Marking the Chisholm Trail
Let me know if you’ve seen one of these: an iron plate about 24 inches in diameter, with the figure of a longhorn in the middle. Above and below the longhorn, the legend, “Going Up the Texas Chisholm Trail 1867.” Near the bottom, a saddle astride what appears to be a chain of prickly pear pads. The whole thing mounted on a post, as a road sign.
The object in question was not a road sign on the old Chisholm cattle trail, although that might have been helpful at the time. It is, rather, a historical marker dreamed up and emplaced during the 1930s by a fellow named P. P. Ackley.
This fellow Ackley is said to have had some sort of involvement with cattle trailing, but his bona fides in that regard are unclear. One source says he was in Dodge City as a boy and trailed a herd up to Ogallala in 1878, later serving as a brand inspector. Another says he was “an old-time Texas cowboy,” still another calls him a “southwestern cattleman.”
The story of Ackley’s Chisholm Trail makers even attracted the attention of the PBS television show, The History Detectives, which scarcely got to the bottom of the story, merely calling Ackley “a wealthy oil man.” It appears, in fact, he was a stockman who lived in Elk City, Oklahoma, and owned property in the Texas Panhandle, from which he was fortunate enough to have natural gas royalties. A widower in the early 1930s, he was looking for a cause for personal fulfillment.
The Chisholm Trail, or rather its memory, became that cause. Which was all well and good, except that Ackley had a liberal and ahistorical idea as to just what constituted the historic Chisholm Trail. In his mind, it seems, any place cattle might have walked to on the prairies was part of the Chisholm Trail.
Members of the Old Time Trail Drivers’ Association protested that only the Indian Territory segment of the Texas-to-Abilene cattle trail rightly should be called the Chisholm Trail, but they lost that battle, as the public considered the whole trail properly so named. Ackley stretched the Chisholm Trail way south to Donna, in South Texas–evidently because he had a winter home there–and so one of his markers still stands there.
Another stands in his home town of Elk City, which never was on the Chisholm Trail by any stretch of the imagination. It was on the Western Cattle Trail. Likewise an Ackley Chisholm Trail marker was placed at Doan’s Crossing of the Red River, also on the Western Trail.
The truth is, I don’t know where all Ackley, who traveled around placing signs himself, put his Chisholm Trail markers. He talked about taking them all the way to Bismarck, North Dakota, and even into Canada. He might have planted one wherever he liked what he had for breakfast.
I know for sure he planted two of his Chisholm Trail markers in Scranton, North Dakota. One of them reposes now in the Pioneer Trails Historical Museum of Bowman, in fine shape, still commemorating the Chisholm Trail–600 miles away from any part of that historic cattle trail.