Mar 112013

John ChisumJohn Chisum was an extremely successful cattleman in New Mexico during the period following the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865). As the size of his herd grew, Chisum clashed with the owners of smaller ranches, who resented his efforts to graze his cattle on land that they were accustomed to using. The violence escalated, culminating in a series of shootouts in 1877, which was called the Pecos County War. Suspecting that the House, a clique of businessmen led by James Dolan that dominated Lincoln County, were the primary buyers of beef rustled from his herd, Chisum was a principal backer of Alex McSween and John Tunstall when they competed against the House. However, he did not take part in the Lincoln County War, which erupted after Tunstall was killed by a sheriff’s posse loyal to Dolan in 1878. Afterwards, Chisum played a key role in the election of Pat Garrett as sheriff of Lincoln County, and Garrett killed or captured several of the most dangerous rustlers, including William Bonney (Billy the Kid). Once the plague of rustlers had been dealt with, Chisum’s ranch boomed for several years, but he died of cancer in 1884.

Early Life

John Simpson Chisum was born on August 16, 1824 in Hardeman County, Tennessee. Chisum’s father and grandfather had surveyed land in Tennessee bought from the Chickasaw Indians by the federal government, and had been paid with grants of land, so the family was well-off with large landholdings and numerous slaves. Encouraged by favorable reports from friends who had already gone to Texas, the family moved to Paris, Texas in 1837, probably motivated by the need for more land for the increasingly large family. By the time Chisum had become a teenager, his father often led expeditions against the Indian tribes that resisted the settlers’ encroachment into their territory. Chisum grew up working on his family’s farm and then found employment as a building contractor as the town of Paris expanded. After winning election as county clerk in 1852, he relied on his position to engage in land speculation. During the same period of time, he pursued an unknown woman, but her rejection of his marriage proposal likely helped fuel his decision to not seek re-election, and he was a lifelong bachelor.

Receiving financial backing from Stephen Fowler, a silent partner, Chisum entered the cattle business, buying and selling cattle in Texas. He built a house near the settlement of Bolivar, and let his herd of cattle roam in the area. Already sufficiently wealthy to purchase a slave to be his housekeeper, Chisum proved to be a successful cattleman, and he became known for the hospitality of his house. The ranch’s brand was the Long Rail, a horizontal line that crossed almost the entire side of a cow, and he also cut the left ears of his cattle in half so that one half dangled like a Jinglebob, part of a spur. The cattle business required a huge amount of capital and it would be years before there was any revenue, therefore many ranchers were in debt for long periods of time. Chisum was no exception, but he had 36,000 cattle, 11,000 sheep and six slaves by 1860.

When the Civil War (1861-1865) broke out, Chisum did not publicly choose a side, but as a slave-owner, his sympathies were undoubtedly with the Confederacy. While he did not serve in the army, he became a quartermaster for the state’s troops and he agreed to have his cowboys help protect settlers in the area against Indian raids, since the Union garrisons had been withdrawn. Regardless of his personal sympathies, Chisum does not appear to have much faith in the future of the Confederacy since he insisted that he receive payment for a herd of cattle driven to Vicksburg, Mississippi in gold, not Confederate currency. The situation became difficult when most of his cowboys enlisted in the Confederate army, leaving the ranch defenceless against Indians, who stole many of his horses and burned the grass used to feed his cows.

After ending his relationship with Fowler, his silent partner, in the fall of 1863, Chisum led a small drive to New Mexico because the market for beef in Texas was limited, especially after the Civil War. In the spring of 1866, cattlemen Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving organized a large drive to Fort Stanton, New Mexico to sell beef to the Indian Agency. They made a huge profit, and the trail became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Chisum made other drives to Fort Stanton during the rest of the decade, and he began to settle at Roswell, buying a trading post at the area. He became increasingly successful, and would hold several cattle drives a year.

Despite occasional Indian raids, Chisum had transferred his entire operation from Texas to New Mexico by 1872. The Indian raids were always met with retaliation, and Chisum stole a considerable number of horses from the Indians. In fact, the outlaw Jesse Evans, who originally rode for Chisum, claimed that Chisum encouraged his cowboys to steal from the Indians, and even paid a generous price for stolen horses. Chisum’s fortunes improved in 1874, when the cavalry ended the threat of Indian raids and he won the contract to supply beef to the Apache Indians on the local reservation. Chisum quickly grew famous, and newspapers were calling him the Cattle King of the Pecos by 1875.

Pecos County War

Faced with a rapidly growing herd, Chisum needed as much grassland as possible, so he claimed roughly two hundred miles of the best grazing land along the Pecos River in 1876. This action was resented by the small ranchers and farmers who lived in the Seven Rivers area, and were already accustomed to grazing on the same land. A further cause of friction was the appearance in military slaughterhouses of cows with his brand that had been altered to resemble other ranchers’ brands. Not only were other herds expanding at the cost of his own herd but two of his cowboys had been shot while checking herds for Chisum cattle.

The Seven Rivers ranchers were backed by the James Dolan-Lawrence Murphy clique in Lincoln County, and the clique bought cattle from the ranches without looking too closely at the brands. Lawrence Murphy had even bought a ranch in the Seven Rivers area, and the ranch’s herd grew surprisingly quickly, therefore Chisum naturally suspected that his cows had been absorbed, especially since Murphy used the “Arrow Brand,” which was easy to convert from the “Long Rail” by adding an arrow tip and fletching.

Tired of the rustling, Chisum hired gun hands to enforce ownership of his herd. Chisum gun hand Jim Highsaw killed Dick Smith, a suspected cattle rustler, on March 28, 1877. Witnesses claimed that Highsaw had shot Smith in the back, and Highsaw was indicted for murder. Since Chiusm made no attempt to back him against the law, Highsaw sought safety in Texas. The killing heightened tensions between Chisum and the small ranchers, especially after Chisum said that he needed to kill six more Seven Rivers thieves: Nathan Underwood, Louis Paxton, Charlie Woltz, Hugh Beckwith, Bill Johnson and Buck Powell. Chisum’s request for assistance against the rustlers was refused by Captain George Purington, the commander of Fort Stanton, who stated that rustling was a civilian matter, so it was the responsibility of Sheriff Brady of Lincoln County. Brady was believed to be unwilling to act against his friend Murphy, but the Seven Rivers area was outside of his jurisdiction anyway.

Hoping to resolve the issue through overwhelming force, Chisum sent thirty of his cowboys to surround Hugh Beckwith’s house on April 20, 1877. Refusing to surrender, Beckwith and his family were kept under siege for two days until a number of Chisum cowboys refused to continue, claiming that their wage of $30 a month was barely enough to cover their official work, never mind risk their lives in a gunfight. Instead of teaching rustlers a lesson, he had simply angered violent men, turning them into enemies. Worse, Chisum was threatened with warrants until he paid back wages to Seven Rivers cowboys who had worked for a period of time for Chisum. Since Chisum was ill with smallpox during a good portion of the Pecos War, the fighting was likely led by his brother Pitser.

Chisum’s brother James brought his two sons Will and Walter, and daughter Sallie to the ranch on December 24, 1877. Since Chisum had never married, his niece would take charge of managing the house and hosting any events, even though she was only sixteen-years-old.

Lincoln County War

The Santa Fe Ring was a group of powerful businessmen and politicians, including Samuel Axtell, Thomas Catron and William Rynerson, that was based in the capital of New Mexico. The Ring dealt with the House in Lincoln County, which was run by Lawrence Murphy, James Dolan and John Riley. As the local district attorney, Catron had frequently prosecuted Chisum in court, giving the cattleman the impression that Catron’s goal was to weaken his claim to his extensive grazing lands, which would then be occupied by ranchers friendly to Catron.

However, the status quo was changing rapidly. Dolan and Riley had purchased Murphy’s share in the business in 1877, forming J.J. Dolan and Co. Alexander McSween and his wife Sue had arrived in Lincoln County in March 1875, and he initially worked for Murphy and Dolan, although he also handled some cases for Chisum.

Having familiarized himself with the operations of the House, McSween felt that he could run a more successful business. Although he lacked the start-up capital, he did have property, since Murphy was low on funds and had transferred the deed to an old store building and 40 acres of land to McSween in payment for legal services. McSween had a large U-shaped adobe house built on the property near the store. The capital for a store appeared in the person of John Tunstall, a rich Englishman who was only twenty-four-years-old when he arrived in Lincoln County in 1877. However, Chisum and his partner R. D. Hunter provided most of the capital for a bank. Chisum was a natural ally for Tunstall and McSween since he controlled a large share of the national market for beef, but had been locked out of the local market by the House. Aside from their domination of local commerce, the House relied on stolen cattle to meet the low prices that they had used to win the contract to supply the reservations with beef. They undercut Chisum by selling stolen cattle, which had been rustled from his herds, therefore Chisum wanted to back Tunstall and McSween in their attempt to win the government contract, which would immediately end the market for rustled cattle. Moreover, Chisum needed McSween to defend him against the flood of lawsuits that he received from the Seven Rivers ranchers.

Direct opposition to the House had consequences, since Dolan was backed by the Sana Fe Ring, so District Attorney Catron of Santa Fe and District Attorney Rynerson of Mesilla swore out warrants against Chisum and McSween, who were arrested on December 18, 1877 during a trip to Las Vegas. McSween posted bond and returned to Lincoln, but Chisum was still in jail in February 1878, when pressure by Dolan drove Tunstall to send a message to Chisum asking for help. Chisum’s brothers rejected the plea, but it is unknown if they were following Chisum’s instructions or not. Realizing that Dolan would not meekly surrender his control of the county, Tunstall had hired several cowboys for their skill with a gun, but he had underestimated Dolan’s willingness to use violence to crush any competition. When legal pressure failed to frighten Tunstall into leaving Lincoln, he was killed by members of a sheriff’s posse loyal to Dolan on February 18, 1878.

The murder of Tunstall sparked a war between his supporters, led by McSween, and Dolan’s faction. Believing that Dolan controlled the law in the county, the Justice of the Peace swore out a warrant against all of the members of the sheriff’s posse, and made Tunstall’s foreman, Dick Brewer, a special constable to enforce the warrants. Brewer formed his own posse, using Tunstall’s cowboys, as the core, and they called themselves the Regulators. Both sides claimed legal authority, and open warfare broke out. The death toll mounted on both sides until McSween died during a five-day-long battle in Lincoln Town in mid-July, ending the Lincoln County War.

Even though his decision to back Tunstall and McSween against the House had been a key factor that had started the war, Chisum played no part in the formation of the Regulators or the hunt for men who had killed Tunstall. In fact, he limited his involvement to providing the Regulators with fresh horses and sanctuary when they were pursued by Dolan’s posse. Chisum’s powerful force of cowboys would have tipped the scale in McSween’s favor, and would have probably intimidated Dolan into backing down, but Chisum remained neutral once the shooting started, even though the Seven Rivers ranchers were active participants in Dolan’s posses. As a result, he emerged untouched by the end of the Lincoln County War.

Final Years

The large-scale rustling that was carried out for a couple of years after the Lincoln County War by a number of gangs, in particular one that included William Bonney, took a heavy toll on Chisum’s herds. The ranchers and farmers at Fort Sumner and the nearby Pecos Valley soon became fed up with the plague of robbery and violence, which would only end when the numerous outlaws were either dead or gone. Since Sheriff George Kimball liked to play cards with Bonney, it was unlikely that he would arrest Bonney, so Chisum and Lincoln County Commissioner Joseph Lea convinced Pat Garrett to move from Fort Sumner, located just outside Lincoln County, and run for sheriff against Kimball. Bonney and several other rustlers were hunted down and captured by a posse led by Sheriff Pat Garrett, who killed Bonney after his daring escape from the Lincoln jail.

With the most dangerous rustlers dead or in prison, Chisum was well-positioned for the cattle boom that took place in the early 1880s. Chisum imported bulls from Kentucky to improve the quality of his herd. The original adobe house on the ranch had been built to serve as a fort when necessary, but by 1878 Chisum clearly felt that the region had become safer, since he tore it down to construct a more comfortable adobe building with nine rooms on either side, so it was called the “Long House.” Chisum spent a great deal of money to buy rose bushes and fruit trees to transform the bleak area into a more hospitable home.

At his peak, Chisum had 100 cowboys and a herd of 80,000 steers, controlling but not owning a million acres of land. Unlike the stereotypical image of the cowboy, he never wore a gunbelt, but aware of the dangers of the frontier, he always made sure he had a gun nearby, either on his horse or his buggy. A skilled self-promoter, he would stop by the newspaper office of every town to introduce himself. While opinions about his character differ, everyone agrees that he had a strong personality.

An operation to remove a tumor in his throat was successful in July 1884, but the tumor returned, larger than before, and he died on December 22, 1884. His brothers James and Pitser received the ranch, which proved to be worth less than people had believed. Chisum had been successfully sued for $57,000 shortly before he died by a group of claimants represented by Chisum’s old enemy Thomas Catron, head of the Santa Fe Ring. Without Chisum’s steadying hand, the ranch began to decline, since his brothers James and Pitser were not skilled businessmen, and the ranch had to declare bankruptcy on December 10, 1890.

A myth has grown up around Chisum where he is portrayed as the hero of the Lincoln County War, who battled rustlers to carve out a cattle empire, even though he remained safely outside the fighting. In addition, he was often confused with Jesse Chisolm, the pioneer of the Chisholm Trail. While none of those myths are true, he did introduce cattle ranching to New Mexico, and helped settle an empty land.

Related Movies:

ChisumChisum (1970)

Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, starring John Wayne and Geoffrey Deuel
Cattle baron John Chisum finds himself drawn into the Lincoln County War when he helps Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett try to stop Lawrence Murphy from taking over the county. (full review)

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah, starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson
Pat Garrett is hired to hunt down Billy the Kid.

Young Guns IIYoung Guns II (1990)

Directed by Geoff Murphy, starring Emilio Estevez and Keifer Sutherland
The survivors of the first movie are hunted down by Pat Garrett, Billy’s former partner, as Billy tries to lead them to Mexico and safety. (full review)

Further Reading:

John Simpson Chisum: Cattle King of the Pecos Revisited-Clifford R. Caldwell, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2010.

Caldwell is very pro-Chisum, describing any criticism of the man as carping, instead of simply admitting that opinions differed. It is not a long book, and only 133 pages cover Chiusm himself, while the rest are appendixes that deal with genealogy of Chisum’s family. The author explains that there are simply not enough reliable sources to give a detailed picture of the man. Although the length is unsatisfying, Caldwell deserves credit for the dedication required to produce this book.