Friday, June 12, 2015

Recipe for a Range War: Add Sheep and Stir


http://kathleenriceadams.com/

Texans are resilient. They defeated the Mexicans—twice—took a beating during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and then chased the Comanche clean out of the state and into Oklahoma. All of those events were watershed moments in Texas history.

Sheep Raid in Colorado (Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 1877)
And so was the day they came.

Sheep. Hundreds of thousands of them, munching their way across the land like wooly locusts. The sight of a single woolyback could boil a cattleman’s blood. The critters trampled the range, close-cropped the forage, and left behind an odor neither cattle nor man could abide. They also carried a type of mange called sheep scab to which cattle were susceptible.

As if all of that weren’t enough, pastores herded on foot, not horseback. Horses were a status symbol in the Old West. Cowboys figuratively and literally “looked down on” mutton-punchers.

Sheep are not native to Texas, although they’ve been in the state since padres brought Spanish transplants with them in the 1700s. The animals provided both food and clothing, so no mission was without a flock.

The Plains Herder, NC Wyeth, 1909
In 1800, 5,000 head of sheep lived along the Rio Grande in far south Texas. By 1870, 700,000 woolies had moved in, primarily with Germans and other Europeans who immigrated to central and western Texas. By 1890, the state was home to 3.5 million of the critters. Of the 30 million sheep in the U.S. in the middle of the twentieth century, one-third were in Texas. At that time, the state produced 95 percent of the country’s merino wool.

Due to market fluctuations, drought, and some disastrous government programs, in 2012 the entire ovine population of the U.S. stood at only 5.345 million; 650,000 of those, still the largest bunch by more than 100,000 animals, were in Texas. To this day, mutton, lamb, and wool make a significant contribution to Texas’s economy.

Ranchers in the mid- to late-1800s never would have believed such a thing possible. In fact, they went to great lengths to prevent the possibility. The notorious clashes between sheepmen and cattlemen that scarred the entire West began on Charles Goodnight’s ranch in Texas. Between 1875 and 1920, one hundred twenty serious confrontations occurred in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado. Across the four states, at least fifty-four men died and 100,000 sheep were slaughtered.

Real and imagined problems led to the sheep wars. Texas cattlemen already were becoming testy with one another over grazing and water rights. Add sheep—which, as a means of finding other flock members, spray the ground with a noxious scent excreted by a gland above their hooves—and the range got a little smaller. Add sheep drifters who grazed their flocks on other folks’ land or public property because they owned no territory of their own, and the situation became volatile. Add barbed-wire fence…and everything exploded.

Texas Merino Sheep, courtesy Fir0002/Flagstaffotos
The Texas legislature outlawed grazing sheep on cattle range without permission and on public land at all. Cattle and horses faced no such restrictions. Consequently, sheepmen were among the first to throw up fences in order to keep their flocks in and other animals out. Sheep fences lit one of the first matches in what became the Texas Fence-Cutter War, which blazed across more than half the state from the mid-1870s through 1884. The cattlemen erected their own fences, and soon everyone was at someone else’s throat. The fence war died down, for the most part, when the legislature criminalized fence-cutting in 1884.

Soon thereafter, cattlemen were shocked—and somewhat relieved—to discover good fences make good neighbors. They also discovered mutton and wool sold even when a mysterious disease known as Texas Fever made driving cattle to the railheads in other states well-nigh impossible.

Today, many Texas ranches run sheep right along with their cattle, and all the critters get along just fine on the same range.

Of course, had stubborn Texans on both sides of the fence paid attention to the native Indians who’d been running cattle and sheep together for a hundred years before the trouble started, they might have spared themselves considerable aggravation.


 A Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s stories, even the good guys wear black hats.

Visit her home on the range at KathleenRiceAdams.com.

14 comments:

  1. The next series I'm writing, one of the books will deal with the same issue only in Central Oregon. Cattle and sheep men had a big uproar there. It was wide spread. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Paty! You'll have to write a post about how sheep wars worked up there in Oregon. I'll bet there were at least a few differences; probably many. I tend to get so wrapped up in Texas history that I forget there's more to the country! :-D

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  2. I knew the sheep hearders and cowmen didn't get a long. I knew about the close crunched grass but not the glands and the smell. I hate the thought of all those dead animals laying about. Buzzards must have had a field day. Thanks for the great blog.

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    1. Can you just imagine all those dead animals, Nancy? Seems like such a shame, doesn't it.

      I'm glad you enjoyed the post! :-)

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  3. Seems like people need to do more listening and less talking. If only the cattlemen and sheep herders had used some common sense and some cooperation, there may have been no bloodshed on either side. Wonder why no one paid attention to the American Indians who raised cows with sheep? Even though fences seem to take away the wildness and freedom of movement in a place, if knuckle heads are gonna fight over everything, fences make sense. Men! Always so quick to wrangle up some trouble when there's compromise to be made.
    I enjoyed this blog, Kathleen. Since I don't live out west, it's always to get the facts from someone who does.

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    1. Sarah, I've never understood why people can't find common ground, compromise, and get the heck on with their business instead of planting their feet and wasting time they could be using for something productive. I understand the objection to both fences and sheep, to a point: Cattlemen grazed their herds on public lands, which allowed them to make more profit without a ton of investment. When fences and sheep began destroying the open-range ranching on which cattlemen hung their livelihoods, the beef barons were bound to get upset. They'd had things their way for generations, and they weren't about to give up something they considered theirs by right -- whether or not it was.

      Remember Cliven Bundy, the rancher in Nevada who still owes the feds several million dollars for grazing his herd on leased public land? He and a posse of his friends armed themselves with guns and righteous indignation and nearly touched off a real-life, modern-day range war. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

      I'm glad you stopped by today, sweetie. You always brighten my day. :-)

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  4. The sheep and cattlemen just didn't get along anywhere. This always surprises me for all the cattlemen who ran sheep at the same time. The saying up here is cattle for prestige, sheep for money.

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    1. You won't catch many Texans saying that, Rustler, but they share the sentiment. Wool still composes a significant portion of Texas's agricultural economy. Just don't tell anybody. ;-)

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  5. Colorado Springs largest money maker in 1879 was wool. Colorado, in the early years ran both successfully for years. The history of sheep and cattle is a source of never-ending stories. Thanks for the update on Texas and their problems. Doris

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    1. You're welcome, Doris. Apparently, Coloradans were less apt to go off half-cocked than folks in other western states. :-D

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  6. Hi Kathleen, sad that innocent animals had to die, once again because of people, and that Native traditions were ignored. Glad everybody figured things out LOL. Hugs...

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    1. They figured things out too late so save a bunch of innocent animals...and dozens of human beings, too. Isn't that sad? The U.S. has a long and illustrious history of folks refusing to get along.

      HUGS back!

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  7. Fascinating, Kathleen! Thanks for filling us in on some reasons for the sheep/cattle wars. I didn't know woolies sprayed the ground with such a noxious scent. Makes sense, though, since other critters mark their territory by scent.

    I recently researched Canyon de Chelley (pronounced Shay), heart of the Navajo Nation for the series I'm writing. A number of native families live in the canyon and most run cattle and/or sheep. As you point out, white cattle and sheep men should have learned from the Native Americans.

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    1. Cayon de Chelley is gorgeous and so full of history. Fascinating place, isn't it? Anglo cattlemen and sheep ranchers would've been well ahead to have spoken with their native contemporaries before forging ahead with their foolishness, huh? :-D

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