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History is in Our Hands

“Open range” cattle ranching refers to the practice of running cattle herds on the unfenced open public lands of the prairie. Cattle were driven into and kept in southeastern Colorado almost as soon as non-Native settlement began to take place in the 1820s. But open range cattle ranching as a specific method of livestock production in the Purgatoire River region came later, beginning with the movement of cattle through the area as they were driven from Texas to railheads in Abilene, Kansas, in the 1860s.

The systems and methods of open range ranching were imported to the New World by the Spanish, and this form of cattle ranching, which gave rise to the archetype of the cowboy as a romantic figure in the history of the American West, was practiced in southeast Texas and southwestern Louisiana beginning in the late eighteenth century. Southern Anglo-Americans and Mexicans influenced one another’s methods of raising cattle, although Texan Anglos rejected many elements of Mexican culture, and racial and cultural prejudice prevented a greater Mexican influence than might otherwise have happened. Nevertheless, words that infused cattle raising, such as lariat, corral, and remuda, originated with the vaqueros who brought them from Mexico.  Anglo-American cattlemen disliked the Mexican technique of raising cattle and sheep together, and this would serve to exacerbate tensions between cattlemen and sheep ranchers in other parts of the west later in the nineteenth century. Although cattle had been raised in the United States since as early as 1868, the intersection of cattle raising with horse culture was something adopted from Mexican and Spanish cattle ranchers.

The success or failure of open range ranching depended on the ability of cattlemen to transport and sell their cattle to markets in cities or regions that demanded beef. The earliest urban market for beef cattle raised on the plains of southeast Texas was New Orleans, in the eighteenth century. As the industry in the western Gulf Coast region developed, in the 1840s and 1850s, Texas cattlemen drove herds of beef cattle to railheads in Kansas City and Sedalia, Missouri, for shipment to eastern markets. As farm settlement in Missouri and Kansas increased, however, open land across which to trail cattle became dotted with farms, and cattlemen were pushed west, causing them to trail cattle over greater distances. Ultimately cattle, which were fat and ready for market at the beginning of the drive in Texas, had lost so much weight by the time they reached the railhead that the cattlemen were forced to “finish” the beef, fattening the cattle up again in feedlots nearer the railhead. It was an inefficient and expensive process. The solution was to find new ranges and markets closer to the trails.

Fortunately for cattle ranchers, in 1859 the mountains of Colorado to the west of the new city of Denver filled with gold prospectors and miners hungry for beef. In addition, the newly established Indian agencies in the Dakota Territory were also buying beef cattle. In 1860, cattleman Charles Goodnight trailed longhorn cattle through the region, blazing a trail up through New Mexico, over Trinchera Pass into southeastern Colorado, up through Pueblo and Denver and on into Wyoming.  In 1868 Goodnight established a semi-permanent trail camp about 40 miles north of Trinidad, on the Apishipa, and in 1870 founded the Rock Canyon Ranch on the Arkansas River at Pueblo. Today, the two-story stone barn Goodnight built at the site is all that remains of the ranch, and is proving a challenge for preservationists in the area.

The early cattle drives that came through the area from Texas helped establish more local cattle operations in the Purgatoire region. Early ranchers like Eugene Rourke bought cattle from the Texas drovers as they came through the region. The drovers were willing to sell stragglers at a price well below what they might have gotten in Denver, in order to keep the herd moving at a faster pace, and Rourke and other small ranchers took advantage of this to build their own herds.

The Jones Brothers (Stephen, Peyton and James) started one of the most notable of the early cattle operations in the region. Establishing a ranch headquarters in the Nine Mile Bottom at Higbee, their enterprise was known as the JJ Ranch. The Jones Brothers had come to the Purgatoire River region from Texas, although their family was originally from Scotland. Their story is told in a vivid local history, The JJ Ranch on the Purgatory River, by Frances Bollacker Keck. The Jones brothers’ JJ Ranch story is illustrative of the practice common to early large cattle operations, in which the ranchers controlled a great deal of the public domain by filing on only those parcels that contained access to water. Founded in 1869, by 1879 the JJ Ranch controlled about 960,000 acres of land, although they only held title to about 18,000. By fencing the water sources on the land, they prevented their competitors from using it. For the cattlemen, this practice had an added benefit: it discouraged sheep ranching. Although sheep had been on the range in the Purgatoire region for as long as cattle had been, the cattlemen erroneously believed that cattle would not use a water source if sheep had been there. Tensions between cattlemen and sheep ranchers and herders were common, although violence was less severe and common in the range in southeastern Colorado.  Cattlemen were known to illegally fence public lands—the Prairie Cattle Company, which bought out many smaller ranches including the JJ Ranch in 1882, was an egregious offender—until President Grover Cleveland ordered illegal fences removed in 1885.

On the lands of the public domain, it was not uncommon for cattle from various operations to mingle. To distinguish them, cattlemen used a system of brands, burning a symbol specific to each ranch onto the hides of that ranches cattle. Brands are configured in a way that makes reading them a specific skill. It was said, in the early days of the open range, that cowboys who could neither read nor write were nevertheless adept at reading brands. In the spring, cowboys convened their herds and branded the steers and heifers that were no longer small enough to identify by their mothers. Steers were also castrated at this time, making them easier to handle. Ranches became known by their brands. The Circle Diamond Ranch, owned by Frank G. Bloom’s Bloom Land and Cattle Company, was one of the largest in the area.

As large cattle operations came to control more and more acreage of the American West, the “cattle barons” who owned them increasingly lived elsewhere, leaving the day-to-day management to the foremen.  British interests owned many of the large operations, including the Prairie Cattle Company. It was an industry that grew and spread quickly, earning enormous amounts of money for speculators and owners of large ranches, which, as geographer Terry G. Jordan observed, “[were] in effect, an agribusiness, one fully in harmony with the Industrial Revolution, with all the attendant benefits and curses.”

Had open range ranching continued even until the end of the nineteenth century, the face of agriculture in the American West would be very different today. But it collapsed in the mid 1880s, giving way to systems of cattle raising that relied more heavily on haying in winter and the use of British-derived breeds of cattle, which required less range than Texas longhorns. Although generally the winters north of Texas were not so severe that cattle were killed, a series of extremely harsh winters, in combination with drought, in the mid-1880s. These culminated in the calamitous winter of 1886-87, which resulted in the death of approximately 90 percent of the cattle on the open range, an event known as the “Great Die-Off” or sometimes the “Great Die-Up.” Clearly, the country north of Texas was not the wide-open cattleman’s dream that Charles Goodnight, the Jones Brothers, and others had envisioned it to be only a decade before.

But the harsh winters were not the only factor in the collapse of open range cattle ranching.  A lack of control over public grazing lands led to widespread over-stocking, in which many more cattle than the range was able to support were grazed. The depletion of pasturage led cattlemen to dump their livestock on the market, quickly depleting prices. Even if the hard winters had not come, the open range system could not have continued.

But open range cattle ranching left one enduring legacy: the archetype of the cowboy. As a symbol of the free and rugged Westerner, the cowboy endures today, although the open range cattle rancher is long gone. Genuine cowboys, the laborers on cattle ranches, adapted with changing climates and systems, and still are much of the backbone of the beef cattle industry in the United States today. But the cowboy of the open range became legendary, kept alive for over a century by authors like Zane Grey and Louis Lamour, artists like Charles M. Russell and Frederick Remington, and entertainers like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Kevin Costner.