September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
On September 5 the first of many thousands of Texas longhorns were packed into twenty waiting cattle cars of the Kansas Pacific Railway and left Abilene, Kansas, for Eastern slaughterhouses. The event marked the birth of the era of great cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail and the culmination of Joseph McCoy’s work. He had first bought the 480-acre town for twenty-four hundred dollars, then made a deal with the railway company and persuaded ranchers to drive their herds to his Northern shipping point. He built holding pens near the depot and a hotel where the cowboys could flop at the end of their long drives.
The earlier railheads had been in Missouri and New Orleans, impractically far from much of rural Texas with dangerous territory in between. Moreover, a growing number of Missouri counties were prohibiting longhorns for fear of Texas cattle fever. McCoy’s depot site lay safely to the west of these settlements when it opened. After Abilene, cattle towns would continue to move west with the railheads, out of the way of encroaching settlements.
McCoy, a transplanted cattleman from Abraham Lincoln’s Sangamon County, Illinois, had been inspired by tales of stranded Texas herds, withering far from market. A reliable trail and gathering point would coax more ranchers to send their longhorns North. Thirty-five thousand cattle did, in fact, come through Abilene in McCoy’s first year. The route followed by most of the drovers came to be known for an Indian trader whose wagon ruts had worn it over the years—Jesse Chisholm. By 1871 seven hundred thousand cattle had followed the Chisholm Trail to be packed off at Abilene and slaughtered in Kansas City and Chicago. New depots at Wichita and Dodge City, and competition from the Santa Fe Railroad, eventually led to Abilene’s losing its pre-eminence among the early cow towns.