The Abilene Trail

The Abilene Trail was a cattle trail leading from Texas to Abilene, Kansas. Its exact route is disputed owing to its many offshoots, but it crossed the Red River a little east of Henrietta, Texas, and continued north across the Indian Territory to Caldwell, Kansas, and on past Wichita and Newton to Abilene. The first herds were probably driven over it in 1866, though it was not named until Abilene was established in 1867.


In 1867, Joseph G. McCoy, of Illinois, settled at Abilene to engage in the cattle trade, and he caused to be laid out a cattle trail to connect with the north end of the Chisholm Trail, near Wichita, to run northward to Abilene, on the Union Pacific railroad, where the cattle could be marketed in a more expeditious manner. The road from the mouth of the Little Arkansas to Abilene "was not direct but circuitous. In order to straighten up this trail and bring the cattle direct to Abilene, and by shortening the distance, to counteract the exertions of western would-be competing points for the cattle trade, an engineer corps was sent out under the charge of Civil Engineer T. F. Hersey.

Hersey with a compass, flag men, and detail of laborers with spades and shovels for throwing up mounds of dirt to mark the route located by the engineers, started out and ran almost due south from Abilene until the crossing of the Arkansas was reached, finding good water and abundant grass with suitable camping points the entire distance. Meeting at the Arkansas river the first drove of cattle of the season, the party piloted the herd over the new trail, and thus by use opening it to the many thousand herds of cattle that followed in months and years afterward."

In 1867 about 35,000 head of cattle were driven from Texas to Abilene over this trail; in 1868 about 75,000; in 1870 about 300,000; and in 1871 about 700,000, being the largest number ever received from Texas in any one year. The country about Abilene was fast settling up about this time, grazing lands were getting scarcer, and these conditions were such that many of the settlers objected to the pasturing of the great herds in the vicinity. Hence the year 1872 found Wichita in possession of the trade that Abilene had for several years enjoyed, the completion of the Santa Fe railroad to that point giving the needed railroad facilities. From 1867 to 1871 about 10,000 cars of live stock were shipped out of Abilene, and in 1872 about 80,000 head of cattle were shipped from Wichita.

The settlement of the valleys of the Arkansas and the Ninnescah rivers rendered it impractical to reach Wichita shipping yards after 1873, and the loading of cattle was transferred to points on the railroad farther west, halting finally at Dodge City, where 1887 saw the end of the use of the famous Abilene cattle trail.

The phrase "Road to Abilene" means a difficult and painstaking task that ultimately leads to the accomplishment of a goal or objective. The phase refers to the arduous journey of these early cattlemen on the frontier of the American West.

Much of this article is based on original text written by Frank W. Blackmar in 1912.


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