Sheep Wars

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SHEEP WARS. The Sheep Wars were range battles fought in the American West between cattle and sheep ranchers. Although some of the confrontations undoubtedly grew out of mere disputes over land and water rights, the main cause was the propensity of sheep to overgraze the range, sometimes making the lands unusable to cattle herds for months. Moreover, sheep polluted watering places used by cattle.

Spanish colonists introduced the sheep industry to the American West in the early seventeenth century, although conflict between the needs of sheep and cattle did not peak until long after the intrusion of Anglo-Americans. By 1875 clashes between cattlemen and sheepmen occurred regularly along the New Mexico–Texas boundary. New Mexican sheepmen drove their flocks onto the range of Charles Goodnight; Goodnight's cowhands, in retaliation, drove more than four hundred sheep into the Canadian River, where they drowned. In 1876 Goodnight and the sheepmen agreed to divide the Staked Plain range, giving the sheepmen the Canadian River valley, and giving Goodnight undisturbed access to the Palo Duro Canyon area of northwestern Texas.

Other range controversies ended in bloodshed. In Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana wars killed many cowboys and shepherds, along with thousands of sheep. During the 1880s and 1890s, sheepmen controlled the Arizona range, and they threatened to drive the cowmen from other choice ranges. This prompted the Graham-Tewksbury feud that killed twenty-six cattlemen and six sheepmen. Cattlemen in Wyoming attacked shepherds and drove more than ten thousand sheep into the mountains, where they perished. In another clash, near North Rock Springs, the cowmen drove twelve thousand sheep over a cliff. The sheep wars subsided only when landowners occupied and began to fence off the disputed areas.


Haley, J. Evetts. Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949.

Johnson, Dorothy M. Some Went West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

C. C.Rister/c. w.

See alsoCattle Associations .