Tag Archives: open range

Western Wednesday – Closing the Open Range

Jan 06, 2016
The Open Range

The Open Range

Last week we talked a bit about how cattle got to the West, and how they were maintained and then driven to railheads and eventually on to market (the part we don’t like to think about when we’re enjoying a juicy burger). Obviously, letting cattle graze freely over vast tracts of public land couldn’t last forever. So what changed things and how?

The quick and dirty answer to what changed things is “barbed wire.” But of course, it’s not as simple as that. It is, however, pretty amazing that one little invention could change the course of history and cause a lot of trouble, adding to the reasons it was called the Wild West.

Let’s start with those cattle. The West began to be settled in the 1840s and 50s. During that time, you had an incredibly large amount of land inhabited by an incredibly small amount of people. Neighbors were not something you had to worry about. As the cattle industry began in places like Wyoming, where my Brides of Paradise Ranch series is set, there was more than enough forage and water sources for everyone to let their cattle roam free across the land.

(Of course, this is all from the perspective of white settlers. It was an entirely different story for the Native American tribes who were systematically having their homeland taken from them, but that’s a post for another day.)

All that began to change as more and more people moved West to settle. The most serious problems and resulting conflicts developed when small ranches and individual settlers attempted to put down roots next to the huge ranches run by men of wealth and influence. Simply put, once the West reached the tipping point of number of settlers, all that vast open land and all those easy water sources couldn’t supply everyone who wanted to use them.

The result was that, by the mid-1880s, large ranchers were doing everything they could to drive the smaller ranchers out of business. That included hiring thugs to attack, and in some cases, lynch competing outfits. The Range Wars of the Old West have gone down in legend—sometimes exaggerated, but sometimes not. They were competition taken to the extreme.

Early advertisement for barbed wire

Early advertisement for barbed wire

And one quiet player in the conflict that led to these wars had to do with the invention and implementation of barbed wire fences. Because as soon as barbed wire was invented in the 1870s, it became less expensive to fence in vast tracts of grazing land and accompanying water sources so that a rancher could keep their herd separate from their neighbors’. Only, the problem was that a great deal of the land that was being fenced in was public land.

Back in the earlier days of the West (up to around the 1870s), various Homesteader Acts meant that if you went West and claimed property and made improvements, it was yours. As that land disappeared, however, ownership of the land wasn’t so cut and dry. So when ranchers began building barbed wire fences to enclose their herds, as often as not, they’d fence in land that they didn’t technically own, regardless of whether other livestock needed to use it, the post office needed to get through, or other official institutions had claim to it. And especially regardless of whether a smaller rancher or independent farmer happened to have built their homestead on that land.

Add to that already volatile mix the fact that, in Wyoming at least, an organization of the wealthiest and most powerful ranchers, the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association (which I mention in His Perfect Bride that Howard Haskell and Rex Bonneville both belong to, although Rex is more involved with them) had so much power that they basically controlled the government of Wyoming. A lot of nasty things went down while officials turned a blind eye. None of it was exactly fair. 

Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the range wars that gave the West it’s adjective of Wild.

(images are public domain, courtesy of Wikicommons)

Western Wednesday – Home, Home on the Range

Dec 30, 2015
Vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys

Vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys

One of the most iconic aspects of life in the Old West, something that plays a prominent role in my new series, The Brides of Paradise Ranch, is the whole idea of the ranch itself. When settlers first poured out West as the various trails, and later the railroad, opened things up, many of them thought about farming the rich land or mining for gold or silver. It wasn’t until slightly later that someone looked around and said, “You know what? We could raise  livestock here.” 

Okay, so right about now I bet you’re wondering… How did cows get to the Old West? The short, stupid answer is “Just like everybody else.” Livestock was originally brought over by settlers from Europe. Not just English settlers in the original colonies, though. Quite a few cattle were brought over to Mexico by Spanish settlers. In fact, the whole cowboy, cattle drive industry that we think of today when we think of the Old West really started in Texas around the time of the Civil War. And if you remember, “around the time of the Civil War” is not all that long after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848. Mexican rancheros had been raising longhorn cattle in the area for quite some time. 

The interesting thing to me is that by 1861, with Texas now part of the United States, there was actually a huge surplus of longhorn cattle. Beef was incredibly popular back East, but the problem was getting it there from the remote, railroadless ranches of Texas. A clever, forward-thinking man by the name of James McCoy realized that shipping cattle by rail back east would send profits through the roof. McCoy began buying up land around the village of Abilene, Kansas where the railroad already ran. He built up the area and made it more than just a sleepy frontier town, he made it a destination. All, of course, designed so cattle could be driven from the ranches in Texas to the railhead in Abilene, enabling McCoy and other enterprising ranchers to make money hand over fist. 

This great diagram of how to drive cattle proved very useful in writing His Dangerous Bride!

This great diagram of how to drive cattle proved very useful in writing His Dangerous Bride!

And so, the iconic cattle drive was born. I once had someone tell me that the term “cowboy” wasn’t actually in use in the 19th century, but as far as I have been able to tell from my research, it actually was. But so were the words “cow-poke” and “cow-hand.” Whatever the term, cowboys were, in a way, like glorified shepherds. They were hired to mind the vast herds of cattle that lived out on the Open Range and were owned by specific ranchers. The advantage of the Open Range was that cattle were mostly allowed to just roam free, with little maintenance or interference by ranchers. Cowboys would keep the cattle from getting entirely lost, and once a year, usually in the fall, they would bring the herd together and drive them up to the railhead. 

So who were these cowboys that we’ve all heard so much about? A lot of them were men who were displaced at the end of the Civil War. The war had vast and far-reaching effects, particularly on the economy of the South. Too many of the men coming back from war had no jobs once they returned, especially if they were undereducated or unskilled. The West was just beginning to open at that time, and the advantage of ranches and the boom in the beef industry was that strong men were needed, whether they had education or connections or not. Being a cowboy was a tough life, but it beat a life of poverty and struggle in the decimated economies of the South and East. 

Texas wasn’t the only area where ranching sprouted. In my new series, The Brides of Paradise Ranch, much of the action takes place in the town of Haskell, Wyoming, which was founded by enterprising rancher, Howard Haskell (this is fiction, btw, but based off of a few very interesting actual people). The Wyoming ranching industry began to grow and boom by luck. Yes, the land was ideal for raising cattle (as my character Howard saw from the first), but the luck came about in the decision to bring the Union Pacific Railroad through Wyoming instead of Colorado. That decision made all the difference. 

Cattle drive, 1876

Cattle drive, 1876

The Open Range and the cattle industry were one of the things that gave the Old West a huge boost. Ranching is almost if not more important to the settlement of the West than the discovery of gold and silver. It brought men and money to an unfolding land, gave hopeful young men jobs at a time when they were scarce back East, and helped to settle the frontier. (All, sadly, at the expense of the Native Americans, but that’s a whole other blog post) 

Of course, nothing lasts forever, and neither did the Open Range and the era of the cowboy. Believe it or not, one tiny invention changed everything…barbed wire. But we’ll talk about that next time.

If you’re curious, the first book in The Brides of Paradise Ranch series, His Perfect Bride is available now!


(Photos are public domain, courtesy of Wikicommons)