By Sheilagh S. Jameson
To most of us probably the Chisholm Trail is only a name. We have heard of it, come across it in a book perhaps, but it means no more to us than the Great Wall of China. However, there is a man in Calgary today, to whom the Chisholm Trail is very real. It formed a broad and vital part in his life.
The man is Clem Henson, originally from San Antonio, Texas and now at the Veterans’ Convalescent Hospital in Calgary. His name is well known to the cattlemen of southern Alberta.
Clem Henson came into Canada in 1902 by way of the Chisholm Trail. As he speaks of these days and of the life of the cowboy on the trail, his blue eyes light up, his hands move in expressive gestures and he takes his listener with him “on the long drive.”
One almost hears the bawling of hundreds of cattle, the clicking of thousands of hooves, feels the swirl of the choking dust that rises from the trail and watches the motion of the “jingle bobs” ahead. To the uninitiated “jingle bogs” is the name the cowboys used for cattle ear-marked in the way John Chisum made famous. The ear was cut in such a manner that the top was loose and bobbed as the animal travelled.
The Chisholm Trail was named for a Cherokee half-breed, Jesse Chisholm. He used the route, which became part of the famed trail, when he took supplies into Indian Territory to trade with the Indians. Soon some cattlemen starting north with their herds followed Chisholm’s wagon tracks — and the great trek was on. This seems to have been in 1867.
There was also a John Chisum at this time who owned the famous Jingle Bob outfit. He had ranches in New Mexico and was a real cattle king, reputedly owning seventy-five thousand head. His name is sometimes confused with that of Jesse Chisholm, but authorities maintain that the trail was named for the old Indian trader.
Mr. Henson says that the Chisholm Trail led out of New Mexico, not from Texas as is commonly supposed — and who would be better qualified to speak on that subject? The original trail, he claims, stretched from New Mexico northward and pronged out into Nebraska, the Dakotas and Montana.
There was a Texas Trail too, which ran from the Rio Grande River through the Texas Panhandle, and Kansas, branching into Wyoming, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Later these trails led north into Canada. It does not matter much now, which of these broad beaten pathways led where, but it was the Chisholm Trail which gave substance to the tradition of the trail.
The cattle country in Texas and New Mexico was a dry, short grass country. Better pasture was needed to fatten the animal for beef so cattlemen naturally turned to the high grass, unpastured lands to the north. Thus the trail came into being.
The herds moved slowly — the animals were usually thin in the spring when the drive started. Ten miles a day was the average rate of travel. Early herds grazed as they went, becoming fattened at Government expense.
Cow towns grew up spasmodically along the course, with their accompaniment of cattle barons, bad men, frolicsome cowboys and gambling halls.
Soon the railroads from the East reached some of the northern towns, and marketing problems of the owners were lessened. They shipped the beef animals to Chicago or other Eastern terminals. At this time the need for ranches arose. It was sometimes necessary or at least advisable for cattlemen to hold their beef for better market prices. The answer was the establishment of ranches.
So some of the Texas or New Mexico cattle that journeyed the Chisholm Trail arrived sooner or later at Eastern packing plants, and others were sold to Northern ranchers.
The trail herds varied in size. Many of them numbered a thousand head or more. Clem Henson remembers that the largest herd he ever helped to drive was five thousand head. Two big drives from Texas joined at Moorcroft, Wyoming and journeyed on to the Powder River.
On this trip, he states, there were twelve cowboys with foreman, two horse wranglers and one cook. Poor cook! He must have been busy.
On normal drives eight riders sufficed. At night when the cattle bedded down the boys rode herd, two at a time taking two hour shifts. As they circled the herd, or sat around the camp fire they sang songs, one of which was sure to be the Song of the Chisholm Trail. There were dozens of versions of this and hundreds of verses. It was sung from the Gulf to Montana. It began: “Come along boys and listen to my tale: I’ll tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail.”
Doubtless there were plenty of troubles. Breakfast was at four o’clock, then all riders were in their saddles all day. It sounds like a hard life, but there is a nostalgic note in the old cowboy’s voice as he speaks of it.
Eventually changes came as they always do. An invasion of settlers blocked the trail in places. Then railways pushing northward carried cattle, thus relieving to a large extent the tedium of the long dusty drives. The wheels of progress had made another turn and soon the Chisholm Trail lay quiet and still.
For many years afterwards traces of the trail remained stretching across unplowed areas in Indian Territory. It lay, a gray black band 200 or more yards wide, worn by the passing of many hooves and further eroded by wind and rain. Bleached skulls and skeletons marked its way. The great circle-like bedding grounds could still be seen. Broken down wagon wheels and frames told their story and an occasional grave mound marked the spot where some poor rider ended his trek.
It is not known just how many cattle came up the Chisholm Trail but the number is estimated to be from 3 to 5 million, 300,000 or more travelled north in a single year.