Sometimes to tell one man’s story, another man’s story must be told first.
John S. Chisum was born in Tennessee in 1824. He came to Texas with a group of his family in 1837. While working as a store clerk, Chisum became acquainted with the area and began accumulating land and cattle. By 1860, he was running over 5,000 head of cattle, owned slaves, and was considered a major cattleman in North Texas.
Chisum was exempted from Civil War service. In 1863, he trailed a herd to Vicksburg to sell to the Confederate forces.
Because of Indian and water issues in the North Texas area, Chisum started moving his operations west toward Coleman County (near Abilene). By 1866, Chisum was selling cattle to the Army at Ft. Sumner, New Mexico to feed Navajo held there. Chisum also started supplying cattle to Charles Goodnight to trail north.
Chisum moved his operations about 30 miles north of Ft. Sumner. Accompanying Chisum was his two brothers, Pitzer and James, and their families. Chisum was considered a major figure in the cattle industry for over thirty years. His herd, besides having the “long rail” brand, carried the iconic “jingle bob” ear notching. His notoriety extended to his involvement in the Lincoln County wars.
When lawyer Alexander McSween and a young Englishman, John H. Tunstall, began competing with local merchants Lawrence G. Murphy and James Dolan in the tiny community of Lincoln, New Mexico, in the late 1870s. The resulting conflict between the two groups culminated in the Lincoln County War.
John Chisum never married. He died of cancer in 1884. His estate was divided among his family, including two daughters whom he fathered with a mulatto slave in his home.
One of the slaves owned by John Chisum was a young man named Frank. Frank came into Chisum’s possession sometime around 1861. How Frank was bought has been described in a number of ways. One story was that Frank was an ex-slave purchased by Chisum for $6,200 worth of cattle near Vicksburg in 1862. Another described Chisum buying Frank and his younger brother, Tom while in Bolivar, Denton County, Texas. A further story described Chisum buying Frank (named Benjamin Franklin Daley) for $400 in Fort Worth. In the “History of New Mexico,” Frank was purchased by Chisum when Frank was aged 4 in 1861. Another report describes Chisum buying Frank and his brother, Tom, from a Dr. W. E. Dailey in Denton County. A story in the Roswell Daily Record claims after selling cattle in Vicksburg, Chisum saw a cold and hungry 4 year old Frank trailing behind a “tramp.” Allegedly, Chisum gave the tramp a horse for the boy. Another report states that Chisum bought Frank in Fort Worth for $400.
Thus begins the convergence of the lives of two very different men; one, a Caucasian rancher on the way to becoming one of the most well known in the west and the other, a young African-American slave who would also become the rancher’s “son,” most trusted wrangler, and bodyguard. The lives of John Chisum and the slave, Frank would remain entwined for the remainder of John Chisum’s life.
Frank was born a slave, reportedly in Georgia, somewhere in 1856-1857. Chisum was trailing cattle to Confederate forces in 1861 where their paths could have crossed. Chisum also had a ranch headquarters in Denton County, Texas where Bolivar is located, which makes the purchase there and in Ft. Worth a possibility. Frank would have been approximately five or six years old when he was bought by John Chisum. There is no information related to “Tom,” said to be Frank’s younger brother, though he reappears later in Frank’s life.
Regardless of how the relationship came to be, Frank became a part of the Chisum household.
There was also gossip was that Frank was Chisum’s son, since Chisum had two children with “mulatto house servant.” However, there is no evidence of such relationship. Frank was taught to read and write along with Chisum’s nieces and nephews.
Frank arrived in New Mexico with Chisum in 1867 and was one of the earliest African-American residents of Pecos Valley. Reports state that Frank was a talented cowpuncher, wrangler, and chuck wagon cook.
Frank was present during the Lincoln County Wars. He trailed cattle on the Goodnight-Loving Trail with Chisum. Frank reportedly claimed he “rode and ate with Billy the Kid.”
Frank remained in New Mexico with John Chisum throughout his life. A much repeated story concerns Frank’s care for Chisum. In 1880s, while trailing cattle, Chisum came down with small pox. Frank rode for help to Fort Stanton. Later, Frank remained with Chisum until he was well. When Frank developed the disease, Chisum is reported to have cared for Frank until he, too, recovered.
In the later 1880s, Chisum reportedly gave Frank as many as 200 heifers to start his own herd. (this could have been in recompense for wages due) Frank had his own brand “VF.” Frank probably grazed his herd on Chisum land as well as open range.
Chisum succumbed to cancer in 1884 and was buried in the family plot in Paris, Lamar County, Texas. Frank was included in Chisum’s will with bequests of ranch land near Roswell, New Mexico and money.
After Chisum’s death, the heirs invited Frank to join his herd with theirs. He declined, stating that he liked knowing which cows were his. (This was shown to be a good choice since shortly the Chisum empire collapsed.) Frank continued performing ranch work for other “cow outfits” in the area including the Blocks, Bar Vs, Circle Diamonds, Diamond Az, Flying Hs and others.
Frank filed a homestead claim in 1891 and later bought several lots in Roswell. He reportedly visited friends and relatives in Oklahoma and Texas in 1900.
Frank was married twice. His first wife was Jane Allen, whom he married in 1909. Mrs. Allen had three children prior to the marriage. She filed for divorce for abandonment and failure to support and they divorced in 1913. Frank’s second wife, married in 1920, was Jennie Wright who died of the flu in 1923. There is no evidence that Frank had any children.
Frank retired in Roswell and worked as janitor at Colored School. It is reported that Frank started the African-American Masonic lodge in Roswell and was in good standing with the lodge when he died.
Frank allegedly visited his brother in Wichita Falls in 1914, called a “rich negro rancher visiting brother” by the local newspaper.
As Frank neared the end of his life, he was renown in Roswell and well recognized at old-timers reunions. He was known for his ability to remember the people, places and events he had witnessed.
The Amarillo Daily News reported in 1929 that Frank was returning to Texas after spending 63 years in New Mexico. Again, Frank’s story takes a variety of directions. Some report Frank wished to be buried near “Uncle John” in Lamar County and further, that he was buried there. There was also the story that Frank moved to California and lived out the remainder of his life in Watts.
However, for this event in Frank’s life, there is evidence of what actually occurred. Sally Chisum’s (John Chisum’s niece) diary reported Frank was returning to live with his brother in Wichita Falls. The ledger for Lakeview Cemetery in Wichita Falls shows the interment of B. F. Chisum in 1929. At present time, there is no headstone marking Frank’s grave.
Tom, Frank’s brother, was found continuing to live in Texas. A Tom Chism (colored) was noted to live in Commerce, Texas in 1905. Tom Chism is first found in the City Directory of Wichita Falls, Texas in 1919. The Wichita Falls Daily Times in 1927 showed a marriage license issued to Tom Chism and Maggie Harris.
We can surmise that Frank did return to Wichita Falls and lived with his brother, Tom, until Frank’s death in 1929. There is also evidence that Tom sold land in Wichita Falls in 1934. According to Lakeview Cemetery Ledger, Maggie Chism was buried there in 1934. Thereafter, Tom disappears from the City Directories.
The arc of Frank Chism’s life is truly extraordinary. His life has been documented and his likeness has been memorialized in art. Born in slavery before the Civil War, by chance, he becomes the “adopted son” of a man who would become the most famous rancher in New Mexico history, John S. Chisum. He would learn to read and write along with the other children of the Chisum family. Growing up on the Chisum ranch, Frank turned into a trusted cowboy with responsibilities on the ranch and earned the respect of other cowboys and of the Chisum family. He would ultimately own land and cattle on his own with his own brand. Frank would be recognized for his talents as a cow-puncher, wrangler, and chuck wagon cook. Frank was frequently given a “place of honor” at pioneer reunions in New Mexico, based on his reputation developed by serving for more than half a century as one of the “boys of the cow outfits.”
Frank Chisum now lies in an unmarked grave in Lakeview Cemetery in Wichita Falls, Texas.