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Winter of 1886-1887—the End of the Cattle Era


Most of us have a good idea about what brought the era around.  It was a perfect collection of economic circumstances: a war (pardon the word perfect in reference to that) that decimated the beef supply in the East, Texas Longhorns left to run wild from the Spanish left, railroads moving ever westward, and eventually refrigeration cars.  Demand, supply, ability.  It started in 1867, care of people like Charles Goodnight and Joe McCoy.

 It ended a mere 30 years later.

 Or at least ended in the way we thought of a the cowboy eara.   The free roaming cowboy rounding up free romaning cattle to bring to market pretty much ended.  Once again it was a perfect set of economic circumstances—a perfect storm.  First there was the barbed wire invented in 1868, which gave the cattleman the ability to pen in his herd.  The wire went up easily and fast and suddenly a rancher or farmer could mark off his territory and keep those cattle from getting mixed with other herds, thus saving lots of work at the annual roundup.  The roundup was  where all the ranchers worked together first to gather the cows in one place, then split them up and brand them (the older cows were branded, the calves went with their mothers, thus showing the cattlemen what calves belonged to what ranch). Eliminating roundups meant less work, but it also ment less camaraderie and cooperation, which probably eased tensions.

 Barbed wire, however,  was not unanimously loved.  Here’s the thing:  If rancher A wired off his  territory, and rancher A’s territory happened to have good access to water, which rancher B’s cattle had until this point drunk, rancher B is going to be a little pissed off.  He never staked claim to the water before, because he didn’t need to.  So now, suddenly his water supply was gone and what to do? Well let’s just say there was much wire cutting.  Especially when people tried to fence off public domain, which didn’t belong to them.  there just wasn’t enough Law out West at the time to tackle that.

 The second part of the perfect storm: cattle prices.  Eventually the East would build up its own decimated herds, both in the South and the North.  Moreover the cattle they raised produced the kind of beef they preferred, not the tough stringiness of the Texas Longhorn.  Inevitably this led to a glut of beef, bringing prices down.  The lower the prices, the less likely people were apt to settle for second best, which, at the time, was Longhorn beef.    The first big fall came in 1885.

 Another consideration, but not really part of the perfect storm in my mind, was the stretching of the railroad to all sections of the country.  No longer were long drives necessary, which was probably just as well, since the public domain was, as I said earlier, slowly and illegally being wired off.

 The third part of the perfect storm (literally) was the winter of 1886-1887.  It was bad, bad, bad for the plains (’88 was bad for New York, ’85 for Maryland, due to, I have hypothesized, Krakatoa) And what a winter.  It started with a November (13th or so depending on the state) with a blizzard, which reportedly did not really stop for a month.  In December there came a thaw that turned that snow into slush.  And then a freeze followed, resulting in layers of ice. I suspect it is not easy for cattle to get to the grass through the ice causing a great deal of hunger.  It was hell on the horses hooves and legs as well.

 Finally, in January the second part of the winter’s one-two punch occurred with another blizzard, the worst in memory.  It raged for 72 hours and the cattlemen could not get to their cattle to help them, even if they knew how.  In the past it wasn’t so much of a problem; the cattle could move across the range for shelter, food, or water.  But now the range was wired off and there was nowhere for the poor things to go. Some huddled together up against the wire; some tried to get through it, cutting themselves to shreds.  At the same time the temperatures dropped precipitously, reported to be as low as 70 degrees below zero (I find this difficult to believe, but anything below zero is bad, regardless).  By the time the cattlemen got to them, the cows were dead or dying by the hundreds, maybe the thousands.  The accounts are horrible—I’ll give one short example because more than short is just too gruesome for me:

 We cut the fences in order to allow them to drift on to shelter, but the legs of many of them were so badly frozen that, when they moved, the skin cracked open and their hoofs dropped off.

 Andy Adams, Reed Anthony, a Cowman 1907. Care of the website Cattle Trails.

 The end result was that whole ranches were wiped out.  Of course some cattle ranches survived, as they do today.  The West is still the West, even if not the Old West.  But ranching changed significantly, from a matter of free-roaming cattle and roundups, to penned in cattle and hay making to keep them fed through easy and harsh winters alike.

 Story of the Great American West,  Reader’s Digest, Editor, Edward S. Bernard

 (Lots of great images of snow throughout U.S. history– )

Picture borrowed from


  1. Incredible, Dee. I had no idea how the barbed wire changes the lives of the ranchers and how the cattle were so affected. Sounds like a bit of forethought might have aided in keeping all the starvation and freezing to death to say nothing of properly allowing for the water. I guess we learn the hard way sometimes.

  2. Great post, Dee! I saw a movie about how the barbed wire pitted cattlemen against each other.

  3. […] Winter of 1886-1887—the End of the Cattle Era « Slip Into … In December there came a thaw that turned that snow into slush. And then a freeze followed, resulting in layers of ice. I suspect it is not easy for cattle to get to the grass through the ice causing a great deal of hunger. […]

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