Born in 1805 (or 1806) in Tennessee, Jesse Chisholm’s mother was Cherokee, and his father was of Scottish descent. He was raised primarily by his mother in and around Arkansas and the Indian Territory and became fluent in the dialects of many of the area’s Native American tribes. He naturally fell into the trading business and established several trading posts in the Indian Territory to service the displaced tribes of the West, and like many pioneering legends of the West, he knew three states’ worth of territory, and the people there knew him.
Chisholm ended up rubbing shoulders with some of the most influential figures in early Western history, including Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas. Houston, and others, called on Chisholm for his skills as an interpreter and guide in many of the early Native American councils prior to the Civil War. His trading business and official duties exposed him to a large and diverse number of people, which also allowed him to negotiate the release of captives from various Indian tribes. Throughout his long life in tough country, he became known for bravery and fairness.
When the Civil War hit, Chisholm moved to Wichita, Kan., and was crafty enough to serve both sides as a trader and interpreter. When the war ended, he and a partner, named James R. Mead, established a trading route from Texas through Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma) to Kansas. When commenting on who first blazed this famous route in the book he helped compile—the Trail Drivers of Texas (first published in 1924)—George Saunders, the first president and organizer of the Old Time Trail Drivers Association, wrote: “W.P. Anderson, who was a railroad agent at Abilene, Kan., in the late sixties, and had a lot to do with the first shipments of cattle out of that place, gives us a satisfactory description of the Chisholm Trail, laid out by Jesse Chisholm, a half-breed Cherokee Indian, from Red River Station [Texas] to different points in Kansas.”
There is some debate, however, regarding a famous drover of that era named John Chisum. For his part, C.H. Rust, who went up the trail with a herd and considered himself a historian of the trail, is quoted in the Trail Drivers of Texas, confirming Jesse Chisholm as the man for whom the trail should be rightfully named: “I do not find in John Chisum’s history where he ever drove a herd of cattle from Texas to Kansas, but he drove thousands of cattle in to the Pecos country and New Mexico, about 1864 and 1866.”
Regardless, the herds began to follow this route in 1866, and everyone called it the Chisholm Trail. By legend, the first trail drive started just north of Cuero, Texas, where Thornton Chisholm (it’s unclear if he and Jesse were related) bossed a herd of 1,800 steers owned by Crockett Cardwell north to Kansas.
Jesse Chisholm continued his trading business and, in 1867, was instrumental in getting the Plains Tribes to attend the Medicine Lodge Treaty. He died the next year near present-day Geary, Okla., from eating rancid bear meat. His untimely death surely added to his reputation and helped immortalize his name in cowboy lore.