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Texas History: Hit the fabled Chisholm Trail with these 10 books

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
A vintage cash register and bottles of liquor at the Stonewall Saloon Museum in Saint Jo, Texas, hearken back to its original role as a rest stop for settlers and cowboys on the Chisholm Trail. The museum features a wide variety of historical artifacts from the early days of Montague County.
  • You can buy a facsimile of "Guide Map of the Great Texas Cattle Trail” for $50.
  • Several of these recommended books on the Chisholm Trail are available for free online.
  • Writers and readers can’t get enough stories about those 1800s cattle trails.

As you read this, I am out of the office. Yet I did not forget the statewide readership of the Think, Texas newsletter and column. In my absence, allow me to offer an Aug. 20, 2017, column about the Chisholm Trail written by my colleague Glen Seeber of the Oklahoman, a sibling Gannett newspaper in the USA Today Network.

While there are many books about the cattle drives of the late 1800s and the mostly young men who faced the dangers of the trail for hundreds of miles to get the cattle to market, here are a few of the outstanding books I have come across in my own decades of bookshelf exploration:

"The Chisholm Trail: A History of the World's Greatest Cattle Trail," by Sam P. Ridings (Co-Operative Publishing Co., 1936): Ridings was a Kansas attorney who practiced in Caldwell, Kan., which was on the Chisholm Trail. He traveled the trail himself in the late 1800s. Years later, as a member of the Old Time Cherokee Strip Cowpunchers Association, Ridings spent six years researching the trail at a time when he still could speak directly with men who also had ridden the trail, and in 1936 his book, "The Chisholm Trail: A History of the World's Greatest Cattle Trail," was published. The original book is rare, and I have seen it listed for sale online for as much as $300 a copy. However, hardback and paperback reprints at a much more reasonable price can be found, and it is also available as a free PDF from archive.org. 

"The Chisholm Trail," by Wayne Gard, with illustrations by Nick Eggenhofer (University of Oklahoma Press, 1954): Gard was a longtime editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News and president of the Texas State Historical Association whose book, "The Chisholm Trail," was published in 1954. His book is easier reading than Ridings', mostly because Gard was a professional writer, but is only about half the size of Ridings' work. A 58-page preview of the book can be found for free online at books.google.com.

"Jesse Chisholm: Texas Trail Blazer and Sam Houston's Trouble-Shooter," by Ralph B. Cushman, with illustrations by Russell Cushman (Eakin Press, 1992): Bushman was a lifelong Texan who was a friend of Andrew Jackson Houston, the son of Texas hero Sam Houston, and who learned a lot about Chisholm directly from the Houston family. Jesse Chisholm, by the way, was related to Sam Houston by marriage (the president of the Republic of Texas married Jesse Chisholm's mother's sister).

"Jesse Chisholm: Ambassador of the Plains," by Stan Hoig (University Press of Colorado, 1991): Hoig was professor emeritus at the University of Central Oklahoma and an award-winning journalist. His biography of Chisholm draws from newspaper stories and numerous government documents to show how the part-Cherokee, part-Scottish trader played a major role in seeking peace between the various Native American tribes and white men.

"Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest," by Joseph G. McCoy (Ramsey, Millett & Hudson, 1874): McCoy made what was to become known as the Chisholm Trail a possibility in 1867 when he arranged with the Kansas Pacific Railway for the shipment of cattle from Abilene, the county seat of Dickinson County in Kansas. "Abilene in 1867 was a very small, dead place, consisting of about one dozen log huts, low, small, rude affairs, four-fifths of which were covered with dirt for roofing; indeed, but one shingle roof could be seen in the whole city," he wrote. McCoy built a stockyard there, and sent riders south through to Texas to alert cattlemen that there was a new market for their beef. 

The historic Waco Suspension Bridge played an important role in the growth of Waco. It connected the north and south areas of town and, in the early years, was the Brazos River crossing for the Chisholm Trail.

His book is a primer on how the cattle drive industry was developed, and tells individual stories of the men who turned Jesse Chisholm's freight trail into the longhorn highway. The book is still in print and a copy of the original can be read for free at play.google.com. However, the reader would get more detailed information by reading the 1940 edition — or later reprints — edited by Ralph P. Bieber, who provides context and background to many of McCoy's statements. 

"Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries," by David Dary (Alfred A. Knopf, 1981): Dary is an emeritus professor at the University of Oklahoma, where he was formerly chair of what is now the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications at OU. He has written numerous books about the American West. My favorite is "Cowboy Culture," which is a look at the overall history of the cowboy lifestyle from the vaqueros of 16th-century Spanish Mexico to the riders of today. If you are into cowboys in any way, you can't go wrong with Dary's book.

 "The Trail Drivers of Texas," edited by J. Marvin Hunter (Cokesbury Press, 1925): In the early days of the 20th century, members of the Old Time Trail Drivers Association became concerned that the veterans of the cattle drive era were dying out, and everyone was asked to "write their reminiscences, incidents and adventures of the Trail for the benefit of the Association." A publisher in San Antonio was to put together a book of the essays, but it went bankrupt and most of the materials disappeared, so the cowboys were asked a second time for their reminiscences, and "The Trail Drivers of Texas" is what resulted. 

The book, covering more than a thousand pages, can be purchased in bookstores and online, but it is also available for free online at archive.org. It includes erroneous information about the founding of the Chisholm Trail, claiming the famous route was started by a cattle rancher named John Chisholm, but includes lots of fascinating firsthand accounts of life on the trail by the men who actually drove cattle up it. 

"A Texas Cowboy's Journal: Up the Trail to Kansas in 1868," by Jack Bailey, with introduction by David Dary (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006): In the introduction — available in part for free at books.google.com —  Dary writes, "The 1868 journal of Jack Bailey surfaced in the fall of 2001 following the death in Oklahoma City of 90-year-old Effie Bernice Minter, a retired secretary." The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum acquired the journal for its research collection. 

Dary continues, "Jack Bailey's journal is the earliest known day-by-day account by a Texas cowboy of a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas during the period just after the Civil War. ... Bailey describes his daily activities, including trailing cattle and rounding them up after stampedes. He records the distances covered each day, the landmarks, where water was found, and the streams crossed." I have not read this book, but it is on my acquisition list.

"Guide Map of the Great Texas Cattle Trail, from Red River Crossing to the Old Reliable Kansas Pacific Railway" (published by the Kansas Pacific Railway Co. for Gratuitous Distribution, 1874): If you could lay your hands on an original of this pamphlet, you would be in possession of cowboy treasure. Although you might find a facsimile edition produced in the latter part of the 20th century by the Pecos Press in Pecos, Texas, for around $50, a copy of the original can be downloaded from kansasmemory.org/item/209730 for free. The guide provides a table of landmarks on the Chisholm Trail beginning at the Red River and running up to Ellsworth, Kan., where the railroad collected cattle from stockyards in 1874. 

"The Western: The Greatest Texas Cattle Trail, 1874-1886," by Gary and Margaret Kraisinger (Mennonite Press, 2004): The Kraisingers have been fascinated with the Western Cattle Trail since 1967, when they learned that the trail passed near their home in Lane County, Kan. After researching for decades, they self-published their book, detailing much of what they'd learned. After quarantine zones and the advancing railroad left the Chisholm Trail behind in Kansas and the Dodge City cattle market opened, the Western Trail — which passed through the Altus area and up the western part of Oklahoma — became the major route for cowboys to drive their herds north.

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