Friday, October 22, 2021

The Colorado Cowboy?

Post by Doris McCraw

writing as Angela Raines

Comanche Grassland - La Junta, CO.
Photo property of the author

The Colorado Cowboy could easily have been the Colorado Sheepherder. Research shows that sheep were the first 'commercial' animal in Colorado.

In the book "Historic Ranching Complexes on the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site" the authors state that ranching, specifically sheep ranching was brought to the southwest with the settlers from Mexico in the 1500s. It was sheep that formed the basis of ranching as the early settlers knew it. Other livestock were for personal use. It was the Churro Sheep that became the breed of choice due to its hardiness, meat, and wool. 

These ranchers would move the sheep across the open range seasonally, usually penning the livestock at night for protection. In winter they would settle them near the rivers and/or close to the settlements. Where the high country range was used on a more permanent basis, rock walls and shelters were built to create wind rain blocks.

Even as late as 1879, sheep and its wool, which is a twice a year crop, were still popular. In Colorado Springs, one of the principal money earners was wool growing. The city directory shows a list of twenty-five stock growers vs thirty-five wool growers. What is most interesting about this list is the number of people who were doing both.

So where does the Cowboy fit into this picture? Columbus and other early explorers may have introduced cattle to the new world, but Colorado really didn’t see them until people started their journey on the Santa Fe Trail, which passed through the southeast section of Colorado. The Bent brothers, of Bent’s Fort fame, would trade one oxen for two worn-out ones. Thus they built a herd of ‘beeves’. In the 1840s the Army ordered 500 ‘beeves’ from the Bents to supply Kearney and his Army of the West on their trip from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Interior of Bent's Fort 
Photo property of the author

In the central Colorado plains, there is a mention of one man who had cattle as early as the 1830s, but not much more is known about him and his herd.

It was during the cattle drives from Texas through Colorado that the cowboy took his place in this state’s history.  The 1866 Goodnight/Loving Trail went through Pueblo, along the Front Range to Denver, Colorado. This trail was one of the earliest to enter the state. In 1867 Goodnight established a ranch near Pueblo, Colorado. The barn his ‘cowboys’ built in 1869-70 in the Pueblo region, still stands today. 

A second trail, called the Potter/Blocker (Bacon) trail came through the eastern part of Colorado on their trip to Montana sometime around 1883. Not as well known and harsher than most, it traversed a drier and more unforgiving area for such drives. 

Eastern Plains of Colorado
Photo property of the author 

Today, Colorado still has cowboys and cattle grazing on the land. This legacy is traced back to the early settlers who braved this new country and left their mark. I will leave you with this quote from the book Century in the Saddle: The 100 Year Story of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, 1867-1967:

The cattlemen who built the Colorado range industry in the later 1860’s and 1870’s were not all heroes, nor were they all villains. However, there were both heroes and villains among them. Essentially they were pioneers, with the foresight to see a future in the cattle business...”

Doris Gardner-McCraw -
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women's History
Angela Raines - author: Telling Stories Where Love & History Meet

Angela Raines FaceBook: Click Here

Post (c) by Doris McCraw All Rights Reserved


  1. I had no idea sheep were so popular, Doris. You always have such informative and interesting posts. I look forward to reading them. Thank you for your research well-presented!

    1. Thank you.The two co-existed for a long time here. It seemed it became a problem as land became scarce. It takes a lot of acres to feed one cow and they didn't realize that sheep and goats kept the harmful plants in check. Doris


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