John Simpson Chisum, pioneer cattleman, son of Claiborne C. and Lucinda (Chisum) Chisum, was born in Hardeman County, Tennessee, on August 16, 1824. His parents were cousins. He was reared on his grandfather's plantation, one of five children, and accompanied his parents and a group of relatives to Red River County, Texas, during the summer of 1837. Claiborne Chisum, probably the earliest settler in Paris, Texas, was public-spirited and wealthy. John Chisum worked as a store clerk in Paris, served briefly as a road overseer in Hopkins County, accumulated land, operated several small grocery stores, was a member of the I.O.O.F. Lodge, and held the office of Lamar county clerk from 1852 to 1854. With Stephen K. Fowler, a New Orleans investor, he filed on land in northwestern Denton County, purchased a partnership herd, and entered the cattle business with the Half Circle P brand. Chisum also managed herds for neighboring families and various partners and shared in the calves. He became an active cattle dealer in search of markets and drove a small herd to a packing house in Jefferson. By 1860 he was running 5,000 head of cattle, which he valued at $35,000, owned six slaves, and was considered a major cattleman in North Texas.
At the outbreak of the Civil War Chisum was exempted from service and placed in charge of several herds in his district. Early in 1862 he took a herd across Arkansas to the Confederate forces at Vicksburg but thereafter exhibited little interest in the Southern cause. In the fall of 1863, suffering from Indian raids and drought, he and other cowmen in the Denton area started moving herds to Coleman County, where they camped on the Concho River near its junction with the Colorado. He terminated ties with Fowler and received cattle for land. Chisum and his partners soon had 18,000 head grazing along the Colorado.
In the fall of 1866 he joined Charles Goodnight and others driving cattle to feed the 8,000 Navajos on the Bosque Redondo Reservation near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Chisum wintered 600 steers near Bosque Grande, below Fort Sumner, and in the spring sold his herd and contracted to furnish additional cattle. The market vanished in 1868, when the army resettled the Navajos in Arizona. Chisum arranged to supply Goodnight, now ranching in Colorado, with Texas cattle for markets there and in Wyoming. For three years he delivered 10,000 head annually to Goodnight crews at Bosque Grande, for one dollar a head over Texas prices. During this period he adopted the Long Rail brand and the Jinglebob earmark for his herds.
In 1872 Chisum abandoned his base in Texas and established his headquarters at Bosque Grande; he claimed a range extending more than 100 miles down the Pecos. He loosed herds obtained from Robert K. Wylie, the Coggin brothers, and others in West Texas with his own for fattening and sought markets in New Mexico, Arizona, and Kansas. In the summer of 1874 Chisum won a contract to provide beef to several Apache reservations in New Mexico, only to have his operations crippled by marauding Indians. His total stock losses from 1868 to 1874 reached $150,000, the largest in the nation. In November of 1875 he transferred his livestock holdings, estimated at over 60,000 head of cattle, to Hunter, Evans, and Company, a St. Louis beef-commission house, which assumed his indebtedness, mostly for Texas cattle, of over $200,000. Chisum settled at South Spring River, near Roswell, New Mexico.
As he helped Hunter and Evans gather cattle for markets, horse thieves and renegade Indians struck branding crews and horse herds. Lincoln County authorities and the army at Fort Stanton offered little help. Simultaneously, Chisum was drawn into the Lincoln County range war of 1878 by festering difficulties generated by his attorney, Alexander A. McSween, and rancher John H. Tunstall, who defied Judge Lawrence G. Murphy's economic stranglehold on the county. In the summer of 1878, with both Tunstall and McSween dead and the county in chaos, Chisum and Hunter and Evans cleared their cattle from the Pecos. A small herd of Jinglebob heifers, wintering on the Canadian River in the Panhandle, was transferred to Pitser and James Chisum, John's brothers, as payment for their years of service. In 1879 the Chisums adopted the U brand and returned to South Springs, built a comfortable ranchhouse, improved their cattle, and became active in local and territorial livestock associations.
Chisum was a major figure in the southwestern cattle industry for nearly thirty years, eighteen of which (1854–72) were in Texas. He located immense herds on the open range near running water and controlled surrounding pastures by right of occupancy. He never claimed to be a traildriver, nor did he spend much time at the ranch or on the range. Personable and shrewd, he primarily was a cattle dealer who traveled in search of markets. His colorful and eccentric life epitomized the adventurous world of open-range cattle operations that set the tone for the industry after the Civil War. Chisum was reared in the Cumberland Presbyterian faith, took no interest in politics, and never married—although it is widely believed that he fathered two daughters by one of his slaves, a woman named Jensie. He died of cancer at Eureka Springs, Arkansas, on December 22, 1884, and was buried in Paris, Texas.