Open Range

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The open range consisted of the unfenced public lands of the West. When the cattle industry boomed following the American Civil War (18611865), ranchers in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana allowed their cattle to roam freely across the vast range. Livestock were branded with a rancher's symbol. At the end of the grazing season cowboys sorted the cattle by brand (calves instinctively followed their mothers), rounded them up, and began the long trail drives which ended at the nearest railhead (as far as 1,000 miles or 1,600 kilometers away).

Passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 and the expansion of the railroad brought an everincreasing number of settlers West after the war. Many of them set up farms on the prairies because provisions of the Homestead Act allowed each up to 160 acres (64 hectares). As the natural landscape lacked trees, fencing the farmlands was not practical and the policy of the open range continued despite the fact that the range was, in fact, being divided up and settled at an increasing rate. When barbed wire was invented in 1874, farmers across the West used the new material to fence in their lands over the two decades which followed.

Ranchers, who were accustomed to the open range, often conflicted with settlers, who tried to protect their farmlands from the cattle herds and drives. Soon ranchers, too, used barbed wire to cordon off their land, limiting where their cattle and sheep could graze. Cowboys were reduced to cowhandshired hands who made a practice of "riding the fence" to maintain the ranch boundaries. By the end of the 1880s the innovation of barbed wire and increased settlement had closed the open range and tamed the wild West.

See also: Barbed Wire, Chisholm Trail, Cowboy, Cow Town, Longhorn Cattle, Prairie