Homesteaders and the Cattle Industry

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HOMESTEADERS AND THE CATTLE INDUSTRY. Beginning in the late 1860s, cattle grazing on the open range of the western plains from Texas to Montana became the major industry. During the years following the Civil War, a vast stream of cattle poured north out of Texas to cow towns in Kansas and Nebraska. From these towns, fat, mature animals went to market while young steers and breeding animals traveled farther north or west to stock new ranges.

Most of the cattle driven north each year grazed on ranges in the public domain throughout western Kansas, Nebraska, Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and other western states and territories. Ranchers held them there for growth and fattening. The unwritten law of the range known as "cow custom" determined the boundaries of each rancher's pasturelands. Usually, the ranch's headquarters lay near the center of the range, and along the ranch's borders were cow camps from which riders looked after the cattle and kept them within the limits of their own range. Despite their efforts, some would stray across the line onto the pasturelands of neighboring ranchers, which made it necessary to hold roundups each spring and autumn. At the spring roundup, cowboys branded calves. At the fall roundup, grazers separated their fat, mature animals from the remainder and sent them to market for slaughter.

Cowboys drove cattle over the state lands of western Texas and northward from Texas over the great Indian reservations of Indian Territory, as well as those farther north, and over the public domain of the central and northern plains. All of this huge region constituted the so-called cow country. Settlers taking up homesteads steadily advanced westward along its eastern border, but for a time, ranchers could replace the erstwhile grazing area lost to farmers by opening large tracts of hitherto unwatered lands for use as pasturage with the construction of dams across ravines and the drilling of deep wells from which windmills pumped water.

The first shipments of dressed beef to Europe, especially Great Britain, began in 1875. Shipments steadily increased until Europe imported more than 50 million pounds in 1878 and more than 100 million pounds in 1881. The enormous influx of American beef so alarmed the cattle raisers of northern Britain that a parliamentary commission came to the United States to visit the range area and report on conditions. Its report, publicized in 1884, told of great profits to be made in ranching, which encouraged British investors to send huge sums of capital to the United States for investment in ranching enterprises. Many Britons came to the cow country to give their personal attention to ranching. By 1884 British investors had placed more than $30 million of capital into ranching on the Great Plains. Among the large British enterprises were the Prairie Land and Cattle Company, the Matador, and the Espuela Land and Cattle Company.

An enthusiasm for grazing cattle on the open range amounting almost to a craze had also swept over the United States before 1885. Prominent lawyers, U.S. senators, bankers, and other businessmen throughout the eastern United States formed cattle companies to take advantage of the opportunities offered for ranching on the great open ranges to the west. The destruction of the buffalo herds made it necessary to feed the many large tribes of western Indians, and this resulted in the awarding of valuable beef contracts for that purpose with the privilege of pasturing herds upon the various reservations.

The invention of barbed wire and the rapid extension of its use after 1875 brought about the enclosure of considerable tracts of pastureland. Congress enacted laws that forbade the fencing of lands of the public domain, and orders of the Indian Bureau prohibited the enclosure of lands on Indian reservations. While the United States government and its various agencies could not strictly enforce such laws and orders, they were not without effect.

Perhaps the year 1885 marks the peak of the open-range cattle industry. By that time, most of the range was fully stocked and much of it overstocked. During the summer of 1886, ranchers drove large herds north from Texas and spread them over the ranges in the most reckless fashion possible. Then came the terrible winter of 1886–87 in which hundreds of thousands of cattle died of cold and starvation. Spring came to find nearly every rancher on the central and northern plains facing ruin. The open-range cattle industry never recovered from the results of that tragic winter.

Moreover, homesteaders, contemptuously called nesters by ranchers, rapidly were settling the range area, including large Indian reservations. Ranchers largely had kept homesteaders to the east between 1867 and 1885, but on 25 February 1885, Congress passed a law that prohibited interference with settlers. On 7 August 1885, President Grover Cleveland followed it with an enforcement proclamation. Beginning in the spring of 1886, settlers, who streamed west in covered wagons on a 1,000-mile front, occupied the public domain on the plains. In many regions, sheep were replacing cattle anyway. The struggle between ranchers and farmers continued in some isolated parts of the mountain states until the early twentieth century, but in most areas, the end of the open-range cattle period arrived by 1890.


Evans, Simon M., Sarah Carter, and Bill Yeo, ed. Cowboys, Ranchers, and the Cattle Business: Cross-border Perspectives on Ranching History. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2000.

Jordan, Terry G. Trails to Texas: Southern Roots of Western Cattle Ranching. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Massey, Sara R., ed. Black Cowboys of Texas. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2000.

Patterson, Paul E. Great Plains Cattle Empire: Thatcher Brothers and Associates, 1875–1945. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2000.

Remley, David A. Bell Ranch: Cattle Ranching in the Southwest, 1824–1947. Albuqerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.

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See alsoAgriculture ; Cattle ; Cattle Brands ; Cattle Drives ; Chisholm Trail ; Livestock Industry ; Meatpacking ; Rodeos ; Trail Drivers .