The Cattle Kings

By Emerson Hough in 1918

Cattle King

Cattle King

It is proper now to look back yet again over the scenes with which we hitherto have had to do. It is after the railways have come to the Plains. The Indians now are vanishing. The buffalo have not yet gone, but are soon to pass.

Until the closing days of the Civil War, the northern range was a wide, open domain, the greatest ever offered for the use of a people. None claimed it then in fee; none wanted it in fee. The grasses and the sweet waters offered accessible and profitable chemistry for all men who had cows to the range. The land laws still were vague and inexact in application, and each man could construe them much as he liked.

The excellent homestead law of 1862, one of the few really good land laws that have been put on our national statute books, worked well enough so long as we had good farming lands for homesteading–lands of which a quarter section would support a home and a family. This same homestead law was the only one available for use on the cattle-range. In practice, it was violated thousands of times–in fact, of necessity violated by any cattleman who wished to acquire sufficient range to run a considerable herd. Our great timber kings, our great cattle kings, made their fortunes out of their open contempt for the homestead law, which was designed to give all the people an even chance for a home and a farm. It made and lost America.

Swiftly enough, here and there along all the great waterways of the northern range, ranchers and their men filed claims on the waterfronts. The dry land thus lay tributary to them. For the most part, the open lands were held practically under squatter right; the first cowman in any valley usually had his rights respected, at least for a time. These were the days of the open range. Fences had not come, nor had farms been staked out.

From the South now appeared that tremendous and elemental force–most revolutionary of all the great changes we have noted in the swiftly changing West –the bringing in of thousands of horned kine along the northbound trails. The trails were hurrying from the Rio Grande to the upper plains of Texas and northward, along the north and south line of the Frontier — that land which now we have been seeking less to define and to mark precisely than fundamentally to understand.

Texas Longhorn

The Indian wars had much to do with the cow trade. The Indians were crowded upon the reservations, and they had to be fed, and fed on beef. Corrupt Indian agents made fortunes, and the Beef Ring at Washington, one of the most despicable lobbies whichever fattened there, now wrote its brief and unworthy history. In a strange way, corrupt politics and corrupt business affected the phases of the cattle industry as they had affected our relations with the Indians. More than once a herd of some thousand beeves driven up from Texas on contract, and arriving late in autumn, was not accepted on its arrival at the army post–some pet of Washington perhaps had his own herd to sell! All that could be done then would be to seek out a “holding range.” In this way, more and more, the capacity of the northern Plains to nourish and improve cattle became established.

Naturally, the price of cows began to rise; and naturally, also, the demand for open range steadily increased. There now began the whole complex story of leased lands and fenced lands. The frontier still was offering an opportunity for the bold man to reap where he had not sown. Lands leased to the Indians of the civilized tribes began to cut a large figure in the cow trade — as well as some figure in politics — until at length, the thorny situation was handled by a firm hand at Washington. The methods of the East were swiftly overrunning those of the West. Politics and graft and pull, things hitherto unknown, soon wrote their harrowing story also overall this newly won region from which the rifle-smoke had scarcely yet cleared away.

But every herd which passed north for delivery of one sort or the other advanced the education of the cowman, whether of the northern or the southern ranges. Some of the southern men began to start feeding ranges in the North, retaining their breeding ranges in the South. The demand of the great upper range for cattle seemed for the time insatiable.

Cowboy Leading Horses

Cowboy Leading Horses

To the vision of the railroad builders, a tremendous potential freightage now appeared. The railroad builders began to calculate that one day they would parallel the northbound cow trail with iron trails of their own and compete with nature for the carrying of this beef. The whole swift story of all that development, while the westbound rails were crossing and crisscrossing the newly won frontier, scarce lasted twenty years. Presently we began to hear in the East of the Chisholm Trail and of the Western Trail which lay beyond it and of many smaller and intermingling branches. We heard of Ogallala, in Nebraska, the “Gomorrah of the Range,” the first great upper marketplace for the distribution of cattle to the swiftly forming northern ranches. The names of new rivers came upon our maps; and beyond the first railroads we began to hear of the Yellowstone, the Powder, the Musselshell, the Tongue, the Big Horn, and the Little Missouri Rivers.

The wildlife, bold and carefree, coming up from the South now in a mighty surging wave, spread all over that new West which offered to the people of older lands a strange and fascinating interest. Everyone on the range had money; everyone was independent. Once more it seemed that man had been able to overleap the confining limitations of his life and to attain independence, self-indulgence, ease, and liberty. A chorus of Homeric, riotous mirth, as of a land in laughter, rose up all over the great range. After all, it seemed that we had a new world left, a land not yet used. We still were young! The cry arose that there was land enough for all-out West. And at first, the trains of white-topped wagons rivaled the crowded coaches westbound on the rails.

Cattle Trail

Cattle Trail

In consequence, there came an entire readjustment of values. This country, but yesterday barren and worthless, now was covered with gold, deeper than the gold of California or any of the old placers. New securities and new values appeared. Banks did not care much for the land as security–it was practically worthless without the cattle–but they would lend money on cattle at rates which did not then seem usurious. A new system of finance came into use. Side by side with the expansion of credits went the expansion of the cattle business. Literally, in hundreds of thousands, the cows came north from the exhaustless ranges of the lower country.

It was a wild, strange day. But withal it was the kindliest and most generous time, alike the most contented and the boldest time, in all the history of our frontiers.

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