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Hitting the trail

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Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2007 12:00 pm | Updated: 4:53 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Shannon Lowry

Killeen Daily Herald

"I woke up one morning on the old Chisholm Trail,

Rope in my hand and a cow by the tail.

Feet in the stirrups and seat in the saddle,

I hung and rattled with them Longhorn cattle."

– Lyrics from "The Old Chisholm Trail"

The cowboys sang to the longhorns – sang their hearts out – especially during stampedes, because they knew that if the cattle heard their lullaby-like crooning, they'd settle down and stop their random running.

"Yes, we sung, whistled, and hummed to the cattle so they would know where we were, also that the other guards might know our location," said J.H. "Jake" Byer, a Texas cowboy who rode the trail and was later interviewed by a Writers' Project reporter. "The constant sound prevented fright from any sudden sound, such as a horse stumbling, etc."

The legend and lore of Texas cattlemen and the massive roundup of longhorn cattle actually belong to a brief, 17-year period from 1867 to 1884 when the Chisholm Trail served as the major route for livestock out of Texas to the railyard at Witchita, Kan., where the cattle could be shipped to big Eastern markets.

The trail has often been compared to a tree, with its "trunk" roughly paralleling what is now the Interstate 35 corridor. Belton and Salado were on the main trunk of the trail, which stretched from San Antonio across Indian Territory, but Lampasas was on a feeder path along with numerous other little cowtowns in Central Texas.

The roots of the trail stretched throughout South Texas and included a path that led to the massive King Ranch. The branches at the top of the "tree" reached various railheads in Kansas – Ellsworth, Junction City, Newton, Wichita and Caldwell.

Nope, it wasn't like the longhorns were all penned up in a big stockade down in South Texas, just waiting for a trail driver and a few cowpokes to show up and head them North. These wily beasts were free-ranging all over Texas – five million of them. One million wild mustangs shared the waist-high grasslands that made up this vast open range.

You can thank Francisco Coronado for the longhorns. He brought these majestic beasts with him in 1540 from the royal stables of Spain in the hopes they would serve as a food source for Spaniards coming to the New World.

And while the Spanish crown did establish forts and towns here, most of the Spanish settlers wound up in Mexico.

But over the course of 300 years in Texas, with their hard hooves, ability to withstand extreme weather, particularly heat, and champion immune systems, the longhorns multipled faster than green grass goes through a goose.

Fast-forward to the aftermath of the terrible Civil War. In 1865, the difficult period of Reconstruction began, which was a punitive and painful period of time for the South.

"Texas didn't suffer as much because no major battles were fought here, but the victorious North had a beef shortage," explained Stephanie Turnham, executive director of the Bell County Museum on the Chisholm Trail in Belton.

"There were five million longhorns in Texas and it was a classic case of supply and demand – the supply was the Texas longhorns and the demand was the northern markets."

Men in Texas who had lost everything in the war could go out in the middle of nowhere and lasso a longhorn. "Here, you'd have paid $4 for a longhorn. In Chicago or New York, that same longhorn was worth $40," Turnham noted.

What sweetened the deal was that the railroads were coming West. Going up the trail was the only good way to get the cattle from Texas to the railyard and on to Eastern markets to people who needed the food.

So a trail boss – usually the only one or one of a very few who carried a gun and who could read – would hire cowboys to round up the cattle in the spring and brand them so they could sort out which were theirs and which belonged to other enterprising souls.

"The cowboys," Turnham said, "were primarily young Mexican-American, African-American former slaves and Buffalo soldiers, Europeans, and former soldiers in the Confederate Army, all of whom joined up on the cattle trail."

Surprisingly enough, Jesse Chisholm, the part-Cherokee, part-Scottish trader for whom the trail is named, never worked a herd.

He hauled trade goods from his trading post near Wichita some 220 miles south into Indian Territory, wearing wagon-wheel ruts in the path. Chisholm also served as a guide for many settlers crossing through Indian Territory.

Chisholm was well-respected, spoke several Indian dialects and was one of the few men who could provide whites safe passage through bitter, poverty-stricken lands. Few people know the terrible suffering and punishment inflicted on the tribes after the Civil War, but they, too, had been caught up in this damaging internal war that had swept the country.

Texas cattlemen, who followed Chisholm's tracks from the North Canadian River in Indian Territory to Wichita, Kan., just simplified the whole shebang and called the entire trail from the Rio Grande River in South Texas to central Kansas "the Chisholm Trail."

What followed was, indeed, the largest livestock migration that world history has ever recorded.

"Our bunk was the green below and the blue above," quipped one cowpoke about the wrangling life of freedom these cowboys found on the trail.

Others, like Texan Jacob Bennett, who first went up the trail at age 16, waxed poetic about the horses he rode.

"We were furnished hosses that, in lots of cases, knowed more about cow work that some of the fellows in the saddle," Bennett told a reporter with the Federal Writers' Project in a reflective interview much later in his long life.

"That sounds sort of stretched, but all we had to do was to show a cutting hoss a certain critter we wanted cut out of the herd, and that hoss would get after that critter like it was some sort of a game and stay with the critter till the hoss run it plum out of the herd. The way we showed the hoss what we wanted was by hitting it with a rope, our lasso.

"Not only cut the critter out of the herd," Bennett went on, "but when you make your cast with your lasso, that hoss knowed just the right second when to sit down to keep the critter from draggin the hoss ... You see, that's the reason the cowpunchers loved their hosses so much when they had one that was a good one. When he had a good hoss, his work was so much easier that it just made all the difference in the world."

Even though Bennett saw many gruesome sights during his days on the trail, including witnessing one man who broke his neck in a fall trying to cut a steer off and drive it back to the herd, and another man who fell under a horse, "which stepped in his face and kicked his head half loose," the cowpoke wouldn't have traded the life for all the gold in California.

"Oh, that range life's mighty exciting at times," he told the Writers' Project reporter. "Especially in the olden days when we had mustangs to ride and longhorns to brand. I'd a heap druther live that life than the one I'm living right now. The Old Rocking Chair's' got me now. Got me, for sure."

Eventually the Northern markets were glutted with beef. Settlers wanting to farm the prairies of Texas and the rich black bottomlands of the Midwest moved in and put up what amounted to the death of the cattlemen – barbed wire fences as far as the eye could see.

Barbed wire came into play in 1876, and by 1884 it had almost completely blocked off the trail. Meanwhile, in 1880 the trains reached to Fort Worth, which would benefit the most as the new terminus for cattle shipments.

But in the brief history of a once dusty animal path that stretched all the way back to buffalo and Indian days, many legendary tales were told and reputations made along the difficult journey north.

Take Harriet Standifer Cluck, who attended Salado College and was the first woman to ride up the trail in 1871. Her family raised cattle in Williamson County along Brushy Creek.

When the drovers approached a swollen Red River in Indian Territory, they floated a wagon across the river with cottonwood logs lashed to its sides, carrying Mrs. Cluck to safety.

The group was later approached by cattle thieves demanding 500 head.

Mr. Cluck retorted: "You are not to get any of our cattle. I have 16 of the bravest cowboys that ever drove the Chisholm Trail. They were raised on rattlesnakes and wildcats. My wife, who's fondling that double-barreled shotgun there, is herself one of the best shots that ever came out of Texas. If you want to enforce your demands open the ball, and we'll soon see who can dance the longest! We'll pay the fiddler with your hides!"

The thieves took a hard look at the cowboys and a harder look down the barrels of Mrs. Cluck's shotgun. Then they turned tail and rode off.

"The period only lasted 20 years but what is enduring is the image it painted of the American West," Turnham said.

Contact Shannon Lowry at shannonl@kdhnews.comHitting the trail

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