The Range of the American West

Lewis and Clark on the Upper Missouri River.

Lewis and Clark on the Upper Missouri River.

By Emerson Hough in 1918

When, in 1803, those two immortal youths, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, were about to go forth on their great journey across the continent, they were admonished by President Thomas Jefferson that they would in all likelihood encounter in their travels, living and stalking about, the mammoth or the mastodon, whose bones had been found in the great salt-licks of Kentucky. We smile now at such a supposition, yet it was not unreasonable then. No man knew that tremendous country that lay beyond the mouth of the Missouri River.

The explorers crossed one portion of a vast land which was like to nothing they had ever seen–the region later to become the great cattle-range of America.

It reached, although they could know nothing of that, from the Spanish possessions on the south across a thousand miles of short grasslands to the present Canadian boundary line which certain obdurate American souls still say ought to have been at 54 degrees 40 minutes, and not where it is!

From the Rio Grande to “Fifty-four forty,” indeed, would have made nice measurements for the Saxon cattle-range.

Mule Deer near Manter, Kansas

Mule Deer near Manter, Kansas

Little, however, was the value of this land understood by the explorers; and, for more than half a century afterward, it commonly was supposed to be useless for the occupation of white men and suitable only as a hunting-ground for savage tribes. Most of us can remember the school maps of our own youth, showing a vast region marked, vaguely, “The Great American Desert,” which was considered hopeless for any human industry, but much of which has since proved as rich as any land anywhere on the globe.

Perhaps it was the treeless nature of the vast Plains which carried the first idea of their infertility. When the first settlers of Illinois and Indiana came up from south of the Ohio River they had their choice of timber and prairie lands. Thinking the prairies worthless — since land which could not raise a tree certainly could not raise crops–these first occupants of the Middle West spent a generation or more, ax in hand, along the heavily timbered river-bottoms. The prairies were long in settling. No one then could have predicted that farmlands in that region would be worth three hundred dollars an acre or better and that these prairies of the Mississippi Valley would, in a few generations, be studded with great towns and would form a part of the granary of the world.

Buffalo along the Oregon Trail

Buffalo along the Oregon Trail

But, if our early explorers, passing beyond the valley of the Missouri River, found valueless the region of the Plains and the foothills, not so the wild creatures or the Indians who had lived there longer than science records. The buffalo then ranged from the Rio Grande to the Athabaska, from the Missouri River to the Rockies, and beyond. No one seems to have concluded in those days that there was, after all, slight difference between the buffalo and the domestic ox. The native cattle, however, in untold thousands and millions, had even then proved beyond peradventure the sustaining and strengthening nature of the grasses of the Plains.

Now, each creature, even of human species, must adjust itself to its environment. Having done so, commonly it is disposed to love that environment. The Eskimo and the Zulu each thinks that he has the best land in the world: So with the American Indian, who, supported by the vast herds of buffalo, ranged all over that tremendous country which was later to be given over to the white man with his domestic cattle. No freer life ever was lived by any savages than by the Horse Indians of the Plains in the buffalo days; and never has the world known a physically higher type of savage.

On the buffalo range — that is to say, on the cattle-range which was to be–Lewis and Clark met several bands of the Sioux—the Mandan and the Assiniboine, the Blackfeet, the Shoshone.

Plains Indians

Plains Indians

Further south were the Pawnee, the Kaw, the Otoe, the Osage, most of whom depended in part upon the buffalo for their living, though the Otoe, the Pawnee, the Mandan, and certain others now and then raised a little corn or a few squashes to help out their bill of fare. Still farther south dwelt the Kiowa, the Comanche, and others. The Arapaho, the Cheyenne the Crow, and the Ute, all hunters, were soon to come into the ken of the white man. Of such of these tribes as they met, the youthful captains made accounting, gravely and with extraordinary accuracy, but without discovering in this region much future for Americans. They were explorers and not industrial investigators.

It was nearly half a century after the journey of Lewis and Clark that the Forty-Niners were crossing the Plains, whither, meanwhile, the Mormons had trekked in search of a country where they might live as they liked. Still, the wealth of the Plains remained untouched. California was in the eyes of the world. The great cow-range was overleaped. But, in the early fifties, when the placer fields of California began to be less numerous and less rich, the half-savage population of the mines roared on northward, even across our northern line. Soon it was to roll back. Next, it worked east and southeast and northeast over the great dry plains of Washington and Oregon, so that, as readily may be seen, the cow-range proper was not settled as most of the West was, by a directly westbound thrust of an eastern population; but, on the contrary, it was approached from several different angles–from the north, from the east, from the west and northwest, and finally from the south.

The early, turbulent population of miners and adventurers was crude, lawless, and aggressive. It cared nothing whatever for the Indian tribes. War, instant and merciless, where it meant murder, for the most part, was set on foot as soon as white touched red in that far western region.

All these new white men who had crowded into the unknown country of the Plains, the Rockies, the Sierras, and the Cascades, had to be fed. They could not employ and remain content with the means by which the red man there had always fed himself. Hence a new industry sprang up in the United States, which of itself made certain history in that land. The business of freighting supplies to the West, whether by bull-train or by pack-train, was an industry sui generic, very highly specialized, and pursued by men of great business ability as well as by men of great hardihood and daring.

Bent's Fort, Colorado by Kathy Alexander.

Bent’s Fort, Colorado by Kathy Alexander.

Each of these freight trains which went West carried hanging on its flank more and more of the white men. As the trains returned, more and more was learned in the States of the new country which lay between the Missouri River and the Rockies, which ran no man knew how far north, and no man could guess how far south. Now appears in history Fort Benton, Montana on the Missouri River, the great northern supply post — just as at an earlier date there had appeared Fort Hall, Idaho, one of the old fur-trading posts beyond the Rockies, Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River in Colorado, and many other outposts of the new Saxon civilization in the West.

Later came the Pony Express and the stagecoach which made history and romance for a generation. Feverishly, boisterously, a strong, rugged, womanless population crowded westward and formed the wavering, now advancing, now receding line of the great frontier of American story.

But for long there was no sign of permanent settlement on the Plains, and no one thought of this region as the frontier. The men there who were prospecting and exploiting were classified as no more than adventurers. No one seems to have taken a lesson from the Indian and the buffalo. The reports of Fremont long since had called attention to the nourishing quality of those grasses of the high country, but the day of the cowboy had not yet dawned. There is a somewhat feeble story which runs to the effect that in 1866 one of the great wagon-trains, caught by the early snows of winter, was obliged to abandon its oxen on the range. It was supposed that, of course, the oxen must perish during the winter.

Cowboy on Horse

The Cow Boy, circa 1887, by John C. H. Grabill, Sturgis, Dakota Territory.

But, next spring the owners were surprised to find that the oxen, so far from perishing, had flourished very much–indeed, were fat and in good condition. So runs the story which is often repeated.

It may be true, but to accredit to this incident the beginnings of the cattle industry in the Indian country would surely be going too far. The truth is that the cow industry was not a Saxon discovery. It was a Latin enterprise, flourishing in Mexico long before the first of these miners and adventurers came on the range.

Something was known of the Spanish lands to the south through the explorations of Zebulon Pike, but more through the commerce of the prairies–the old wagon trade from the Missouri River to the Spanish cities of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chihuahua. Now the cow business, south of the Rio Grande, was already well-differentiated and developed at the time the first adventurers from the United States went into Texas and began to crowd their Latin neighbors for more room. There it was that our Saxon frontiersmen first discovered the cattle industry. But these southern and northern riflemen–ruthless and savage, yet strangely statesmanlike–though they might betimes drive away the owners of the herds, troubled little about the herds themselves. There was a certain fascination to these rude strangers in the slow and easeful civilization of Old Spain which they encountered in the land below them. Little by little, and then largely and yet more largely, the warriors of San Jacinto reached out and began to claim lands for themselves–leagues and uncounted leagues of land, which had, however, no market value. Well within the memory of the present generation large tracts of good land were bought in Texas for six cents an acre; some was bought for half that price in a time not much earlier. Today much of that land is producing wealth, but land then was worthless–and so were cows.

Texas Panhandle Plains

Texas Panhandle Plains

This civilization of the Southwest, of the new Republic of Texas, may be regarded as the first enduring American result of contact with the Spanish industry. The men who won Texas came mostly from Kentucky and Tennessee or southern Ohio, and the first colonizer of Texas was a Virginian, Stephen Fuller Austin. They came along the old Natchez Trace from Nashville, Tennessee to the Mississippi River — that highway which has so much history of its own. Down this old winding trail into the greatest valley of all the world, and beyond that valley out into the Spanish country, moved steadily the adventurers whose fathers had but recently crossed the Appalachians. One of the strongest thrusts of the American civilization thus entered the cattle-range at its lower end, between the Rio Grande and the Red River.

In all the several activities, mining, freighting, scouting, soldiering, riding Pony Express, or even sheer adventuring for what might come, there was ever trading back and forth between home-staying men and adventuring men. Thus, there was an interchange of knowledge and of customs between East and West, between our old country and our new. There was an interchange, too, at the south, where our Saxon civilization came in touch with that of Mexico.

We have now to note some fundamental facts and principles of the cattle industry which our American cattlemen took over ready-made from the hands of Mexico.

The Mexicans in Texas had an abundance of small, hardy horses of African and Spanish breed, which Spain had brought into the New World–the same horses that the Moors had brought into Spain — a breed naturally hardy and able to subsist upon dry food. Without such horses, there could have been no cattle industry. These horses, running wild in herds, had crossed to the upper Plains. La Verendrye, and later Lewis and Clark, had found the Indians using horses in the north. The Indians, as we have seen, had learned to manage the horse. Formerly they had used dogs to drag the travois, but now they used the “elk-dog,” as they first called the horse.

In the original cow country, that is, in Mexico and Texas, countless herds of cattle were held in a loose sort of ownership over wide and unknown plains. Like all wild animals in that warm country, they bred in extraordinary numbers. The southern range, indeed, has always been called the breeding range. The cattle had little value. He who wanted beef killed beef. He who wanted leather killed cattle for their hides. But beyond these scant and infrequent uses cattle had no definite value.

Mexican Cowboy

Mexican Cowboy

The Mexican, however, knew how to handle cows. He could ride a horse, and he could rope cattle and brand them. Most of the cattle of a wide range would go to certain water-holes more or less regularly, where they might be roughly collected or estimated. This coming of the cattle to the watering-places made it unnecessary for owners of cattle to acquire ranch land. It was enough to secure the water-front where the cows must go to drink. That gave the owner all the title he needed. His right to the increase he could prove by another phenomenon of nature, just as inevitable and invariable as that of thirst. The maternal instinct of a cow and the dependence of the calf upon its mother gave the old rancher of immemorial times sufficient proof of ownership in the increase of his herd. The calf would run with its own mother and with no other cow through its first season. So that if an old Mexican ranchero saw a certain number of cows at his watering-places, and with them calves, he knew that all before him were his property–or, at least, he claimed them as such and used them.

Still, this was loose-footed property. It might stray away after all, or it might be driven away. Hence, in some forgotten time, our shrewd Spaniard invented a system of proof of ownership which has always lain at the very bottom of the organized cow industry; he invented the method of branding. This meant his sign, his name, his trade-mark, his proof of ownership. The animal could not shake it off. It would not burn off in the sun or wash off in the rain. It went with the animal and could not be eradicated from the animal’s hide. Wherever the bearer was seen, the brand upon its hide provided certain identification of the owner.

Now, all these basic ideas of the cow industry were old on the lower range in Texas when our white men first drifted thither. The cattle industry, although in its infancy, and although supposed to have no great future, was developed long before Texas became a republic. It never, indeed, changed very much from that time until the end of its own career.

One great principle was accepted religiously even in those early and crude days. A man’s cow was HIS cow. A man’s brand was HIS brand. There must be no interference with his ownership. Hence certain other phases of the industry followed inevitably. These cattle, these calves, each branded by the iron of the owner, in spite of all precautions, began to mingle as settlers became more numerous; hence came the idea of the round-up. The country was warm and lazy. If a hundred or a thousand cows were not collected, very well. If a calf were separated from its mother, very well. The old ranchers never quarreled among themselves. They never would have made in the South anything like a cattle association; it was left for the Yankees to do that at a time when cows had come to have far greater values. There were few arguments in the first rodeos of the lower range. One rancher would vie with his neighbor in generosity in the matter of unbranded calves. Haggling would have been held contemptible. On the lower range in the old times no one cared much about a cow. Why should one do so? There was no market for cows–no one who wished to buy them. If one tendered a Mexican cinquo pesos for a yearling or a two-year-old, the owner might perhaps offer the animal as a gift, or he might smile and say “Con mucho gusto” as he was handed a few pieces of silver. There were plenty of cows everywhere in the world!

Let us, therefore, give the old Spaniard full credit alike in picturesque romance and in the organized industry of the cow. The westbound thrust which came upon the upper part of the range in the days of more shrewd and exacting business methods was simply the best-known and most published phase of frontier life in the cow country; hence we have usually accepted it as typical. It would not be accurate to say that the cattle industry was basically much influenced or governed by northern or eastern men. In practically all of its great phenomena the frontier of the old cow-range was southern by birth and growth.

There lay, then, so long unused, that vast and splendid land so soon to write romantic history of its own, so soon to come into the admiration or the wonder of a great portion of the earth—a land of fascinating interest to the youth of every country, and a region whose story holds a charm for young and old alike even today.

Kansas Sunflowers

Kansas Sunflowers

It was a region royal in its dimensions. Far on the west, it was hedged by the gray-sided and white-topped mountains, the Rockies. Where the buffalo once lived, the cattle were to live, high up in the foothills of this great mountain range which ran from the Rio Grande to Canada. On the east, where lay the Prairies rather than the Plains, it was a country waving with high native grasses, with many brilliant flowers hiding among them, the sweet-William, the wild rose, and often great masses of the yellow sunflower.

From the Rio Grande to the Athabaska, for the greater part, the frontier sky was blue and cloudless during most of the year. The rainfall was not great. The atmosphere was dry. It was a cheerful country, one of optimism and not of gloom. In the extreme south, along the Rio Grande, the climate was moister, warmer, more enervating; but on the high steppes of the middle range in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, western Nebraska, there lay the finest out-of-doors country, man’s country the finest of the earth.

But for the time, busy with more accustomed things, mining and freighting and fighting and hunting and trading and trapping, we Americans who had arrived upon the range cared little for cows. The upper thrust of the great herds from the south into the north had not begun. It was after the Civil War that the first great drives of cattle from the south toward the north began, and after men had learned in the State of Texas that cattle moved from the Rio Grande to the upper portions of the State and fed on the mesquite grass would attain greater stature than in the hot coast country. Then swiftly, somewhat luridly, there leaped into our comprehension and our interest that strange country long loosely held under our flag, the region of the Plains, the region which we now call the Old West.

In great bands, in long lines, slowly, towheaded, sore-footed, the vast gatherings of the prolific lower range moved north, each cow with its title indelibly marked upon its hide. These cattle were now going to take the place of those on which the Indians had depended for their living these many years. A new day in American history had dawned.

Emerson Hough, 1918. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2020.

Cattle Roundup

Cattle Roundup in Kansas.

Excerpted from the book The Passing of the Frontier, A Chronicle of the Old West, by Emerson Hough, Yale University Press, 1918. Emerson Hough (1857–1923) was an author and journalist who wrote factional accounts and historical novels of life in the American West. His works helped establish the Western as a popular genre in literature and motion pictures.  For years, Hough wrote the feature “Out-of-Doors” for the Saturday Evening Post and contributed to other major magazines.

Also See:

The American Cowboy

The Cattle Trails

Cattle Trails of the Prairie

List of Trail Blazers, Riders, & Cowboys

Cowboys on the American Frontier

Tales & Trails of the American West