Saturday, November 26, 2016


Many parts of the United States are already experiencing snow. No matter how cold you are now, the winter of 1886-87 in Montana and the Midwest was colder. Not only did ranchers lose much of their stock and some ranchers and cowboys lose their lives, this weather changed the cattle industry forever.

In the Wild West, cattle were a staple—cattle drives, cattle towns, cattle herds, cattle ranches. Cattle were king through the 1870s up until the mid-1880s. The fenceless open range meant grazing land was easy to come by, so ranchers could own massive herds of cattle. Through much of the late 1870s and into the 1880s, cooler summers and mild winters meant that feeding the animals was relatively easy. Grass and feed were typically pretty plentiful.

Overstocking the Montana range had been the norm since the early 1880s. Texas and Eastern cattle were shipped or trailed in, joining herds already feeding on the rich grasses of the northern plains. By fall 1883, about 600,000 head of cattle filled the range, sharing the resources with an equal number of sheep and a proportionately smaller number of horses. By this time, the range was at its capacity.

By early 1886 more cattle, which had not yet developed the ability to withstand rugged Montana winters, filled the range, receiving less nourishment from the sparse grass. This resulted in more animals grazing on the same amount of grass, which became thinner, requiring more acres per animal even as more animals per acre arrived. By 1885 Montana's range showed the effect of this vicious circle.

Open Range

Rancher Conrad Kohrs noted, "It takes 20 acres on a new range to feed one cow, after the range has been grazed two years it will take almost 25 acres, and after six years all of 40 acres."

Things were about to get much worse. In 1884, a drought crept upward from Texas across the Great Plains and reaching Montana in 1886. By September, some places in Montana and Wyoming had received only two inches of rainfall. Usually lush grass became sparse. Crops failed. Due to the fertile grass of earlier years, most ranchers did not put aside hay for winter, so many cows that weren’t killed by the cold soon died from starvation.

By 1885, beef prices were falling and much of the open range was overgrazed, mainly because cattle barons had built up herds too large for the land. But the barons—many of them Europeans—who owned huge swaths of land from Canada to Mexico, maintained business as usual.

In his annual report of 1886, the commander of Fort McKinney near Buffalo, Wyoming Territory, wrote, “The country is full of Texas cattle and there is not a blade of grass within 15 miles of the Post.”

By 1886, the cattle business was in trouble. Overgrazing had depleted the grasslands, herds of sheep were competing for what remained, and farmers were beginning to stake off parts of the open range. Beef prices were falling, and during the hot, dry months of summer, the herds grew thin and weak. By November 1886, wholesale cattle prices in Chicago fell to $3.16 per hundredweight, half of what they had been in 1884.

More grass died. Brush fires burned off even more. Water sources dried up. Other signs pointed to a tough winter ahead—geese going south earlier, cattle growing thicker fur, beaver stacking more wood for dens.

Brush Fire's Destruction

Following the summer drought disaster came the worst winter ever recorded. The first snow came on November 13, 1886 and fell continuously for a month. Then, in January 1887, the temperature dropped even farther, and blizzards came howling over the prairie, blasting the unsheltered herds. Some cattle, too weak to stand, were actually blown over. Others died frozen to the ground. Even buffalo died when their breath froze them to the ground where they stood. In some instances, people got lost close to their houses and froze to death very close to their front doors.

“It was all so slow, plunging after them through the deep snow that way..... The horses' feet were cut and bleeding from the heavy crust, and the cattle had the hair and hide wore off their legs to the knees and hocks. It was surely hell to see big four-year-old steers just able to stagger along.” Teddy Blue Abbott

No place was safe—California got nearly four inches of snow in San Francisco. North Texas and the Panhandle were inundated. Blizzards roared across the West in January 1887. Temperatures dropped to 30 below in some places. They hit 43 below the next month. On Jan. 14, 1887, temperatures in Miles City, Mont., bottomed out at 60 below zero.

The Laramie Daily Boomerang of Feb. 10, 1887, reported, "The snow on the Lost Soldier division of the Lander and Rawlins stage route is four feet deep, and frozen so hard that the stages drive over it like a turnpike."

Waiting for a Chinook by Charles Russell

Day after day the snow came down, thawing and then freezing and piling itself higher and higher. By January the drifts had filled the ravines and coulĂ©es almost level,” remembered Theodore Roosevelt, who was ranching in Medora, Dakota Territory at the time.

Warm Chinook winds began the thaw by March 1887. Then the losses of cattle were discovered. A large number of cattle carcasses were spread across the fields and washed down streams and polluted drinking water. Dead cattle littered the countryside and bobbed in the freshening rivers. An estimated hundreds of thousands of cattle carcasses littered the land—many pushed up against wire fences or lining roads. Total losses went unreported, but in some areas, up to 90 percent of the herds were wiped out.

“[I saw] countless carcasses of cattle going down with the ice, rolling over and over as they went, sometimes with all four stiffened legs pointed skyward. For days on end . . . went Death's cattle roundup.” Lincoln Lang

By spring, the magnitude of loss was staggering--60% to 95% in places. The few remaining cattle were in poor health, being emaciated and suffering from frostbite. Small ranches went out of business. Even some huge cattle companies declared bankruptcy.

The Conrad Kohrs herds in the Deer Lodge Valley survived. With a $100,000 loan by Butte banker A.J. Davis, Kohrs was one of the few able to rebuild. But the disaster foreshadowed the end of the open range cattle era.

John Clay wrote in MY LIFE ON THE RANGE, “As the South Sea bubble burst, as the Dutch tulip craze dissolved, this cattle gold brick withstood not the snow of winter. It wasted away under the fierce attacks of a subarctic season aided by summer drought. For years, you could wander amid the dead brushwood that borders our streams. In the struggle for existence the cattle had peeled off the bark as if legions of beavers had been at work.

Those who tried to carve out a ranch by claiming unbranded calves ran smack into the old guard cattle barons. Range conflicts broke out, perhaps most notably the Johnson County War in Wyoming.
That deadly winter had changed cattle country. As The Rocky Mountain Husbandman newspaper in Diamond City, Montana, reported, “…range husbandry is over, is ruined, destroyed, and it may have been by the insatiable greed of its followers.”

Ranchers stopped keeping such gigantic stocks of cattle and began larger farming operations in order to grow food for the animals they had. Most also quit the open range, where livestock could roam far from grain reserves, in favor of smaller, fenced in grazing territories. The winter of 1886-1887 signaled the beginning of the end to the days of roving cowboys and the untamed western wilderness.

Foreigners felt leery about investing out West. Cowboys became more of an iconic symbol than a constant presence. Cattle were no longer king. Thousands of cowboys were out of jobs. Some drifted back East or looked for work in Western towns. Others (like members of the Wild Bunch) turned to less honorable pursuits that included rustling and outlawry.

Then future President Teddy Roosevelt wrote his friend, Henry Cabot Lodge, “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.”

Historians generally agree that Wyoming cattle losses during that winter tend to be exaggerated. Larson thought overall the state lost about 15 percent of its herd, although operators in Crook and Carbon counties lost roughly 25 percent of their stock. The Wyoming cattle business never again achieved the stature it had from 1868 to 1886. Historians debate over when the Old West died. The Great Die-Up may not have been the end, but the disaster certainly played a role in finishing the era.

Winter of 1886–1887 was extremely harsh for much of continental North America, especially the United States. Although it affected other regions in the country, it is most known for its effects on the Western United States and its cattle industry. This winter marked the end of the open range era and led to the entire reorganization of ranching. Cattlemen reportedly called the winter of 1886-87 the "Great Die-Up." That winter proved again that nature could at any moment shatter all sense of human control.

Caroline Clemmons writes contemporary and historical western romance. Her latest release is her contribution to the bestselling WILD WESTERN WOMEN MISTLETOE, MONTANA. On November 29th, she will release ANGEL FOR CHRISTMAS. All her books are at her Amazon Author Page. Join her newsletter subscriber list for a FREE novella here.

Elizabeth Ayers for Montana Sky Kindle World authors.


  1. What a horrible site all those dead cattle must have been. Truth is, even today, people never get it about taking a good thing and going to excess with it.
    This was such an interesting article. I had never heard about this deep freeze and drought in the cattle country of the west before. I just can't get the vision of all those dead cattle everywhere and even polluting the water. Yuck!
    All the best to you, Caroline.

    1. Even Charles Russell's painting tears at my heart with that emaciated cow and wolves circling. How horrible it must have been to have lived through that time. The book I'm writing now is set then in Montana.

  2. I've read about the great blizzard of 1886 many times, and become sick each time. Not only the horrible deaths of so many cattle, but almost the death of the cattle industry. Who would have ever known there would so many cattle, and who then would grasp the fact that a disaster was brewing. Same thing happened when farmers in Colorado, Nebraska, and down through Texas used the double plow that had been invented to dig up more grassland and deeper than before, too. Bang, here comes the Dust Bowl and then....Depression.
    Oh, we never learn, do we?
    I wonder if the cattlemen of 1886 thought the world was undergoing Climate Change? (That's a joke--sorry.)
    Great post, Caroline.

    1. I suspect some thought the world was ending. One of the phrases was "Hell without heat" for that winter.

  3. What a tragic mess that winter and drought caused. I had no idea the cattlemen went through this. Hubby was surprised at the four inches of snow in San Francisco. very informative, Caroline.

    1. I didn't realize San Francisco EVER received snow. This winter was a tragic mess in many states. Children in Kansas froze to death in their school.

  4. And the cattle farmers blamed the sheep farmers and that has never come to an end! Seems sheep eat the grass to the ground where cows only "mow" it. There are now more sheep in Wyoming than cattle, yet Wyoming is known as the Cowboy State. As much as I love the West, I don't think I could ever handle their winters! Temps at absolute zero? No thank you. Great job with the article.

    1. I couldn't survive at those temperatures even though I like cold weather. I also like my central heat and electric blanket. :)

  5. THanks, Caroline, for a extensive and well-written post on a tragic time in history I had never known about.


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