When Cattlemen Attack #ThisWeekInWYHistory

Historical 1921 photo of a sheep camp.

(Gillette, Wyo.) On March 9, 1904, about 300 sheep were destroyed near Laramie, along with the camps of the herders watching over them. It was fortunate no one was killed considering the war that was going on between cattle ranchers and shepherds at the time.

In multiple incidents over about 30 years, shepherds were murdered, in addition to the destruction of their sheep and other property.

The situation arose as a result of a little thing called the tragedy of the commons. Anytime a resource is shared among a group of people, none of which own any part of that resource, the resource rapidly depletes and people start fighting over what’s left.

The reason for this is simple. Say you have a village with an apple tree. Anyone can go and pick an apple off the tree anytime they want. While we like to think no one would take more than he needs, in reality one bad apple—excuse the pun—spoils the whole bunch. Not only can one person take more than he or she needs, the fear someone else might do so leads others to take more than they need.

This is why common ownership of property often leads toward poor management practices of that property. People tend to take better care of what they personally own.

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Today the grazing lands are privately owned and grazing on public land is carefully managed. But at the dawn of the 20th Century and before, grazing land was largely dived up on a first-come, first-serve basis.

As shepherds moved into land the cattlemen were using, tensions brewed between them. Between 1870 and 1920, there were over 120 fights in eight different states and territories, resulting in at least 54 deaths and over 50,000 sheep slaughtered.

In Wyoming, there were over 20 such attacks and possibly up to a dozen or more deaths. In Garfield County, 3,800 sheep were driven over cliffs into Parachute Creek in 1894, and the shepherd wounded. Another 1,500 sheep were killed in Garfield County during the same year in other incidents.

In late June 1896, two shepherds were killed and 300 sheep destroyed by Colorado cattlemen. The owner of the sheep was a man by the name of Jack Edwards. He told an Omaha reporter in 1897 he had an armed force of about 50 men ready to fight the cattleman who were killing his sheep and shepherds.

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“For a while it looked as though the entire Colorado militia would have to be called out, but the sheepmen and cattlemen looked out for themselves, and there are several graves in the vicinity of Meeker that go to show that they know how to do this,” Edwards told the reporter.

In Nov. 1899, about 40 masked men attacked a sheep camp located on the lower Snake River, clubbing over 3,000. They then robbed the shepherds and burned their wagons.

Attacks continued into the 1900s. The situation culminated in April 1909 with the Spring Creek Raid. It’s believed two shepherds were executed, two dozen sheep were killed, and sheep wagons destroyed.

What made this raid unique is the perpetrators were convicted and incarcerated for the crime. It set a precedence that law and order were being established on the open range. While sheep raids continued into the 1910s, there were no more murders.

Originally from New Mexico, Killough began his career writing freelance for a weekly magazine in Albuquerque while completing his undergraduate degree. In addition to reporting on uranium mining in western New Mexico, he spent three years reporting in western North Dakota during the height of the oil boom. He can be reached at kevin@county17.com or 701-641-6603.