Thursday, December 26, 2019


By Caroline Clemmons

As Marisa Masterson reported on the 24th, ranchers faced isolation and deprivation. I have great sympathy for the rancher’s wife who was left at home alone while her husband—if he was fortunate to afford them—rode with his cowhands. Both faced harsh conditions that I’m relieved I haven’t had to encounter.

Imagine being a new bride from the East whose husband dreams of becoming a rancher “out West”. The two of you set off with high hopes, little realizing the demanding life that awaits you. Of course there were happy times. I am picturing the young woman surrounded by friends and family who suddenly finds herself far from another house much less a town. Culture shock!

Not long after the mid-twentieth century, my cousin and her husband went to Dupree, South Dakota where he was in a government program to teach Sioux Indian veterans about farming. (Privately, she thought the Sioux knew more about farming on the reservation than their teachers.) My gregarious cousin and her husband lived in a home with a small acreage. She said she wondered when she arrived why there was a clothesline strung from the back door to the barn. She soon learned it was not for clothes but so they could reach the barn and back without becoming lost in the snow. She reported going to a rodeo in Pierre one fourth of July when it snowed. I don’t know how long they lived in South Dakota. She said after one particular year with 118 inches of snow, she was D.O.N.E. with South Dakota and they moved back to Texas.

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 plentiful. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, especially harsh conditions occurred. The entire continent was affected but especially the central United States. The drought began the summer of 1884 in Texas and climbed north up the great plains then turned west, saving the worst for Wyoming and Montana Territory in 1886. This period became referred to as “the Great Die Up” of 1887.

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. 

Cattle in the mountain snow
Credit: Deposit photos

Successful rancher of that era, 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."

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.”

Depending on the open range policy and the verdant grass of previous years, most ranchers didn’t store hay or feed for their cattle. When the drought hit with only two inches of rain the summer of 1886, cattle went into the winter undernourished.

During this time, there was an open range policy in which cattle had been allowed to roam free over the previous years’ lush grasses. With only tiny amounts of rainfall in 1886, creeks and rivers dried up and grass did not flourish. Without sufficient rain, the grass was sparse and not as nutritious for cattle. In addition, the dried out land sparked prairie fires that destroyed even more grazing.

Of course, in my romances set during this time in Montana, I write about astute rancher heroes such as Preston Kincaid in AMANDA'S RANCHER, Loving A Rancher Series book 1. They had fenced their land and grew hay, oats, and food crops to sustain them and their animals all year. They had dug trenches or canals to water sources, had root cellars to store fruit and root vegetables, and operated as an efficient and profitable business. In fact, some real-life ranchers did this but most did not—to their sorrow.

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 wooly 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 only a few feet from their front doors.

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. On January 9, 1887 almost a inch of snow fell every hour for a twenty-four hour period. Temperatures dropped to 30 below in some places. They hit 43 below the next month. On January 14, 1887, temperatures in Miles City, Montana, bottomed out at 60 below zero. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone or anything survived that!

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 M. Russell

Warm Chinook winds began the thaw by March 1887. Then, the widespread losses of cattle were discovered. A large number of cattle carcasses 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.

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 future President Theodore Roosevelt, who was ranching in Medora, Dakota Territory at the time. Later, 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.”

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. 

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.  That winter proved again that nature could at any moment shatter all sense of human control—as if we need a reminder.


One desperate young woman.
A chance meeting.
A life-changing outcome.

Growing up in a brothel, Mara O'Sullivan battled public disdain and contempt, but always remained kind-hearted, virtuous, and gracious. After testifying against vicious bank robbers, her life is threatened and Mara must find sanctuary far from everything she knows.  

One train ride changes her life as she fatefully meets a half-sister, Amanda, and a niece she never knew existed. But when circumstances end her sister's life, Mara makes a promise that she'll raise her niece as her own and take her sister's place as Preston Kincaid's mail-order-bride. As Mara (now called Amanda) and Preston grow closer, their marriage no longer seems like a ruse, but a relationship of love, passion, and desire.

Mara's past comes back to haunt her and she finds herself in danger—will her new husband forgive her deceit and protect her as his own? 

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Caroline Clemmons writes about love that lasts forever. 
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1 comment:

  1. Caroline's sympathetic post gives us valuable information for understanding the West before 1900. As an author, I've dug long and hard for this information. I thoroughly enjoyed every word of this post.


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