The Chisholm Trail: early beginnings

By Richard High16 June 2009

With the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865, the US state of Texas found itself in despair and bankruptcy. The state's only potential assets were its countless millions of longhorn cattle, for which no local market was available.

"There dawned a time in Texas that a man's poverty was estimated by the number of cattle he possessed," remarked prominent cattleman Joseph G. McCoy, referring to the critical nature of his time.

Cattle in Texas were worth US$ 1.40 to 1.80 a head on the local market; however, beef was in big demand in the Northern states, bringing up to US$ 40 a head.

Mr McCoy, an entrepreneur from Illinois, sought ways of supplying the Northern states with Texas cattle. In the spring of 1867, he persuaded Kansas Pacific Railroad officials to construct pens and loading facilities at Abilene, Kansas.

Between 1867 and 1887, more than six million, wild longhorn cattle known as "Texas Gold" were driven from South Texas to the cattle markets in the North on what became the infamous Chisholm Trail. Although used for only two decades, it provided a steady source of income and the economic stimulus to help the impoverished state recover from the Civil War and feed the nation.

During this most colorful period of Texas history, youthful trail hands, one in three of whom were either Mexican or African American, helped lay the foundation of the Texas cattle industry and made the cowboy an enduring folklore hero. Yet the greatest contribution the old Chisholm Trail gave Texas and the surrounding states is one that few persons, even those youthful trail hands, would have ever envisioned.

Their collaborative efforts in driving cattle northward helped establish the roadway infrastructure of the United States, particularly the state of Texas. Today, much of the state's highway system parallels the same paths beaten by those cattle drives.

This truly was the birth of the Texas Highway System.

John R. Quintero, professional associate, HDR

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