The Wild West became notorious for violence that plagued communities and individuals. Some individuals, however, acted as peacemakers. Jesse Chisholm, a merchant who developed a network of trading posts from Texas to Kansas, became known for his mediation efforts and his efforts to expand trade in the region. He was never wealthy, but his reputation as a guide, translator, diplomat, trader and explorer gave him an important role in shaping the West. His most lasting legacy was the creation of the legendary Chisholm Trail, which became a vital pipeline for the famous cattle transports of the late 19th century.
Jesse Chisholm was born in the Great Hiwassee region in the mountains of southeast Tennessee around 1805, inside what had been Cherokee territory. His exact date of birth is uncertain. He was the eldest of six children born to Ignatius Chisholm, a Scottish immigrant and trader, and Martha Rogers, a Cherokee. His father was involved in sales of all kinds, respectable and otherwise, including the slave trade in the Knoxville area.
Chisholm’s life will be marked by the dramatic breakdown of tribal control over their territories. Even as a child, he already lived with his effects. At this time, relations between the Cherokees and the settlers were breaking down. Many settlers were encroaching on Cherokee lands, taking it for themselves in violation of treaty while the federal government did little to stop it. In the early 1810s, many Cherokees began to see the writing on the wall and began to move west. The Chisholms left with this first wave westward, settling in what is now western Arkansas for a time.
In the 1820s, the family moved farther west near Fort Gibson in what would soon become Indian Territory, or modern Oklahoma. His father brought him into the trade and he made a respectable living as a guide and trader. Chisholm regularly built and maintained a series of trading posts throughout the region.
Although he spent most of his adult life as a merchant, Chisholm’s most sought-after commodity was peace. Respected among white politicians and Native American tribes, he was regularly called upon to mediate disputes between tribes and settlers. Chisholm is said to have spoken a dozen languages, mostly the languages of the various Great Plains tribes. As a trader, such language and diplomatic skills were essential to the success of his business.
Sam Houston, while President of the Republic of Texas, often sought out Chisholm to negotiate between Texas and the tribes. Houston himself had lived among the Cherokees for some time and believed peace was possible between settlers and tribes. Chisholm was able to convince several tribes in the North Texas area to meet with Houston and Texas officials at a series of meetings called the Tehuacana Creek Councils in 1843 and 1844 near Waco. Through these efforts, several peace and trade treaties were established between Texas and the various tribes. The success of these meetings helped to extend his reputation as a translator and mediator.
In the 1850s, Chisholm provided similar services by helping mediate between Kansas officials and tribal representatives there. Throughout his efforts, Chisholm repeatedly attempted to convey the goodwill and peaceful intentions of the tribes to the leaders of Texas and Kansas.
During the Civil War, the Indian Territory tribes were deeply divided and often sided with the Confederacy. Chisholm tried to stay out of the conflict, often trading with the Union and Confederate sides. By 1864 he was operating out of Wichita, Kansas, and serving as an interpreter for the Union Army.
In 1865, Chisholm hoped to resume his business activity and expand his clientele. He loaded a team of freight cars and left Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, south of his trading post near modern Oklahoma City. He extended the trail south to the Red River to allow ranchers access to his trading posts along the way. Word of this safe and well marked trail has spread. As Texas ranchers saw the potential profit in driving cattle to Kansas to sell and ship to eastern markets, the Chisholm trail became the obvious route to use when cattle transports began in 1867.
After the Civil War ended, it became increasingly clear that the federal government intended to restrict control over the tribes and force them to settle on reservations despite existing treaties. Chisholm attempted to bring tribal leaders together with federal Indian Territory officials to discuss issues to be resolved. The tribal leaders were reluctant to meet, realizing that any treaty at this point likely meant surrender. Over the span of two years, the leaders slowly came together to talk with federal officials. The result was the Treaty of Medicine Lodge, a series of three treaties signed between the tribes and the federal government beginning in October 1867. The treaty stipulated that the tribes would be allocated reservation territories in Indian Territory, thus ending in their way of life.
In April 1868, Chisholm died suddenly, apparently of food poisoning, while in Indian Territory. He was respected for his efforts to negotiate peace on the plains. His efforts to expand trade would, however, become his most famous legacy. At the time of his death, the great era of cattle transport was just beginning. As more ranchers began shipping their cattle to Kansas from the late 1860s through the 1880s, its trail became a popular route and soon became known as the Chisholm Trail.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history teacher. He can be contacted at [email protected] The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.