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Kansas History - Summer 2017

Kansas History, Summer 2017(Volume 40, Number 2)

James E. Sherow, “Introduction: Joseph McCoy’s Dream: Abilene, Kansas, and the Opening of the Great Cattle Drives up the Chisholm Trail 150 Years Ago.”

On September 5, 1867, entrepreneur Joseph McCoy’s dream of establishing a successful market outlet for Texas cattle became reality, as a locomotive pulling the first stock cars of Texas cattle departed his Great Western Stock Yards in Abilene, Kansas, bound for New York City. This special issue of Kansas History commemorates this important period in the state’s history, as McCoy’s success sparked the era of the great cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail, creating economic competition among Kansas towns and a cowboy culture that persisted through various means well into the twentieth century.

James E. Sherow, “Why Abilene, Kansas?”

In 1867, the Kansas legislature enacted a quarantine line in the state that made it illegal for Joseph G. McCoy to create an outlet for Texas cattle at Abilene. “Why Abilene, Kansas,” explains how, despite this law, he achieved his goal and made Abilene a bustling cattle town on the Kansa Pacific Railroad. Most historians have accepted McCoy’s own account. He needed a safe place where Texas cattlemen could place their herds into urban markets, somewhere free from retribution by Kansas and Missouri legislatures and farmers who feared Texas fever. McCoy downplayed the peril of Texas fever, yet events during the 1866 cattle drives highlight why such fears were amply justified. In addition, technological developments in shipping live cattle played an important role in the early success of Abilene as a cattle outlet.

Josh Specht, “‘For the Future in the Distance’: Cattle Trailing, Social Conflict, and the Development of Ellsworth, Kansas.”

In 1872, more than 200,000 cattle passed through Ellsworth, Kansas. The town only had a thousand residents, but boosters and merchants were already speaking of Ellsworth as the next great western metropolis. Yet the town was never unified on the cattle trade's desirability. Ellsworth's farmers saw the cattle trade as a nuisance, and doubted the loyalty of its promoters to the community's long term interests. Their suspicions were confirmed when the cattle trade declined, and many of the town's boosters left in search of the next Ellsworth. In response, the town's remaining residents developed an ideology that emphasized the honesty, hard-work, and the respectability of humble farmers. Using the lens of the town's newspaper, the Ellsworth Reporter,  Specht argues that the highly-mobile community of merchants and boosters circulating around towns such as Ellsworth were crucial to the economic development of the American West, but were also the drivers of social conflict that would ultimately be productive of an inward-looking ideology. 

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Bruce R. Kahler, “Truth on the Trail: Historical Themes in Chisholm Trail Movies.”

In “Truth on the Trail,” historian Bruce Kahler examines the historical themes in movies about the Chisholm Trail.  Although their primary purpose is entertainment and not the presentation of facts, these films provide the viewer with fictions that attempt to get at the larger truths of the trail experience.  The six films examined are: The Texans (1938), Texas (1941), Red River (1948), Wichita (1955), Gunfight in Abilene (1967), and Abilene Town (1946).  Among the historical themes depicted are the entrepreneurial motives and risks behind the cattle drives; the endurance, often heroic, of the many physical and psychological hardships on the trail; the respite and entertainment that cattle towns provided for weary men; the complexities involved in establishing law and order in boom town environments; the persistence of sectional antagonisms when Northerners and Southerners were brought together just a few years after the Civil War; and the tensions created by the economic and social transition from the cattle trade to farming.

Jim Hoy, “Singing the Cattle North Along the Old Chisholm Trail.”

No other occupational group has contributed as many folk songs to American culture as the cowboy, both because he loves his work, which, when it is not routine, can be dangerously exciting, thus giving him good creative material. Moreover, because his horse is doing the heavy work, compared, for instance, to the hard labor of a coal miner or a lumberman, the cowboy has leisure moments in which to compose.  Cowboys created three types of song.  A trail-driving song (“The Old Chisholm Trail”) he sang to entertain himself during the day while plodding along behind a slow-moving herd of cattle.  A night-herding song (“I Ride an Old Paint”) he sang while taking his turn at night guard to help keep restless longhorns quiet.  Also at night he sang a chuck wagon (or campfire) song (“The Cowboy’s Lament”) to entertain his fellow cowboys.

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