JOHN SIMPSON CHISUM
The Cattle King of the Pecos Revisited
John Simpson Chisum was a towering figure on the western cattle frontier. At the height of his operations as the “Cattle King of the Pecos,” Chisum employed 100 riders and ran 80,000 head of “Jinglebobs” on an enormous range that he pre-empted in New Mexico.
Born in Tennessee in 1824, he was prophetically nicknamed “Cow John” as a boy. The Chisum family moved to Texas, where John became a merchant and county official at Paris in northeast Texas. But by the 1850s the range cattle industry was developing in Texas, and at thirty Chisum plunged into the colorful business that was destined to captivate the American public. He bought and traded and sold livestock, led cattle drives, and was designated a beef supplier for Confederate troops. He was paid $40 per head in Confederate money, and following each sale he bought more cattle. By war’s end Chisum had converted the ultimately worthless currency to livestock, and in time he would complain, “I’m in great trouble because I cannot dispose of my stock as fast as it increases.”
A couple of years after the Civil War he moved from West Texas to an isolated range along the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. By this time Chisum had devised the “Long Rail” brand, a straight line burned on the left flank from hip to shoulder. The Long Rail was easy to alter with a running iron, but Chisum’s cattle also wore the distinctive “jinglebob” earmark. A slice of a pocketknife left the bottom two-thirds of the ear dangling and swinging “just like an earring.”
Chisum’s sprawling rangelands and vast herds of cattle and horses were tempting targets for rustlers and Indian raiders. But many of his riders were as good with a gun as a lasso, and Chisum often struck back. He was reputed to run roughshod over small ranchers, he was widely suspected of shady dealings, and he was connected to the infamous Lincoln County War. But through ambition and relentless effort Chisum became one of the great cattle barons of the Old West.
I first wrote about John Chisum more than a decade ago in Historic Ranches of the Old West. I visited his famous South Spring ranch headquarters in New Mexico, along with his grave in Paris and other sites. I studied the articles on Chisum by Harwood P. Hinton. These three articles were published in the New Mexico Historical Review in 1956 and 1957, and Dr. Hinton continued to research Chisum, an investigation which has lasted for more than half a century. Dr. Hinton is the leading authority on John Chisum, and I have been privileged to discuss with him his work on the cattle king and to hear him reflect at great length on Chisum. I could not resist asking if he intended to write a biography, but he feels that Chisum is too elusive for proper biographical treatment.
Nevertheless, a biography of this important westerner is long overdue, and western author Clifford R. Caldwell at last has provided this book-length study. Caldwell consulted with Harwood Hinton, and he pored over the work of other authors who have written about Chisum. He traveled to all of the Chisum sites, he combed numerous archival collections, and he demonstrated special command of the Lincoln County War and Chisum’s role in this notorious conflict. Caldwell has put together the historic saga of an enigmatic legend of the range cattle frontier, and it is a pleasure to read about Chisum’s adventurous life.
—Bill O’Neal, Carthage, Texas