HARLINGEN — Expect everything but the dust and stampedes.
The mythology of the Texas cattle drive is set to be replayed at the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum with a historical exhibit on the Chisholm Trail.
“The Chisholm Trail: 150 Years of History, Folklore and Legacy” will debut at the museum on March 12 and continue its run until May 11.
While historians debate just where the trail officially began — some say at the Red River, where herds left Texas and entered what was then known as Indian Territory — while others believe the trail really started its meandering path northward right here in the Rio Grande Valley.
“The cattle would be gathered up into groups of maybe 2,000 at a time and then moved straight up that natural corridor up to Kansas,” said Texas historian Doug Harman, one of the three experts who developed the exhibit. “So the feeder trails were a reflection of the fact that the cattle were being gathered up in various places and then moved northward.”
These feeder trails which came out of the Valley and South Texas gathered Texas longhorns from ranches from Laredo to Brownsville to Houston, and in the north, from around San Antonio. From ranches south of Harlingen, cattle drives came right up what is now Commerce Street on their way north, according to historical reports.
The cattle drives which began in the Rio Grande Valley a la the fictional “Lonesome Dove” traveled north along what is now known as the I-35 corridor.
“It was, Wayne Gard observed, like a tree — the roots were the feeder trails from South Texas, the trunk was the main route from San Antonio across Indian Territory, and the branches were extensions to various railheads in Kansas,” writes historian Donald E. Worcester for the Texas State Historical Association. Gard authored the book, “The Chisholm Trail.”
The herds were pushed from South Texas to San Antonio, then to Austin, Waco and Fort Worth, then to Red River Station where the cattle drive left Texas and entered Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. They finished, if they were lucky, at railheads in Ellsworth and Abilene, Kansas, where the cattle were sold and loaded on trains to be shipped east.
The Chisholm Trail followed its predecessor, the Shawnee Trail, until it split at Waco and went north to Fort Worth instead of to Dallas. Part of the reason was the westward expansion of farms and ranches in East Texas had begun to block the movement of large herds. Another factor was a ban on Texas longhorns in some areas to the east because they carried cattle fever ticks which can cause the disease babesiosis.
“Before the Civil War, there were cattle taken into Louisiana and also there were cattle taken up the Shawnee Trail, which basically kind of went up to Waco and then veered straight up into Dallas,” Harman said. “In fact, in Dallas, they have the wonderful longhorn bronzes downtown (at Pioneer Plaza) and that is in honor of the Shawnee Trail, so that one goes up through Shawnee (Oklahoma) and all the way up to Missouri on that route.”
The Chisholm Trail was an active cattle drive corridor only from 1867 to 1884. As rail lines began to be built and pushed south into East Texas, the drives fell victim to this changing technology, although the myths surrounding them will no doubt endure far longer.
Yet Harman and other historians say the drives along the Chisholm Trail were crucial for Texas for another reason —helping the state recover from the economic devastation caused by the Civil War.
During the war, since there was no feasible way to sell cattle or get them to a buyer given the hostilities, ranchers in South Texas simply let their herds grow. Once the war ended, it was a seller’s market to easterners hungry for beef.
“It was huge,” Harman said. “Basically, Texas’ economy was destroyed and there was really no cash in Texas to restore the economy until the influx of money from the sale of cattle up in Kansas.
“The Chisholm Trail provided the opportunity to bring money to Texas and restore the economy of Texas after the Civil War,” he added. “It was absolutely imperative, critical, to the restoration of the Texas economy.”
The traveling Chisholm Trail exhibit consists of 34 panels with maps, facts and anecdotes about the cattle drives and the cowboys who led them.
The exhibit was produced through the Texas Heritage Trails Program, which is affiliated with the Texas Historical Commission.
“It comes through the Texas Trails program, which we’re a part of, the Texas Tropical Trail, and we try to keep those relationships healthy,” said Joel Humphries, director of arts and entertainment for Harlingen.
“Any time we can do something that’s kind of cool, that reaches a bit of the history in the community, and make some new friends along the way, that’s what you want to do,” he added.
Those new friends are the Texas Lakes Trail, which was responsible for creating the Chisholm Trail exhibit.
“It’s a really great educational tool,” said Jill Campbell Jordan, executive director of the Texas Lakes Trail in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “And also I’d guess a good conversation-starter because there is a lot of controversy over where the trail actually began and what towns it went through.”
Part of the reason for disputes on the exact route of the Chisholm Trail is that each herd did not stay in its lane. As the cattle moved north, each drive often moved either a little bit east or west to find the best grass and water available.
“I’m real familiar with all these different controversies about it, but I think that just adds to the lore of the Chisholm Trail,” she added, “and I think it brings people to Texas, or certain regions of Texas, to visit and experience the Chisholm Trail where they might not visit, otherwise. I do believe it’s a good story for Harlingen.”
Campbell Jordan said the exhibit is aimed at the layman and not necessarily the historian, but she added there is enough unique information to satisfy both segments of visitors.
“There are interesting pictures and maps and facts about how many cattle were estimated to have gone up the trail, and things about the drovers,” she said. “It’s really good for people who don’t know anything about cattle trails and then also maybe a good refresher or just enjoyable for people that really are connoisseurs of cattle trail history.”
So far the exhibit has traveled to Mount Pleasant, Paris, Marble Falls and Liberty County.
“All of those places report that they had an increase in visitation at the sites where it’s been displayed,” she added, “which is what we’re hoping for with the museum, that they’ll get more people coming through the doors.”