Chisholms in America


The Chisholm immigration into America had a very different style than that into Nova Scotia.  First, it started earlier.  The Chisholms who came were not evicted tenants still clinging to their clan roots after the clearances.  They were more economic migrants seeking a new chance and a new life. 

Different Names.  Besides, in the rough-and-tumble society of early America, it was less easy to maintain a clan identity.  Many, hoping to correct mispronunciation in their name, even dropped the second “h” in Chisholm.  There were Chisholms and Chisholmes and Chisolms (and possibly Chisms and Chisoms and Chisums as well) in America from Chisholm Scottish roots.

Early Arrivals.  Some had come to America after the defeat at Culloden.  William Chisholm went to Virginia.  His descendants settled in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.  Other Chisolms arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. 

One Chisolm family moved first to Georgia and then to Kemper County, Mississippi where, later on, William Wallace Chisolm was the local magistrate who incurred the wrath of the Klu Klux Clan.  In 1877, he and two of his children were brutally killed by an enraged mob in what was described as “one of the last outbursts of a lawless South still showing the fires of secession which smouldered amidst the ashes of a lost cause."       

A Merchant/Planter Class 

The plantations that developed on the sea islands south of Charleston in South Carolina were the enterprise of a few enterprising families, the Mackays, LaRoches, Jenkinses, and Chisolms.  These families were interlocked by strong bonds of kinship.  Rare indeed was it to find a family member who was not at least the cousin of someone else’s cousin.

    Alexander Chisolm had emigrated as a boy with his widowed mother from Inverness to South Carolina in 1746.  According to the family account, he was the son of the Laird Collins Chisolm who had been killed at Culloden.  Alexander married Christina Chisholm (no relation) in Charleston and they had six children, five boys and one girl.

Three of these sons became plantation owners and one a physician.  They were the forebears of a short-lived family dynasty that lasted until the Civil War:

The eldest, Alexander Robert, passed his estates onto his son Alexander Robert who was killed during the Civil War.  George lived in a townhouse in Charleston.  He started Chisolm’s rice mill there in the 1820’s.  The rebuilt 1859 mill, a three-storey structure with brick walls, still stands.  Robert Trail Chisolm was a plantation owner and also a physician.  His son, John Chisolm, became an expert oculist and surgeon, publishing in the 1860’s the authoritative guide to military surgery.

By the 1840's, another descendant Robert Chisolm owned rice plantations in both Beaufort and Colleton counties. The Beaufort plantation was on Chisolm's Island and covered 1,500 acres. One hundred slaves worked on this estate and another ninety on the plantation in Colleton County.


The leisured life of a plantation owner, with his overseers and slave labor, came to an abrupt end with the onset of the Civil War and the arrival of Federal troops at these sea islands.  General Sherman reported in November 1861:

“The effect of our victory is startling.  Every inhabitant has left the island.  The wealthy islands are abandoned by the whites and the beautiful estates of the planters, with all their immense property, have been left to the pillage of hordes of apparently disaffected blacks.”

After the war was over, Robert Chisolm tried to restart his plantations, but not with much success. 

At Colleton, the freed slaves had dismantled his cotton gin and other plantation machinery, hauled them to Beaufort, and sold them as scrap iron (whilst pocketing the proceeds).  On Chisolm’s Island, the former slaves were provided with tracts of land and some training as farmers in order to help them become self-sufficient.  Many tried to support their families through fishing and collecting shellfish, as evident by the piles of shells found on the island.  The plantation itself continued with forty former slaves and another thirty recruited from the outside.

African Americans

When the 1870 census came to be held, there were 176 African Americans with given names of Chisolm or Chisholm in South Carolina.  Most were freed slaves.  A few such as Andrew and Betsy Chisolm in Barnwell County had been able to make their living as small-scale cotton farmers prior to emancipation.  

Caesar Chisolm who had worked at the Chisolm plantation in Colleton County, lived until 1897.  Courting the friendship of the white leaders of the time, he represented Colleton County in the South Carolina House of Representatives at Columbia for a number of years.  Ned Chisholm was born a slave in South Carolina who ended up at the Stringfellow plantation in Florida.  He helped build the first Baptist church in Gainesville.  There were also African American Chisolms recorded in Dallas County, Alabama in the years after emancipation.

The “Chisolm Kid” was a popular Western comic strip hero in the black press during the 1930’s and 40’s.  Latter-day Chisholms include Shirley Chisholm the politician (whose roots, however, were Jamaican), Charlie Chisholm the jazz trumpeter, and Sam Chisholm, who runs his own advertising agency.

Heading West

Some Chisholms took to the backwoods, most notably John Chisholm and his enterprising offspring.  John had arrived from Scotland in the 1750’s and, while living in Knoxville, had acted as the Indian agent for William Blount, the state senator for Tennessee.  In that capacity, he had developed an extravagant scheme for the capture of the Spanish territories in North America.  It didn’t materialize.  But his son, John D, who married a Cherokee woman, was involved in various speculative land deals in Florida (then still owned by Spain).  He had been adopted into the Cherokee tribe and represented them in the 1830’s in their negotiations with the US Government.

Jesse Chisholm.  John D’s nephew Jesse, born of a Cherokee mother, became an accomplished trader who would routinely go into hostile Comanche and Kiowa country to trade goods for captives.  When Sam Houston lived with the Cherokees, Chisholm was his close friend and acted as his interpreter at Indian Councils while Houston was president of Texas.

But his fame rests on a later development: 

 “During the Civil War, Jesse Chisholm had moved his family to Wichita in Kansas, although he continued to trade with the Indians in Texas.  In 1865, he loaded wagon trains at Fort Leavenworth and established a trading post at Council Grove near the present Oklahoma City. 

Many of his Wichita friends followed and the route soon became known as the Chisholm Trail.  It was later used by the cowboys to drive their longhorn cattle from the ranches in Texas to the railroad at Abilene in Kansas.”   

Unfortunately, Jesse’s life was cut short.  He died of food poisoning in 1868 after eating some rancid bear meat.

Other Chisholms.  Enoch Chisholm and his brother, Frank, a colonel in the Civil War, settled in Texas in the 1850’s.  Enoch was not only a farmer and landowner but a Methodist preacher as well.  He built a small Methodist chapel in Rockwall County which still stands today.

Can we connect John Chisum, the Texan cattle baron of the 1860’s, with the Chisholms?  Possibly.  His forebear was Richard Cheesome, who arrived in America from London as early as 1641.  His roots might have been Chisholm.  It is thought that a branch assumed the name Chisholm.  They were one of the earliest settlers in Lauderdale County, Alabama.  The small family cemetery outside Florence where John Chisholm and his wife were buried in 1847 is the oldest known cemetery in Alabama.

Chisholms in 1920

The Federal Census listed 2,100 Chisholms and Chisolms in the United States in 1920.   The largest numbers were in Massachusetts, followed by South Carolina and Georgia (where the Chisolm name predominated).

Leading Chisholm/Chisolm States in the 1920 Federal Census
Massachusetts                   15%
South Carolina                    13%
Georgia                              7%
New York                            7%
California                            5%