Death Knell on the Range: #ThisWeekInWYHistory

On Jan. 9, 1887, record snowfall and subarctic temperatures decimated Wyoming’s once booming and profitable cattle industry.

Historians remain divided on exactly how badly injured the cattle industry had been, but reports state that Wyoming lost between 15 and 50 percent of its livestock operations that year.

Cattlemen had no one to blame but themselves.

A decade earlier, the cattle industry was wrapped up in an unforeseen boom, made possible through a combination of mild winters, cool summers, and abundant grasslands.

Nathan Barker, editor of the Cheyenne Leader in 1867, declared that the grass in Wyoming was plentiful and exceedingly nutritious, according to the Wyoming State Historical Society.

In the newspaper, Barker wrote that the mild winters meant that ranchers no longer had to worry about feeding their herds through the winter; they could find plenty of grass in the open range.

Barker did, however, advise ranchers to be aware of the potential losses to their herds, around 2 to 3 percent. But the cost of losing such a small number of cattle was comparatively cheaper than purchasing hay and feed for the cattle throughout the winter.

In 1870, it cost $1.50 to raise a steer, compared to roughly $28 in 2019. But a full grown steer was fetching a handsome price of $55 at the markets, versus $1058 today.

The profit margin was enormous, and cattlemen decided they could afford to lose a few steers in lieu of feeding the entire herd for months on end.

In 1871, the cattle industry continued to boom with 60,000 cattle grazing within 100 miles of Cheyenne.

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At the same time, the industry gained political power and leverage with the establishment of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, currently hailed as one of the most powerful political organizations in the West.

Countries across the Atlantic Ocean bought tons of fresh beef by the thousands. In 1878, England imported an estimated 24,000 tons of fresh beef from the United States.

Stockmen, with dollar signs in their eyes, staked out ranches in the Bighorn Basin, the Powder River Basin, and the Upper Green River Valley as cattle flooded the plains from Texas and Oregon.

Though prices in the cattle market dipped slightly in the late 1870s, by the early 1880s they were back in full swing.

Prices soared to more than $60 per steer, keeping investors firmly attached to the industry.

In 1882, six Wyoming counties reported nearly 500,000 cattle on their tax rolls, approximately $7 million worth. Historians estimate those numbers to be even higher, as cattlemen were notorious for underestimating their herds to dodge taxes.

In 1886, the herds grew so that 1.5 million cattle ranged across Wyoming.

Then everything changed.

It began with the summer of 1886. Dry heat baked the plains, aided by a drought moving north from Texas. Reports at the time indicated the summer to be the driest in recent memory. Several parts of Montana reported receiving less than 2 inches of rainfall by September.

Cattle prices were cut in half.

The extreme drought was followed by a fierce winter. A series of storms ravaged Montana and Wyoming beginning on Jan. 9, 1887, where a blizzard kicked things off by dumping over 16 inches of snow, and temperatures plummeted to 50 below.

A brief thaw between storms created an impenetrable ice barrier that meant the cattle couldn’t reach the sparse forage beneath the snow.

Cattle dropped by the thousands, freezing to death from the cold or succumbing to starvation.

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Due to abundance and poor decisions, ranchers had neglected to set aside feed for the cattle, some of which reportedly wandered into town “bawling for food” and desperately eating young trees planted by townsfolk, according to History.com.

When spring thawed the land, it was a sobering sight. Reports reference cattle carcasses “as far as the eye can see.” They were so numerous that they damned up rivers, spoiling large stretches of fresh drinking water.

Many ranchers declared bankruptcy, some quit the industry and moved back East, never to lay eyes on the untamed frontier again.

The winter of 1886 -1887 became known as the “death knell on the range.”

In his book My Life on the Range, author John Clay wrote “As the South Sea bubble burst, as the Dutch tulip craze dissolved, this cattle gold brick withstood not the snow of winter. It wasted away under the fierce attacks of a subarctic season aided by summer drought. For years, you could wander amid the dead brushwood that borders our streams. In the struggle for existence the cattle had peeled off the bark as if legions of beavers had been at work.”

It was the end of the massive cattle herds. The few ranchers that managed to avoid bankruptcy ceased feeding their cattle on the open range, recognizing that they would need to grow feed for their herds if they were to avoid another catastrophe. Fenced grazing territories were established, which meant cattle could be kept close to grain reserves.

By 1890, ranchers doubled their duties to become farmers, growing crops to feed their herds. The roving cowboys became ranch hands, fixing fences more often than riding freely across the prairie.

In a nutshell, the hard times signaled the end of the untamed West and the ranging cowboy.