John Simpson Chisum was born on August 16, 1824 in Hardeman County, Tennessee to Claiborne C. and Lucinda Armstrong Chisum. John moved to Texas when he was still a youth of 13. He resided in what is Lamar County in the general vicinity of what is now Paris, Texas. It is believed that he was living in North Texas near the Cook and Denton County border at least until about the age of 30. He is thought to have been in the cattle business there, supplying beef to the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After the end of the war, he moved his operation first to a location on the Concho River. Some time later, Chisum moved to the New Mexico Territory, near the present town of Roswell, and began a ranching operation utilizing the valuable water of the Pecos River. It was said that at one time, Chisum’s ranch was one hundred fifty miles wide, but control of the Pecos River Valley was likely its greatest asset.
His name sounds similar to Chisholm and he is often confused with having some relationship to the Chisholm Trail. The existence and route of the trail itself is a matter of controversy, since many historians think it was much shorter and smaller than is still widely thought and portrayed. However, Chisum is unrelated to Jesse Chisholm for whom the Chisholm Trail is named, to the best of our knowledge. Chisum was known to have had some dealings in the cattle business with Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving but is not believed to have been directly involved in the cattle drives that the two are associated with, except to have possibly furnished some of the cattle for them. He is well known in New Mexico as a stockman. At one time, he is said to have had a herd of 80,000 cattle and his reputation as a cattleman is well deserved. He was called upon to defend it many times from rustlers and Native American tribes, and managed to do it.
He was in the cattle business when the so called Lincoln County War began in the late 1870s. This conflict is generally described as a economic conflict between two factions of land owners/businessmen and their supporters. On the one hand, there was a British rancher by the name of John Tunstall and his business partner Alexander McSween, while on the other hand there were businessmen loyal to Irishmen James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy who began the affair with wide economic control of much of the commerce in the area. Though some might dismiss Chisum as a bystander in the conflict, Chisum was aligned with the Tunstall/McSween group and was believed to be a financial backer. He is not thought to have taken an active part in the gun play. He was also a good twenty years older than Tunstall and McSween. Both factions were essentially fighting for the economic control of Lincoln County.
Dolan and Murphy generally had the upper hand in the conflict, which quickly escalated to a shooting war. The end result included deaths on either side of the conflict and Dolan’s group surviving to retain its control. The conflict also resulted in the emergence of William Bonney, or Billy the Kid, and his becoming known as a gunman for a rather short time until he met his own death. In the end, Dolan and his group withstood the challenge and economically enjoyed their victory for some years afterward. There were numerous killings and other crimes committed, but a general amnesty was ordered by then Territorial Governor Lew Wallace. As far as we can tell, only the individual known as Billy the Kid and possibly a soldier or two from Fort Stanton were ever tried for crimes related to the shooting war.
Following the conflict, Chisum returned to operating his ranch holdings in Chaves County. Both of his parents had died of cancer. Chisum himself developed a tumor or growth in his neck and died on December 22, 1884 at the age of sixty in Eureka Springs, Arkansas where he was seeking treatment. His remains were transported to Texas where he was interred in the Chisum Family Cemetery in Lamar County. Chisum left no legal descendants as heirs, to the best of our knowledge.
Chisum was never formally married, although he is thought to have lived with one woman, a mulatto slave whom he reportedly purchased at age 15. Her name was Jensie Chisum and she had lived with him as far back as when he had a ranch in Denton County, Texas. Together they had at least two daughters, Harriet (born in 1855) and Almeady (born in 1857). It is believed that Chisum set them up in a residence in North Texas and they did not travel with him to the Concho or to New Mexico. Jensie’s date of death is unknown but both of the named daughters grew up, married and lived in North Texas until the mid 1900s. Jensie and Harriet are thought to be buried in non cemetery graves near Bonham, Texas. Almeady is buried in what is now known as Southlake, Texas.
A fair number of books have been written about John Chisum. He has also been portrayed in films and television. The John Wayne movie Chisum is loosely based on the life of Chisum. The plot of this film uses historical names of many of the participants in the Lincoln County War. It might be interesting to compare historical facts with this film, but the film does not appear to converge with the facts in very many ways.
Chisum’s life was interesting on its own, however, and he was one of several unique individuals who influenced the area during his time in southeastern New Mexico.
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