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Sheepmen vs. Cattlemen

Three Sheepmen, Harvat Ranch Livingston, MT, June 1939

Rivalry for water and grass on the public lands of the West led to many conflicts in which stockmen took the law into their own hands. The sharpest and most lasting of such conflicts were between cattlemen and sheepmen. This clash of interests, which had played only a minor part in Arizona's Graham-Tewksbury feud, was in many sections the cause of bitter range wars.

Even though the government owned most of the pastures in dispute, cowmen regarded sheepmen as intruders. They were not going to be "sheeped out" or have the flocks devour the grass and pollute the streams. The cowboy, usually well mounted, looked down on the sheepherder, who usually traveled on foot, on a burro or in a wagon. The herder was regarded as "lower down than a thief," and the mutton he raised was viewed with contempt.

Cattlemen tried to bolster their position by charging that sheep killed the grass by nibbling it too close and trampling the roots with their sharp hoofs. They pointed out that the odor which sheep left on the grass and in watering places was distasteful to horses and cattle. Sheepman replied that, under good management, sheep and cattle could be grazed indefinitely on the same pastures, but cowmen were not convinced.

Many bands of cowmen, outraged at the intrusion of the flocks on ranges they claimed, terrorized the herders and killed or drove off the sheep. Their methods included clubbing, shooting, dynamiting, poisoning, burning and stampeding the sheep over cliffs, sometimes called rimrocking. Sheep owners and herders were ordered to leave the ranges, and occasionally some were killed.

The herder, usually alone, had little chance to defend himself or his flock when a mounted band of armed cowmen swooped down on his camp in the middle of the night. Often he could do no more than look on helplessly as the raiders slaughtered many of the woollies and scattered others.

Such raids were numerous in Texas, although not as disastrous as in some other sections. In Brown County, Charles Hanna, who had brought the first sheep there in 1869, went out to his rock corral one morning and found that all 300 had had their throats cut. In the San Saba hills a decade later, cowmen set a dog on Peter Bertrand's sheep and ordered him to leave. When Bertrand refused to go, they raided his pen at night, shooting some of the woollies. Also in San Saba County, night riders in 1880 shot many of the Ramsay brothers' 1,300 sheep and slit the throats of others.

Three years later, cowmen ordered several sheep raisers to leave Brown County after burning their homes and pens and firing on their flocks. One who moved two counties northwest ran into similar trouble there. Raiders rode into his camp at night, fired into his herd and cut the throats of some that they could catch.

This same year, cattlemen ordered other sheepmen to leave Hamilton County, and when they refused to go, raiders killed or maimed many animals in one flock and scattered the others. Near Laredo, a Mexican herder was killed in 1884 after he ignored an order to leave. New Mexican sheepmen had similar troubles. In 1884, five cowmen killed all 700 of the sheep that Arcadio Sais was grazing on the Carrizozo range. The next year, in Lincoln County raiders fired on a herder who had refused to move.

In Arizona, D. A. Sanford's herders were fired on. In the San Francisco Mountain country in 1884, cowmen rounded up more than a hundred wild horses. They strapped cowbells to the necks of some and tied rawhides to the tails of others. Then, yelling and firing their guns, they drove the horses into ten bands of woollies, 25,000 in all, that had been bedded down for the night. With the terrified sheep running in all directions, many were killed or injured. It took a week to gather and separate the others. In the same year, on the Little Colorado range, cowmen drove more than 4,000 sheep into the river, causing hundreds to die in the quicksands.

Colorado cowmen were equally intolerant of sheep, even though in 1869 their territory was said to have twice as many woollies as cattle. In 1874, night raiders entered the corral of John T. Collier and killed all his. imported Merino rams, worth $1,000 each. In Bent County in the same year, Jeremiah Booth found 234 of his graded Cotswolds poisoned by men who ordered him to leave within ten days.

Other Colorado sheepmen found their woollies shot or driven off, their herders beaten, their cabins and corrals burned. In Garfield County in 1894, raiders killed 3,800 sheep by stampeding them over a bluff into Parachute Creek after wounding one of the herders. Later, in the same county, only one crippled sheep survived the slaughter of a flock of about 1,500.

Similar troubles plagued sheepmen farther north. In Idaho in 1896, two herders encamped in the Shoshone Basin were shot to death and their flocks scattered. In Montana four years later, eleven cowmen killed R. R. Selway's whole band of 3,000 woollies. In Wyoming, raiders killed nearly 12,000 sheep in a single night. In other instances, they drove flocks over precipices or scattered poison on the ranges. A report from Tie Siding said that raiders set fire to the wool of Charles Herbert's 2,600 sheep, killing most of them.

Range wars between ovinophiles and bovinophiles would flare across the grasslands of the West for many decades to come. In Wyoming, it's estimated that in the two-decade period surrounding the turn of the 20th century, raiding cattlemen and their henchmen would bludgeon and shoot to death more than 100,000 sheep. It was predicted that this sort of carnage would occur in the unbelievably rich prairies of Montana, but in fact many cattlemen here were hedging their bets and setting aside part of their range for sheep.

The approximately 120 raids and skirmishes between cattlemen and sheepmen from 1880 to 1920 in Arizona, Texas, and Wyoming originated in struggles over access to grass and water.

Generalizations that Anglos were cattlemen while Hispaņos were sheep men do not always hold true, nor does information that one county or another was grazed solely or even primarily by cattle or sheep. Incorrect, too, are, the preconceptions that Hispanics did not own their own bands of sheep and that hired sheepherders always were Hispanic.

Despite many documented disputes involving cattlemen versus sheepmen, contention also occurred when sheep trespassed on an allotment that was leased to a different sheep permittee. Cattlemen were unhappy because fees per unit for cattle were about five times as high as for sheep. Despite resentment about fees and governmental interference, the advent of federal control helped reduce conflict and violence between people grazing cattle and sheep on public lands. In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act introduced grazing regulations to other public lands that had not been covered previously by the national forests or reserved for other purposes.

In Wyoming, after the turn of the century, night raiders became bolder. Near Thennopolis, in 1902, they shot and killed a flockmaster. In the central part of the state that same year they slaughtered several thousand sheep and the herders. In 1904, near Kirby Creek, they shot and killed a sheepman without warning.

Sheepmen in eastern Oregon were having similar tribulations. In raids from 1899 to 1903, thousands of their sheep were killed. In 1904 alone, 6,000 were slaughtered in three counties. Early in that year, more than 2,500 were shot or clubbed to death by five masked men near Christmas Lake. A month later, nine raiders killed more than 2,200 from a flock of 2,700. In 1905 the secretary of the Crook County Sheep Shooters Association boasted that his organization had killed 8,000 to 10,000 woollies during the preceding season and predicted a higher record in the year ahead. Late in 1906 an allotment of the public grazing lands virtually ended this Oregon trouble.

In Wyoming the strife continued. In the summer of 1905, ten masked men rode into a camp on Shell Creek, in the Big Horn Basin, where Louis A. Gantz had 7,000 sheep. They shot or clubbed to death about 4,000 of them, destroyed the wagons and provisions, and tied two dogs to the wagons to be burned to death. Gantz, who lost about $40,000 from this attack, knew better than to prosecute the raiders in a Wyoming court.

There were dynamitings and other sheep killings in Wyoming in 1907. In the spring of the following year, cowmen raided a camp on leased land in the Shoshone Indian Reservation, where Robert Meigh and two herders had a flock belonging to J. W. Blake of Lander. With a volley of shots at about midnight, the attackers drove off the sheepmen, chopped and overturned the wagons, and killed or crippled 350 of the woollies.

On an April night in 1909, five sheepmen were sleeping in their camp on the north side of Spring Creek, in the Big Horn Basin. They had about 5,000 sheep. A score of armed and masked raiders galloped into the camp and killed three of the herders. They poured kerosene on the wagons and burned them, killed several dogs and some of the sheep.

Next day Sheriff Felix Alston hastened out with a posse. He noticed that the tracks of one of the attackers showed a boot heel run over on one side. This led to the arrest of Herbert Brink, who was among those who came to view the bodies. Brink and six others were indicted. Four of them confessed. A court sentenced Brink to be hanged, but his penalty was commuted to life imprisonment.

Serious raids continued well into the twentieth century, but some of the cowmen were learning that they could profit by raising some sheep along with their cattle. The sheep improved the sod with their hoofs, and their droppings fertilized the grass. They also ate some of the grass and shoots that the cattle could not reach and certain weeds that the bovines spurned. Many cattle raisers began tolerating a flock of sheep as a "mortgage raiser" and as a hedge against low beef prices.

Jay Monaghan. Range Wars. The Book of the American West. Simon & Schuster New York, NY 1969.


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