Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The day of the cattlemen, of trail drives and open range, lasted only about two decades, from 1866 to about 1887, in the Great Plains. The cattlemen then adjusted to the new era of fence laws, barbed wire, and quarantine laws by gaining control of vast areas of rangeland in the Texas Panhandle, the Nebraska Sandhills, eastern Wyoming, and other parts of the Plains, which, because of aridity and isolation, were not attractive to homesteaders. By manipulating land laws such as the Timber Culture Act (1873) and the Forest Lieu Act (1897), they were able to own the land along the water courses and lakes and, therefore, have undisturbed use of the intervening range. On the U.S. Plains, at least, ranchers sometimes used violence to maintain their operations; more often, however, they relied on the abilities of their ranch managers to adapt to the changing times, and some of the early enterprises continue to prosper.

In the Texas Panhandle, the XIT ("ten counties in Texas") Ranch, run by a Chicago business coalition, eventually extended over more than three million acres and had a herd of more than 150,000 head, watched over by more than a hundred ranch hands. The huge spread was gradually sold to ranchers and farmers over the course of the first half of the twentieth century. The King Ranch in southeast Texas, founded by Richard King and Mifflin Kennedy, who later divided their holdings, covered one million acres in 1852. King's widow, Henrietta, operated the ranch after 1885. Other large Texas ranches, founded in the decades after the Civil War, include the JA, the Pitchfork, and the 6666. The JA was founded by Charles Goodnight in 1877, with financial backing from Irishman John G. Adair (hence the name and brand). The JA encompassed 1.3 million acres in Palo Duro Canyon and grazed 100,000 cattle in the early 1880s. It remains a working ranch today. So too do the Pitchfork and 6666 Ranches, which are both headquartered near Guthrie, Texas, and known for their quality cattle and American quarter horses.

George Washington Miller and his sons' 101 Ranch in northeastern Oklahoma, with 110,000 acres, rodeos, and Wild West shows, is another famous Plains ranch. The 101 remained intact until surviving son Zach was obliged to sell at a bankruptcy auction in 1931. In northwestern Kansas, C. P. Dewey and his son Chauncey controlled 700,000 acres, about half of which they owned and the remainder they leased from private owners or the federal government. Other notable Central Plains ranches include the Colorado spread operated by John Iliff until his death in 1878 and the 150,000-acre Spade Ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. Iliff's methods reveal how ranchers in the United States controlled large amounts of territory in the nineteenth century. Iliff owned 105 scattered parcels of land, totaling only 15,588 acres, but by strategically locating his parcels along rivers and streams he was able to control a ranching territory of about 6,000 square miles, extending from Greeley to the eastern border of Colorado.

The Swan Land and Cattle Company, headquartered at Chugwater, Wyoming, which operated for more than seventy years and at its peak held as many as 110,000 head of cattle, serves as an example of the strong-arm techniques sometimes used by ranchers to control large amounts of land. In 1894 Alexander Swan hired noted gunman Tom Horn to kill rustlers and homesteaders, both of whom threatened Swan's large operation. Other cattlemen used equal or even greater violence, the best-known example being the infamous Johnson County War (1892) in north-central Wyoming, when vigilantes, hired by largescale ranchers who were members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, "invaded" Johnson County, searching out, and in two cases killing, small operators who were suspected of rustling. The Swan Land and Cattle Company has since been divided into smaller ranches, and its original buildings are in disrepair.

The Matador Land and Cattle Company, founded by five Americans in northwest Texas along the Pease River in 1879, was taken over in 1882 by Scottish investors. Scottish ownership continued until the 1950s (with Murdo Mackenzie particularly influential), as the company acquired grazing lands throughout the Northern Great Plains and into Saskatchewan. The huge estate was divided into smaller holdings and sold after the 1950s.

In the Prairie Provinces, adapted land laws and low population densities made ranching a more regulated enterprise than it was south of the forty-ninth parallel. Under the Land Act of 1881 ranchers could make twenty-one-year leases of up to 100,000 acres at one cent per acre, provided that the rancher kept one cow for every twenty acres of land. Alberta's Bar U Ranch, operated by George Lane, one of Canada's Big Four ranchers, served as the center of an empire that consisted not only of shortgrass ranches, but also farms, meatpacking factories, and flour mills. It was renowned for breeding cattle and Percheron horses. The Bar U Ranch, under new ownership, remains an active ranch more than 120 years after its founding.

Today Great Plains ranchers drive the rough terrain of their spreads in air-conditioned four-wheel drive pickups or sport-utility vehicles. At holding pens and feeder yards eighteen-wheelers take on cattle then speed down interstates en route to distant markets or slaughterhouses. Ranchers watch price fluctuations and futures markets on television monitors linked to satellites. They express concern about new cattle afflictions, such as the dreaded mad cow disease. Membership in cattle associations and beef producer organizations is a necessity. Yet most carry the spirit and tradition of nineteenth-century ranches in their hearts, and ranching remains as much a way of life as a business.

Paul D. Travis Texas Woman's University

Dary, David. Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Jordan, Terry G. Trails to Texas: Southern Roots of Western Cattle Ranching. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Starrs, Paul F. Let the Cowboy Ride: Cattle Ranching in the American West. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

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