘Texas Fever’ to the State. Ticks on the longhorn, which spread like wildfire in the local cattle passed on the fever killing the local cattle within a few days. The Texas herds had immunity to the ticks whereas the local Kansas cows died in droves. The local farmers and ranchers formed committees armed with Winchesters to turn back the trail drivers and made them take different routes that did not impinge on their land. Hence the various routes through Kansas to different railheads.


Ellsworth Main Street

1871 saw Newton as the worst of all Cow Towns. The Santa Fe Railroad had pushed its line down as far as Newton and once again McCoy turned up with his stock pens and his ‘Drovers Cottage’. For one short season Newton was the place to be. It had saloons and dance halls, the Bulls Head and the Alamo turned up again and there was also an area known as ‘Hide Park’ with plenty of ‘soiled doves’ to relieve the cowboy of their hard earned money. Lots of shooting took place but the worst became known as the ‘Newton General Massacre.

Mike McCluskie whose real name was either Arthur or (8)George Delaney was a night policeman with a tough background and reputation as one who shot first and asked questions later. Jim Riley, who was eighteen years old and in the last stages of tuberculosis, always followed McCluskie around and the rumour was that McCluskie and Riley were in some way related. McCluskie ‘looked out’ for Riley keeping him safe and well fed. On Friday 11th August 1871 McCluskie shot and killed a Texan called Bailey after which he left town for a few days. Against better advice McCluskie returned on Saturday 19th August and was killed in a saloon called “Tuttle’s Place” by Hugh Anderson and a group of Texas cowboys. Riley was in the saloon when the killing took place and before anyone could stop him he pulled out a pair of six-shooters and started firing at random. When it was all over five men were dead, one of whom was McCluskie, and four more were wounded. Riley slipped out of the back door and out of history. The “General Massacre” was the bloodiest gun battle in the history of the Western Cow Towns.

Several more killings took place in the next few violent months, the last being of Jim Shay. The Newton court record said of this killing “Jim Shay, a bad character, and keeper of a dance house, was shot to death by unknown parties”. The ‘unknown parties’ were Dave Hamill and the local Masonic group! That saw the end of Newton as a Cow Town.


Wichita, named after a tribe of local Indians, succeeded Newton for two years in 1873/4 as the roughest, toughest place in the West.

The Newton and Southwest Railroad arrived in Wichita in the spring of 1872. Here once again Mr. McCoy turned up having left Abilene and Newton to try his last venture in Wichita. About a mile west of town was the inevitable ‘bad’ area, this time called Delano, with false-fronted saloons and a tented area that was no different from any of the other Cow Towns at the end of the trail.

Wichita on the Chisholm Trail


Wyatt Earp

There was some shooting and a lot of ‘whooping it up’ in Wichita but the town never had the reign of terror that other Boom Towns experienced thanks to its very good law enforcement officers. It was in Wichita that Wyatt Earp first showed up as a police officer and started to earn his reputation by corralling rowdy cowboys and introducing them to the pleasure of the local jail.

Caldwell and Hays

As the railroads extended their lines further south both Caldwell and Hays took turns as cattle towns. The original ‘Last Chance Saloon’ was in Caldwell and dates from 1869. It was the last saloon where travellers could legally buy a drink before crossing, just outside the city limits, into Indian Territory where alcohol was banned. The saloon gained prominence during an incident in 1874, when a posse from Caldwell burned down the building, mistakenly believing that bandits they were looking for were inside.

Caldwell and Hays on the Chisholm Trail

As you rode into Caldwell from Indian Territory it was advertised as ‘The First Chance Saloon’. That was pretty shrewd advertising with all those young cowboys coming up the trail and looking for a drink, a game of cards and probably a ‘Soiled Dove’.

Cherokee Strip Gathering

In its early years, Hays City was a violent cowboy town characteristic of the Old West. More than 30 killings occurred in or near the town between 1867 and 1873. Several notable figures of the Old West lived in Hays City: Buffalo Bill Cody; Calamity Jane; George and Elizabeth Custer and Wild Bill Hickok who served a brief term as sheriff in 1869. After killing one trooper and wounding two from the 7th Cavalry who were stationed in nearby Fort Hays, Hickok got out of town just in front of the rest of the regiment who were ‘On the Prod’ By 1872, many of the rougher elements of the populace had left, mainly for Dodge City, so Hays City became more civilized. In 1885, the town was incorporated and ‘City’ was dropped from its name.

Historical Notes

After Caldwell and Hays had their day in the sun it became increasingly difficult for the Texas herds to drive through the more populated areas in the east of Kansas. This was because of the feistiness of the farmers and ranchers in their determination, backed up by their Winchesters, to stop longhorns crossing their land, so the cattle trail beyond present day Dover turned west towards Dodge City and became the ‘Cimarron cut-off’. The trail paralleled the Cimarron River until it crossed into Kansas before going more or less north to Dodge city. Fort Dodge was established in 1865 to help protect the Santa Fe Trail, which ran from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was also a supply base for troops fighting the Plains Indians at that time. Dodge City was founded in 1872 five miles west of Fort Dodge and became a trade center for the buffalo hunters working in the area. In the same year the railroad reached Dodge, assuring its continued existence.

Dodge City

Dodge City was the last, and longest lasting cowboy boomtown of them all, and the one that goes down in Western history as THE cowboy town. It all started in 1875 and it was Dodge City that gave us three names that have become synonymous with the Old West, ‘The Red Light District’ and ‘Boot Hill’ being two. In these days the town was laid out with two Front Streets, one on either side of the railroad tracks. There was a city ordinance passed that guns could not be worn or carried on the North side of the tracks. However, on the South side it was wide open and ‘anything went’ so we get the third name “On the wrong side of the tracks”.

Dodge City on the Chisholm Trail

Front Street, Dodge City, c. 1879/small>

A listing of the men who wore a star in Dodge reads like a Who’s Who of Western Lawmen: Ed and Bat Masterson; Mysterious Dave Mather; Billy Tilghman; Ben Daniels; Wyatt Earp; Jack Allen; Charley Bassett and Tom C. Nixon to name just a few. Wild Bill Hickok did visit Dodge but never wore a star in that place. Of all the people listed I am inclined to think that Bat Masterson and Billy Tilghman were the best of a very good bunch.

Dodge’s Boot Hill had over forty occupants by the end of its turbulent time and at least two were women. Alice Chambers was killed in a bar room shoot out, by accident it was said. The other was Lizzie Palmer who died after a fight with another dancehall girl. There was a lot of scratching and hair pulling and Lizzie got a scalp wound that became infected and she died of blood poisoning. She got a good send off and was ‘laid to rest’ in Boot Hill with a very big funeral. Cowboys did things right in Dodge City!

There were so many things that happened in Dodge it would take a book to tell all of them. However one point that is worth making is that lawmen were not the nicest bunch of people in the world, not a bit like the Hollywood image. Two of the most deadly lawmen were Tom C. Nixon and Mysterious Dave Mather. In 1884, on July 21st, Mather shot and killed Nixon in a quarrel over a woman. Most of the others were only part time lawmen but full time gamblers. Even good old Wyatt Earp turn a card now and then.

The good times ended in 1887 when a very large and long blizzard killed most of the cattle in the Southwest. That spelled the end of Dodge and also the end of an era.

It has been estimated that more than six million longhorns were driven up the Chisholm Trail in the twenty-one years of its existence. In the end, the railways were extended right down into Texas, and by this time most of the Northern Plains were populated with cattle driven over the Chisholm Trail, so the days of the trail-driving cowboys came to an end. All that is left is the mystery, the stories and the memories.


(1)The term Jayhawkers was first used in 1849 by a group of travellers passing through Kansas on their way to California but by the 1850s it was a term for anyone from Kansas. The new territory was opened up for settlement in 1854 and most people in Kansas were anti-slavery. However a lot of the people who moved into Kansas from Western Missouri were pro-slavery so trouble was bound to ensue. In 1856 the Kansas-Missouri Border War, sometimes referred to as ‘Bleeding Kansas’ broke out.

When tensions between the two factions mounted, several battles and skirmishes were fought. The anti-slavery people were known as Jayhawkers and the pro-slavery people were called Bushwhackers or Border Ruffians. The fighting went on even when Kansas was declared a ‘Free State’ and continued almost to the end of the Civil War.

During the Civil War the 7th Regiment Kansas Volunteers was raised and was generally known as Jennison’s Jayhawkers. After the war bandits would pose as Jayhawkers ‘guarding’ the Kansas farmers who were Unionist, demanding money from the cattle drovers, who had been Confederates, for the right to pass through the State. However this was just another way trying to rob the cattlemen. Some such confrontations were decided with pistols and rifles, and I’m pleased to say not always in the Jayhawkers’ favour. The old cowboys were a feisty lot.

Yginio Salszar

(2) The name ‘Cowboy’ came from the fact that lots of drovers were mere boys. Some started trail driving at the tender age of thirteen and many were only fourteen or fifteen. Boys had to grow up quickly in the old west: Yginio Salszar who fought with Billy the Kid in the Lincoln County War of 1878 was fifteen at the time but was regarded as a fully fledged gunman. After the fight at the McSween house in Lincoln, New Mexico where he was severely wounded Yginio had the presence of mind to play dead for several hours, which in the end saved his life. He later farmed in Lincoln County until his death in January 1936 just one month short of his 73rd birthday. He was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery and his headstone read, “Pal of Billy the Kid”. They grew them tough in the Old West.

(3) The Shawnee Trail crossed the Red River to the east of the Chisholm Trail then ran up the east side of Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) passing into the South East corner of Kansas at Baxter Springs. The trail then turned further East into Missouri heading for Kansas City, Sedalia and then on to St Louis. It was originally called the Texas Trail but later on the name most used was The Shawnee Trail. No one is quite sure why the name was changed, but changed it was!

(4) Texas Longhorns, usually referred to just as ‘Longhorns’, were the reason that The Chisholm Trail became ‘The Trail’ for cattlemen. During the Civil War Texas ranches were left mainly unattended so the cattle ran wild and herds increased in size every year. When the men came back from the war there were so many cattle that most of them were just left to run wild and ranchers didn’t even bother to have a round-up or brand them. Most ranchers referred to themselves a ”cattle poor” and it was only when Joseph McCoy came into the picture that they began to realize what a commodity they had on their hands. By this time the longhorns were mostly wild and a real handful to round up and trail-drive. Longhorn steers were very rangy with horns measuring up to seven feet tip-to-tip. Cows also had horns, usually not as large though still something to avoid, especially during a stampede. Longhorns also had the ability to survive on poor vegetation and marginal pasture as well as having a very high resistance to disease. The longhorns were of no use at all for dairy produce but produced good lean beef that was so craved in the wealthier Northern States.

(5) Joseph McCoy was not the ‘real McCoy’ that everyone talks about. The real one was William S. McCoy rumrunner and boat builder during the prohibition era. He was one of the few that never watered down his rum and sold only the top-quality booze. When a deal was in the making it was common for the buyer to shout across the water “are you the real McCoy?” And of course he was! Many people think that this was the source of the term “The Real McCoy”.

(6) Cathouse was the term cowboys used for a brothel and every Cowtown had several. Prostitutes – soiled doves or ladies of leisure – were not looked down on by the cowboys, if fact most were held in quite high regard. Lots of the ladies ran very good eating establishments and what’s more if you got injured or ill it was always the ladies who looked after you.

(7) A railhead was where a railway line terminated.

(8) So why was McCluskie using an alias? Mike McCluskie was hired as a Night Policeman for the Santa Fe Railroad in Newton. When a man used a gun for his work in the Old West there was a good chance that he would have used it somewhere else. In fact, it was known that McCluskie had killed at least one other man before shooting Bailey. A lot of the ‘lawmen’ spent time on both sides of the law out West so there was good chance that McCluskie could have been wanted in another part of the country, hence using an alias, as in fact, many men did out West. There is a very famous song called “What was your name in the States?” The ‘States’ were back East beyond the Missouri, but the West at this time was still another country in the minds of westerners. One must assume that good ol’ Mike used an alias suggesting that he had something to hide.

Song Lyrics:

Oh, what was your name in the States? Was it Thompson or Bailey or Bates?

Did you rob a rich bloke or was that just a joke?

Oh, what was your name in the States my friend? Oh, what was your name in the States?

Oh, what was your name in the States? Oh, what was your name in the States?

Did you murder your wife and run for your life?

Oh, what was your name in the States my friend? Oh, what was you name in the States?

Well there’s no use to looking so glum and there’s no need to reach for your gun.

Out here in the West we make a big jest saying,

What was your name in the States my friend? Oh, what was your name in the States?

1 Comment

  1. Test

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Left Menu IconMain Menu