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Field Division of Education
The History of Scotts Bluff Nebraska
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The last period before the modern one might properly be termed that of the open cattle range. It had its beginnings back in the days of the early Oregon emigrations, as a result of the necessities of emigrants along the Oregon Trail. Trading posts, often equipped with "fodder and hay" ranches, would replace two worn-out cattle with one that had been fattening on the ranch or nearby range. These "road ranches" were the first ranchers of the northern ranges. Their surplus was often sold in California. This parasite type of cattle-ranching endured from about 1843-1857.

As early as 1853, however, Seth Ward began to winter cattle in the valleys of the Cheywater and Laramie. In 1854, Majors commenced to winter his freighting oxen in the Laramie valley, and continued to do so for ten years. It is claimed that at the height of the Russell, Majors and Waddell freighting business (to supply troops in Utah), in the winter of 1857-8, this firm had over 15,000 head of cattle on a range in Wyoming-Nebraska just south of the Oregon Trail.

Orthodox cattle-ranching in the northern Great Plains began with J. Iliff in northwestern Colorado. New markets had developed in the Colorado gold fields, so Iliff stared up a large range cattle business by stocking with train oxen and stock of the gold-seekers. In time, Iliff became the first northern cattle king, ranging his stock over the South Platte country. The boom in Montana mining, in 1862-5, increased the market for cattle and attracted more men into the cattle business. Soon the cattlemen of the Colorado-Wyoming-Nebraska ranges could not get enough cattle to stock their ranges. This lack was quickly remedied.

During the Civil War the cattle in Texas had multiplied, unmarketed and unmolested. After the war there was not a suitable market within a thousand miles of Texas. The Texas ranchers were land and cattle poor. About 1866 the Southerners began to dream of northern markets. Nelson Story, in 1866, drove a small herd of 600 head of Texas Longhorns from Dallas to Montana; and a drive was made from Texas to Sedalia, Missouri, on the Missouri Pacific. The idea spread and more drives went north in 1867, which is the year that the great Texas drives may properly be said to have begun. Difficulties with the Indians and farmers of the Indian Territory and eastern Kansas shifted these drives westward to a terminus at Abilene, on the Kansas Pacific. In 1867 Iliff began to buy Texas cattle from Goodnight.

The following year, 1868, Texas drives reached stations all along the K. P. in Kansas and the U. P. in Nebraska. The principal trails into Nebraska, terminated at Schuyler, Ft. Kearny, North Platte, Ogallala, and Pine Bluffs. With the settlement of eastern Nebraska, Ogallala became the great Nebraskan cattle depot. Out of Ogallala cattle were shipped to the eastern stock yards, and driven to western ranges. As yet, since north of the North Platte was Indian, the cattle-ranching in the Scotts Bluff country took place mainly in Horse Creek Valley. By 1871 there 12,800 head on Horse Creek, and before the close of the year Creighton and Alsop turned 45,000 head loose in this valley. During the years 1876-81 the Sioux country was opened up, and thousands of head of cattle were driven out of Ogallala as stockers for the ranges of Northwestern Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. In 1883 the huge Swan Land & Cattle Company was organized by combining three cattle properties between Ogallala, Nebraska, and Steele, Wyoming, and from the U. P. to the North Platte.

Rapid inflation of the cattle business was going too far, however. The range became overstocked, barbwire was introduced in 1874-77, and western Nebraska was invaded by grangers in 1885-87. The year 1887 saw the bottom drop out of the cattle business, which had reached its peak two or three years earlier. Since about 1887 or 1888 the cattle ranchers of the Scotts Bluff area have broken up their holdings, fenced in their lands, and turned to scientific and intensive cattle-raising. The day of the open range and gamboleering cowboy has gone forever.1

Somewhat linked with the cattle business was that of buffalo hunting. In early times the buffalo was hunted for immediate food or hide demands. The thoughtless thousands of emigrants in the period 1849-69 slaughtered wantonly, far beyond need. The Indians and hunters had been levying a constant toll on the herds for marketable hides and tongues. By the time of the coming of the railroad the buffalo was already losing ground and numbers rapidly.

In the building of the western railroads there arose a demand for fresh meat that was supplied by hiring buffalo hunters, armed with Sharps Buffalo Rifles that used ammunition costing 25 cents a piece. The decimation of the buffalo was well started, in the years 1866-76, by such food hunters as the famous "Buffalo Bill" Cody. With the railroads at hand, the hunters went wild. It has been estimated that in the years 1872-4 alone railroads hauled out of the Great Plains hides, robes, meat, and bones representing over 3,000,000 dead buffalo. Between 1868 and 1881, $2,500,000 worth of buffalo bones were sold in Kansas. These bones, at $6 per ton, and 100 buffalo to the ton, would represent 31,000,000 buffalo. No wonder the bison is nearly extinct in his original haunts. The buffalo deserted the Scotts Bluff area at a comparatively early date, as the great and continuous emigrations frightened them out of the North Platte Valley. For this reason, probably there was not so much bison slaughtering and bone hunting in this area as elsewhere in the Plains.2

With the coming of the Grangers, around 1885, the Scotts Bluff area entered its modern period. The history of this area since then is still vivid in the memory of hundreds.

1The best references for the northern cattle range history are:

  1. J. McCoy: Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest (1874).
  2. P. A. Rollins: The Cowboy (1922), for local color.
  3. James Cook: Fifty Years on the Old Frontier (1923) is the autobiography of a west Nebraska cattleman.
  4. Granville Start: Forty Years on the Frontier (1925).
  5. J. Marvin Hunt: The Trail Drivers of Texas.
  6. E. S. Osgood: The Day of the Cattleman (1929).
  7. W. P. Webb: The Great Plains (1931).

2Reference on buffalo hunting in the northern Great Plains are:

  1. R. I. Dodge: The Plains of the Great West (1877), pp. 140-142.
  2. Harry Inman: Buffalo Jones' 40 Years of Adventure (1899).
  3. John Cook: The Border of the Buffalo (1907).
  4. W. F. Cody: Autobiography (1920).
  5. E. A. Brininstool: Fighting Red Cloud's Warriors (1926), pp. 211-14.

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