As Americans, our culture is tied to the Old West. Along with our endless larger-than-life stretches of land, vistas that take a breath away, we have a heritage of enduring and prevailing through struggles against the elements and the land itself. And more so, our legacy is that of heroic deeds, storied in the annals of adversity and accomplishment. Our desire to gain freedom and be our own boss is tied to our want to provide for others. Our heritage has been one that is absolutely tethered to cattle, dairies, and farming.
I've had several conversations about how the Old West ended. I've heard some say it was the end of the Indian Wars, others say it was when organized law and order was established, some say it was the Homestead Act. And yes, as strange as it sounds, believe it or not, I've even been told that a relatively insignificant gunfight and feud in Tombstone, Arizona was what brought about the end of the Old West.
For me, no act changed the Old West, ended things as they were, and forced things to change more than a single act of nature in 1886. What happened would impact the way we feed our nation. It's an event that changed the role of cowboys. But more so, it altered how American cattle producers and farmers feed our country forever.
Do I make it sound ominous? I hope so. While our history is rich in stories of our brave men and women doing things that many believed impossible, this is the story of what changed the West more than any other event in our history. This story is about the end of the Old West for cattlemen and cowboys as they knew it. This is also about how they survived that cataclysmic event.
During the Winter of 1886 to 1887, Theodore Roosevelt, the man who would be our 26th President, owned a cattle ranch near Medora in the Dakota Territory. He was one of the ranchers who were hit by that devastating Winter. In a letter, he wrote, "Well, we have had a perfect smashup all through the cattle country of the northwest. The losses are crippling. For the first time, I have been utterly unable to enjoy a visit to my ranch. I shall be glad to get home."
The Winter of 1886 to 1887 was extremely tough on most of the United States, but the West was affected the most. Its hardest hit victim was the American cattle industry. The "perfect smashup" that Theodore Roosevelt wrote about was a violent collision of several damaging and unpredictable factors -- natural and manmade.
In 1886, a ten-year drought culminated in a scorching dry summer. Besides water sources drying up, to make matters worse, overgrazing on the open range had created tinder-dry grasslands, which saw many extensive prairie fires. And please, keep in mind, before the advent of organized fire fighting, forest fires and prairie fires would simply burn until they burned themselves out for lack of fuel, were dampened by passing showers, or died out when they reached a river that was too wide to jump.
As for ranchers in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, the early 1880s was still a time of optimism. With its fenceless expanse of what looked to be unlimited open range, grazing land was ripe for the taking. Because of this, the big ranchers saw their herds increasing in larger and larger numbers. In fact, during the two decades leading up to 1886, it is believed that an estimated 6 million head of cattle were driven to market or the Northern grasslands.
Those ranchers drove huge herds across the Great Plains to railheads to be shipped to places such as Kansas City and Chicago stockyards. In the beginning, the slaughterhouses were clamoring for beef to feed the demand coming from fast-growing urban areas in the East. By the early 1880s, the cattle industry was in trouble because it essentially created a cattle glut. Because of the cattle glut, cattle prices dropped in 1885. While the ranchers would still profit on their cattle, the market was not as favorable as it was in 1880. A severe hit was not what they needed, but it's what they got.
About now, we should mention something that is rarely mentioned when talking about contributing factors to the Winter of 1886. It should be noted that domestic sheep were introduced to North America when the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s. Though that was the case for years, by 1880 there were an estimated 110,000 sheep in the state of Colorado alone. By 1886, that number had increased to about 2 million sheep just in Colorado.
The late 1870s was when the West saw the introduction of sheep and the beginnings of the Sheep Wars to that region. The problem was with sheep on the range was two-fold: First, the sheep competed with the cattle for the same grass. And second, it was how the sheep devastated the range. Most folks in the West at the time saw sheep as "hooved locusts destroying the land."
The Sheep Wars were just that. They were armed conflicts between cattlemen and sheepmen. So yes, since they competed for the same grazing, the war began almost immediately. The Sheep Wars were deadly conflicts. Cattle, sheep, and those tending to them were killed as those conflicts escalated.
So when we talk about factors that helped along such a disaster take place, it was not only cattle that contributed to the overgrazing problems. Large herds of sheep and cattle eroded the banks of streambeds as well as other water sources.
In fact, I believe that sheep had more of an impact on the overgrazing problem than the cattle did. When sheepherders brought their flocks in to graze, their sheep ripped the grass out by its roots. So, while leaving no food for cattle was bad enough, the overgrazing caused by sheep ripping out the grass by their roots actually reduced the prairie grass's ability to hold soils together. The bottom line is that that's one of the most significant reasons why overgrazing made the rangelands so vulnerable to drought and disastrous Winter.
The ten-year drought had brought season after season of mild winters. The mild winters were followed by some rain, but not as much as needed to make tall grass and streams flow as they should. Summer came after what many called a rainless Spring in 1886. The lack of winter runoff and Spring rains didn't help the land or the cattle as Summer's scorching heat dried up scarce water sources and burned much of the grass to the roots. The lack of forage and water made it difficult to fatten their herds.
With grass being low and water almost non-existent, cattle lost weight and suffered. Larger than prudent herds overgrazed during that drought helped create the "perfect smashup" of things going wrong. This was such the case by the Winter of 1886 when millions of head of cattle were in no condition to weather one of the worse Winters in our entire history.
There was early snow in November of that year. The problem quickly became evident because it kept snowing. By the end of December, the entire region was slammed with a blizzard of epic proportions. That blizzard is said to have dumped over 2 feet of snow across the entire region. Along with it were gale-force winds and 50 degrees below zero temperatures. The blizzard's effects were even felt on the West Coast,
The plummeting temperatures were terrible enough, but things got worse when it started to rain, and a freeze followed the rains. The freeze is said to have actually covered forage by blocking access to the small amount of grazing grass. The grass that the cattle fed on for forage was trapped beneath a thick layer of snow that became impenetrable ice. So with the gale-force winds, 50 degrees below zero temperatures, exposure to this, and their inability to get to their food source, it was not long before cattle starved to death.
How many frozen carcasses of cattle littered the plains? How many head of cattle died, you ask? Well, it is believed to have been in the millions. In fact, Montana alone later reported that it found about 600,000 dead that Spring.
By the Spring of 1887, carcasses of the millions of cattle were really revealed to all there at the time. It's true. Spring brought the thaw, but it also brought evidence of millions of dead cows. And yes, dead cattle were found just about everywhere. It's said they dotted the plains, fouled the rivers, dammed the streams, bloated and rotted in the sun, all while the warm weather made the stench waft over what some said were thousands of square miles of open range. One report said, "the stench was of an unimaginable throat-closing intensity."
The "perfect smashup" that the future 26th President of the United States wrote about became officially known as "The Great Cattle Extinction of 1886." Westerners gave it a few different names. Some called it "The Big Die-Up" and "The Great Die-Up," while others called it "Death's Cattle Round-Up." It was far from a round-up. There was nothing about it that was good in any way at all.
The few remaining cattle, those that actually survived that Winter, were found in poor health. Most were emaciated and suffered from frostbite. Because of that, those cattle were sold for much less than expected. We have to remember the economic impact on the ranches was enormous.
Friends, that Winter wiped out a lot of ranches from Montana and the Dakotas down to the Texas Panhandle. And yes, that included bankrupting those big ranches owned by Eastern conglomerates and Foreign-owned ranches owned by folks in Europe. In fact, out of the close to 60 big ranches hit that year -- only 9 survived to stay in business. As for rancher Theodore Roosevelt, he could say that he was going to his home in the East. But not everyone was in his position. In fact, the majority were wiped out because they had nothing to fall back on. Most lost everything they had. So, because of the loss of livestock and their remaining herds being sold at low prices, some ranches had no alternative but to declare bankruptcy.
Of course, as for ranchers, the idea of rotating pastures and stock, limiting accessibility to sections of grazing land, maintaining limited access to invasive species such as sheep that proved detrimental to grazing land, all to ensure feed availability were not yet considerations. As for the idea that cattle needed supplementary feeding during the Winter, that too had not yet come about. Of course, that was to change.
As far as changes that came about? So besides ranches erected miles of barbed wire fences to keep their cattle from ranging too far from their food supply, what changed? Old, long-standing ranching practices changed, operating methods, feeding practices, fenced-off ranges, increased efforts to keep sheep and cattle grazing separated, and much more also changed. Those ranchers who managed to continue raising cattle did so with smaller herds. As big ranches liquidated, smaller ranches sprang up in their place. And out of necessity, many ranchers also became farmers as well. They did so because they realized that growing their own fodder meant saving their herds in the future.
In addition to reducing herd sizes, the livestock industry took other measures to protect against another catastrophe. Ranchers are said to have worked together to limit overgrazing. But they also attempted to mediate boundary disputes and create recommendations to take better care of both the land and their livestock.
The open range flooded with too many cattle and sheep competing for the same grass were shut down and saw fences going up. Of course, this was not an easy transition as the introduction of barbed wire brought about its own problems, including range wars. The significant change of closing the once-boundaryless open range with miles of fences effectively ended open range grazing. Though the availability of barbed wire came about in 1884, fencing of rangeland ended the years of unrestricted open range grazing. While fencing restricted the access to traditionally open rangeland, it also allowed ranchers to close off sections of range, rotate pastures, prohibit grazing, and provide the land time to regenerate. Those measures allowed forage to regrow. And, as I said before, these efforts also enabled ranchers to begin more extensive farming operations to grow food for the animals they had.
The end of the Old West for cattlemen and cowboys struck like a hammer. It wasn't soft and slow. It was sudden and brutal. It was an end of life as many knew it. And as I said before, it was, in fact, what brought an end of the Old West for cattlemen and cowboys as they knew it.
It did so by changing almost everything that was done before regarding the cattle industry. The changes came about because of the severe impact of that Winter. Because both big and small ranchers were hit so hard, many of the large ranches that had previously kept their doors open to out-of-work cowboys simply did not exist any longer. Also, many ranchers hanging on by threads simply wouldn't offer traditional hospitality to out-of-work hands because they couldn't.
While it wiped out the majority of the stock growers outright and forever changed the role of the cowboy, most cowboys were driven out of work and took to what was known as "riding the chuck-line" by drifting from one ranch to another for a meal and shelter. Many might not really understand that the end of the cattle drives negatively affected cowtowns simply because most of the cowboys needed for trail drives and to maintain a herd on open range simply weren't needed any longer. Some cowtowns survived the loss of the cowboys annually showing up while others didn't.
As for cowboys, a lot of cowboys moved on to do other things. And yes, if you're wondering, some went on to become lawmen. Of course, some went on to drive stages, tend stock, work in the stockyards, found themselves working on farms that supported the cattle industry, and many were forced to find jobs in various other occupations not related to ranching. While many former cowboys did not work in jobs that were cattle-related, some cowboys took to making their way with a hot running iron. It's true, believe it or not, there were those cowboys who hit bottom and turned to rustle the very cattle that they had once been paid to herd.
Officially called the Great Cattle Extinction of 1886, because of that Winter, the old-time cattle industry of the Old West never recovered. Trail drives and open rangelands decimated by sheep and overgrazed by more cattle than the land could support were closed. And yes, the extreme cold killed both animals and those trying to save their herds. Many died in white-out conditions near their homes. Of course, those pioneers unprepared for such a severe winter froze to death in their sod-huts. Some new arrivals who were totally unprepared actually died in their makeshift shelters.
The impact of that single Winter really ended the life of roving cowboys because it put a lot of cowboys out of work. The glut of out-of-work cowboys meant they had less choice where to work if they could even find a job cowboying. The attitude of the cowboy who said he wouldn't work unless he could do it "from the top of a horse" was gone. Cowboys became ranch hands to the few ranches that survived. If that sounds sad, it should. That Winter was a dream killer in many ways for many people. Yes, especially cowboys.