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History vs. mythtory: dispelling the myths about life on the trail

By Jeff Herndon

Toby Keith laments in a song, “I should’ve been a cowboy.” He purports in the song that Miss Kitty – a character in Gunsmoke, a popular television program that ran for 20 seasons starting in the mid 50s – would have married Marshal Matt Dillon “in a New York minute” because of his cowboy mystique. What Keith overlooks is the fact that Miss Kitty was a business owner, making money hand over fist running a saloon in Dodge City, and Marshal Dillon would have been the lucky one to tie the knot with her. Pop culture doesn’t always give us the whole picture when it comes to history. Movies, songs, television shows and books paint a glorious picture of America’s Wild West in the late 19th century, the days of the famous Chisholm Trail, but they routinely fail to show us the whole truth.

Pop Culture: Let’s start with the name, Chisholm Trail. In the 1942 movie, The Old Chisholm Trail, drovers and ranchers in Texas are referring to the trail they are on by that name.

Reality: “There are so many different names at that point,” said Michael Hook, director for the Dickinson County Historical Society in Abilene. “Up until 1870, you will never see the name Chisholm Trail in print anywhere. What we would see more often [in Abilene] is the McCoy Trail, the Arbuckle Trail, the Abilene Trail.”

Jay Price, chair of the history department at Wichita State University, generally agrees with Hook’s assessment. “What we call the Chisholm Trail is really a set of routes,” Price has concluded through his extensive research. “In many cases, it was actually called the Texas Cattle Trail,” he said.

A herd of Long Horns grazes near the crowd during the twelfth annual Symphony in the Flint Hills held at Deer Horn Ranch in Geary county, Saturday, June 10, 2017. The Long Horns were driven across the property as the Kansas City Symphony and Michael Martin Murphey performed. (Photo by Brian Hayes)

Pop Culture: Movies often portray cowboys driving cattle up a dusty, well-worn path.

Reality: This is not completely true, according to Price. “To say that there is a route of the Chisholm Trail is fiction,” Price said. “It moves.” And so frequently we see cattle drives – even stampedes – run right through the middle of town. “When the cattle are coming in they’re veering around the city,” Price said. “People don’t want massive herds of cattle going through downtown.”

Pop Culture: An aspect of the Chisholm Trail and American frontier we seldom see or read about is racial diversity. Movies almost always show us a bunch of white cowboys followed by a black or Hispanic cook driving the chuck wagon.

Reality: That is nowhere close to depicting reality in the days of the Chisholm and other cattle trails. Minorities were far more important to the success of cattle drives than just fixing the coffee in the morning and washing the dishes after the evening meal (just ask cowboy Louverture Marable). In fact, according to Christy Davis, formerly the deputy state historic preservation officer with the Kansas Historical Society and now the director of Symphony in the Flint Hills, Inc, about 25 percent of drovers were black. Somewhere around ten percent were of Mexican or Native American heritage. Jesse Chisholm, for whom the Chisholm Trail is named, was himself of mixed ancestry, being part Cherokee. Chisholm was a businessman, operating trading posts at different times in Arkansas, Oklahoma (then known as Indian Territory) and Kansas.

Pop Culture: No movie about the old west is complete if it doesn’t include an old-fashioned cowboys-and-Indians fight. We usually see one of two versions of this story line. Either cowboys are riding by on horses, firing their rifles and pistols at Indians running out of their teepees and slinging arrows back at the cowboys using bows, or the Indians are riding horses, still using the bow and arrow to shoot at the white settlers hiding behind the covered wagons that are circled to guard them.

Reality: Regardless of whom the aggressor is, the classic depiction of Native Americans, simply put, isn’t accurate. “This is not feathered headdresses and teepees,” Price tells us. “People like the Cherokee, the Muskogee, the Chickasaw, these are people in frock coats and hoop skirts. They have churches, newspapers, Masonic lodges and government structures.” Most tribes of native Americans were even charging taxes on people crossing their land, and, by the 1860s, they have been raising cattle to support their communities for generations. “[They’re not out] hunting bison,” Price elaborated.

Toby Keith sings about the greatest parts of being a cowboy. “Wearing my six-shooter, riding my pony on a cattle drive. Stealing the young girl’s hearts, just like Gene and Roy. Singing those campfire songs, Oh, I should’ve been a cowboy.” If only history were as accurate and idealistic as pop culture explains it.