Jesse Chisholm, who blazed one of the West’s most famous trails, dies in Oklahoma of food poisoning.
Although the trail named for him later came to be one of the major cattle-drive routes between Texas and Kansas, Jesse Chisholm was a frontier trader, not a cattleman. Born in Tennessee of a Scottish father and a Cherokee mother, Chisholm was among the early pioneers who moved west into what is now the state of Arkansas. In his 20s, he joined a community of Cherokee Indians in northwestern Arkansas and became a frontier trader. His familiarity with both Anglo and Native American culture and language (he could reportedly speak 14 different Indian dialects) helped him build a thriving trade with the Osage, Wichita, Kiowa, and Commanche.
Chisholm’s knowledge of the Native Americans also made him useful to government officials. The U.S. was eager to negotiate treaties with the tribes in the region, and Chisholm served as a liaison between tribal leaders and federal officials at several important councils. Many Indian leaders trusted and respected Chisholm, and he successfully negotiated for the release of numerous Anglo captives taken by the Kiowa and Commanche.
Chisholm’s vast knowledge of southwestern geography was invaluable in trailblazing. He led several important expeditions into the Southwest during the 1830s and 1840s, and during the Civil War opened a trading post near present-day Wichita, Kansas. Following the war, he blazed one of the first trading routes south down from Wichita to the Red River in central Texas. Eventually extended all the way south to the Gulf of Mexico, the trading route became known as the Chisholm Trail.
A straight wagon road with easy river crossings and few steep grades, Chisholm designed his trail for the lumbering heavy freight wagons used for commerce. In 1867, a year before Chisholm died, his trail also began to be used for a different purpose: cattle drives. The rapidly growing Texas cattle industry needed to move its herds north to the railheads in Kansas, and Chisholm’s gentle trail provided an ideal route. During the next five years, more than a million head traveled up the road, trampling down a path that was in some places 200 to 400 yards wide. Hooves and the erosion of wind and water eventually cut the trail down below the level of the plains it crossed, permanently carving Chisholm’s Trail into the face of the earth and guaranteeing its lasting fame. Traces of the trail may still be seen to this day.