The Old West became notorious for the violence that befell communities and individuals. Some individuals, however, acted as peacemakers. Jesse Chisolm, a merchant who developed a network of trading posts from Texas up to Kansas, became known for his mediation efforts and his efforts to expand commerce in the area. 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 creating the legendary Chisolm Trail, which became a vital pipeline for the famous cattle drives of the late nineteenth century.
Jesse Chisolm was born in the Great Hiwassee area in the mountains of southeastern Tennessee around 1805, inside what had been Cherokee territory. His exact date of birth is uncertain. He was the oldest of six children born to Ignatius Chisolm, a Scottish immigrant and trader, and Martha Rogers, a Cherokee.
Chisolm’s lifetime would be marked by the dramatic collapse of tribal control of their territories. Even as a child, he was already living with its effects. By this time, relations between the Cherokees and the settlers were breaking down. Many settlers were encroaching on Cherokee lands, seizing it for themselves in violation of treaty while the federal government did little to stop it. By the early 1810s, many Cherokees were started moving west, the Chisolms included, settling in what is now western Arkansas.
In the 1820s, the family moved further west near Fort Gibson in what was soon to become the Indian Territory, or modern-day Oklahoma. His father brought him into the merchant business, and he made a respectable living as a guide and a trader. Chisolm steadily built and maintained a series of trading posts throughout the area.
Though he spent most of his adult life as a merchant, Chisolm’s most sought-after product was peace. Respected among both white politicians and Native American tribes, he was routinely sought out to mediate disputes between the tribes and the settlers. Chisolm reportedly spoke a dozen languages, mostly the languages of the different tribes of the Great Plains. As a trader, such skills of language and diplomacy were vital to his business success.
Sam Houston, while serving as President of the Republic of Texas, sought out Chisolm often to negotiate between Texas and the tribes. Houston himself had lived among the Cherokees for a time and believed that peace was possible between the settlers and the tribes. Chisolm managed to convince several tribes in the North Texas area to meet with Houston and Texas officials in a series of meetings called the Tehuacana Creek Councils in 1843 and 1844 near Waco. Through these efforts, several treaties were established between Texas and the different tribes.
During the Civil War, tribes in the Indian Territory were deeply divided and often sided with the Confederacy. Chisolm tried to stay out of the conflict, often trading with both 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, Chisolm hoped to resume his trade business. He loaded a team of wagons with goods and left Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, marking a trail south to his trading post near modern Oklahoma City. He extended the trail south to the Red River. Word of this safe and well-marked trail spread. As Texas ranchers saw the potential profit in driving cattle to Kansas for sale, Chisolm’s trail became the obvious route to use as the cattle drives began by 1867.
After the end of the Civil War, it became increasingly obvious that the federal government intended to clamp down control over the tribes and force them onto reservations in spite of existing treaties. Chisolm attempted to bring tribal leaders together with federal officials in the Indian Territory to discuss the issues at hand. Tribal leaders were reluctant to meet, realizing that any treaty at that point probably meant a surrender. Within two years, leaders slowly gathered to talk with federal representatives. The result was the Medicine Lodge Treaty, a series of three treaties signed between the tribes and the federal government starting in October 1867. The treaty stipulated that the tribes would be assigned reservation territories within the Indian Territory, effectively putting an end to their way of life.
In April 1868, Chisolm died suddenly, apparently of food poisoning, while in the Indian Territory. He was respected for his efforts to broker peace on the plains. His efforts at expanding trade, however, would become his most famous legacy. As he died, the great age of the cattle drives was just beginning. As more ranchers began shipping their cattle to Kansas from the late 1860s through the 1880s, his trail became a popular route and soon became known as the Chisolm Trail.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.