John Simpson Chisum

American rancher John Simpson Chisum (1824-1884) was one of the first cattlemen in New Mexico, and he was identified with the Lincoln County War of 1878-1879.

John Chisum was born on his grandfather's plantation in western Tennessee on Aug. 16, 1824. When he was 13, his parents settled in the growing community of Paris, Tex. Apparently he had no formal education but worked at odd jobs. At 28 he became county clerk and began speculating in real estate in the surrounding counties. For reasons of health he wanted work outdoors as a rancher, so 2 years later he formed a partnership with Stephen K. Fowler of New York, who invested $6,000 in cattle, with Chisum agreeing to manage the enterprise for a share in the profits. They placed stock on a range north of present Fort Worth and applied for a land patent. By 1860 Chisum evaluated his half interest at $50,000.

When Texas joined the Confederacy in 1861, Chisum, exempt from military service, became a beef supplier for the troops in the Trans-Mississippi Department. At the close of the war he was among the first to drive Texas cattle into eastern New Mexico to sell to the military and Native American reservations. He had a thousand head near Roswell, N. Mex., in 1867. He made an agreement with Charles Good-night to deliver additional herds to that point to be driven northward by Goodnight's trail hands. Chisum became a New Mexico resident and established a series of ranches along the Pecos River for 150 miles. In 1875 he won the contract to furnish beef to all agencies for Native Americans in Arizona Territory. Employing a hundred cowboys to handle 80,000 head, he became known as the "Pecos Valley Cattle King."

Many aspects of Chisum's career have been subject to debate. Considered a man of integrity, he was involved in business deals that led to prolonged litigation, and he spent at least one short period in jail. He employed gunmen to protect his herds from cattle rustlers and Indians. With two other men he established the Lincoln County Bank in Sante Fe, but the murder of one led to an outbreak of violence. In this Lincoln County War the outlaw Billy the Kid was rumored to be in Chisum's employ. Chisum was largely responsible for the election of a new sheriff of Lincoln County, and when the sheriff shot Billy the Kid, Chisum breathed more easily. Chisum also claimed friendship with Lew Wallace, who had been sent to New Mexico as territorial governor to restore peace.

Chisum died in 1884 in Eureka Springs, Ark., where he was recuperating from an operation. He left an estate estimated at $500,000.


Further Reading on John Simpson Chisum

General histories of New Mexico and accounts of the Lincoln County War in particular have brief biographical sketches of Chisum. Among the more recent are William A. Keleher, The Fabulous Frontier: Twelve New Mexico Items (1945; rev. ed. 1962); Frederick W. Nolan, ed., The Life and Death of John Henry Tunstall: The Letters, Diaries and Adventures of an Itinerant Englishman (1965); and Maurice Garland Fulton, History of the Lincoln County War, edited by Robert N. Mullin (1968). The most authoritative study on Chisum for the 1877-1884 period is by Harwood P. Hinton in the New Mexico Quarterly Review (vols. 31 and 32, 1956-1957). Lewis Atherton made some penetrating observations on Chisum's career in The Cattle Kings (1961).


Additional Biography Sources

Clarke, Mary Whatley, John Simpson Chisum: jinglebob king of the Pecos, Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1984.