On March 30, 2016, I saddled up my 2002 Toyota Tacoma pickup, a trustworthy mount that had already carried me some 160,000 miles around the country, and lit out for the Red River Crossing in Texas. I planned on intercepting the Chisholm Trail at Ringgold, Texas, some thirty miles east of Wichita Falls. It was a two-day drive.
Ringgold isn’t much by Texas standards, but it marks the intersection of Highways 82 and 81. The intersection is four miles south of what used to be the Red River Crossing Station. From here, the Chisholm Trail heads north, paralleling what is now Highway 81. In 1867, the river crossing marked the exit from The Republic of Texas into “Indian Country.” The Red River is now the boundary between Texas and Oklahoma as far west as the Texas Panhandle.
The town of Ringgold is situated in Montague County. A historical marker— located a few yards east of the highway intersection— provides some fascinating facts about the County’s place in Texas history.
According to the marker, the area was crossed by many early prairie trails. One of the earliest was the Chihuahua Traders’ Trail blazed in 1840 by merchants who wanted to open trade between St. Louis, Missouri, and Mexico. Another was the Santa Fe Expedition route. That trail later helped to reinforce the Republic of Texas’ claims to territories farther west. In 1858 the Butterfield Stage Mail route crossed Montague County.
By 1870, many of the Chisholm Trail’s feeder trails converged here as smaller cattle herds were consolidated for the drive North. During high water delays, thousands of Longhorn cattle would be grazing the grassy meadows above the Red River Crossing.
Growing up during the late 1940s and 1950s, in a large family with a low income, there were few purchased toys. My childhood play was relatively unstructured, and imagination was essential.
Much of my free time was spent outdoors, exploring. Whole days were whiled away in the woods at the edges of small towns in which I grew up. Creeks provided routes to follow, just as rivers did for early explorers of the American West.
With the arrival of television and a splurge of western movies, my natural boyhood heroes were characters like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Wyatt Earp. John Wayne, who starred in such movies as “The Chisholm Trail” and “Red River Crossing” was my true grit model. I grew up in the glory decades of imagination about the westward expansion of our country, albeit with a largely movie-version view of a western life.
I still remember my first pistol and holster set of cheap plastic and “leather” covered cardboard. As a child, I surely must have built more makeshift forts than the United States Army did while the country’s tsunami wave of settlers swarmed west in the 1800s. I thought of myself as a cowboy, a mountain man, and an explorer all rolled up into one persona.
In adulthood, I continued physically moving from location to location, genetics-inspired perhaps, by alleged Cherokee ancestors. Reading about western migratory trails such as the Trail of Tears, the Santa Fe Trail, the California and Oregon Trails, the Mormon Trail, and the Old Spanish Trail, continued to fire my imagination. The great western cattle routes like the Shawnee Trail, the Chisholm Trail, and the Western Trail, added to the lure of adventure as I read both nonfiction literature and fictional western novels.
Still, these trails were not personally familiar to me as a writer. I knew of them through a childhood imagination; through much falsely presented school and movie information; and through books. But, I figured it was never too late.
I was born in Missouri, the “Show-Me” State. I wanted to experience The Chisholm Trail myself, to see it as it exists today.
Beginning in 1867, following the Civil War, the Chisholm Trail became a route to wealth for Texas ranchers who had access to wild Longhorn cattle, but little other means of earning a livelihood. There was a demand for beef in the eastern part of the country, but the problem was how to get the cattle to the consumers.
Cowboys drove a few cattle herds to Missouri River points for steamboat transport to New Orleans. That route, along the old Shawnee Trail, was soon cut off by the closing of Missouri border counties, due to fears of infestation from the “Texas Fever”, caused by a tic carried by Longhorns.
An alternative shipping mode was provided by the first railroads pushing west. The Union Pacific had established a railhead as far west as Abilene. The Chisholm Cattle Trail ran from the Red River on the northern Texas border to Abilene, Kansas. The first half of the Trail followed an earlier trading post route established by Jesse Chisholm.
The three-month trip was hazardous. The dangers of prairie fires, lightning, hail storms, marauding Indians, outlaw gangs, quicksand or high-water river crossings, and frequent cattle stampedes were endured by the cowboys who were often teenagers or young adults. But, while hazardous, the Chisholm Trail also promised adventure and the lure of good times in the cattle towns at the end of the trail drive. Most of the cowboys who trailed the cattle north were likely to make more than one trip.
This introductory post begins a series about my own recent trip along US Highway 81, that now parallels the Chisholm Trail route. These posts will cover my discoveries along the way, a bit of history about some of the present day towns, some current tourist attractions centered on the Trail’s history, and a few musings about the doings of earlier times on the Chisholm Trail.
Check in every week and come with me on a ride up the old Chisholm cattle trail.