The open range cattle industry brought other frontiersmen to the American West, the rancher and cowboy. Like those before themtrapper, explorer, miner, soldierthe rancher played an important role in the development of the West, even though the years of the open range cattle industry were short-lived, lasting only from 1866 to 1887. This frontier gave birth to the cowboy, the most popular and enduring of this nation's folk heroes. It also pioneered modern ranching, which dominates the economies of several western states today.
Four important elements contributed to the development of ranching. First, native grasses carpeted the Great Plains, providing grazing for livestock. The establishment of cattle ranches represented an adaptation of farmer and hunter-woodsman to the Great Plains environment. In turn, ranchers manipulated the environment by introducing cattle. Second, the removal of native peoples and the extermination of native animals, such as the buffalo, created a vacuum that cattle and cowpunchers filled rapidly. Third, the Spanish had introduced cattle in northern Mexico and Texas in the eighteenth century, which provided a livestock source. In the Nueces River area, Mexican ranchers learned to raise cattle on the plains, developing the open-range cattle industry. Anglo-Americans learned the techniques of this system from the Mexicans. By 1865, an estimated 5,000,000 cattle roamed the Texas plains, providing an ample supply. Fourth, the Civil War depleted cattle supplies in the Mississippi Valley, creating a need for cattle in eastern markets.
Beginning in 1865, entrepreneurs collected unbranded cattle in Texas and, in the spring of 1866, outfits of six to 12 cowboys began driving herds of 1,000 to 2,500 cattle to a railhead at Sedalia, Missouri. An estimated 260,000 cattle were gathered in 1866 alone. Few reached Sedalia for a number of reasons, but the legendary long drives had been launched. Cattle trails developed from Texas to rail towns in Kansas, such as Abilene, Ellsworth, and Dodge City. If prices were good, the herds were sold for fattening on the Midwest corn belt. If prices were low, drovers moved the cattle to Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas. 
By 1869, the cattle industry had entered a "golden era." From the great drives, cattlemen settled the northern plains and stocked the range. Ranchers built up empires, preempting choice lands having water, and grazed their herds on the public domain free. The first to graze the range established first rights; it was an extralegal custom, but one that ranchers enforced with guns. Cattle "barons" emerged, such as John Wesley Iliff of Colorado and Conrad Kohrs of Montana. The King Ranch in Texas consisted of more than 1,000,000 acres. To regulate ownership of drifting cattle, control rustlers, eradicate predators such as wolves, and improve breeds of cattle, ranchers formed livestock associations. These groups controlled roundups in given localities where owners separated their cattle. At the spring roundup, they branded calves, castrated male calves (steers), and branded mavericks. Ranchers held fall roundups to gather steers for market.
Several characteristics typified the open range cattle industry in the 1870s and 1880s. To control the range, ranchers took advantage of homestead laws, especially the Desert Land Act of 1877 and the Timber Culture Act of 1873, to preempt prime acreage on the plains. Fraud typified many of the entries. One source estimated that up to 95 percent of desert land entries were fraudulent claims made for corporations.  Rather than bothering to secure legal title to land, cattle barons began fencing public land grazed by their herds. Though they had no legal right to do this, no one attacked the practice until the 1880s. To improve the rangy Texas longhorn, ranchers imported English Herefords and Scottish Black Angus. Cattlemen had to adapt to the northern plains where the winters were much worse than on the southern plains. In Texas, a cow could produce 12 offspring over a lifetime; on the northern plains, a cow could only be expected to deliver six calves. By the 1880s, some ranchers were cultivating hay for winter feed and putting up winter shelters to protect their cattle. 
The cattle industry boomed as wealthy investors from the East and Great Britain poured capital into giant cattle ranches in the West. By 1880, profits and propaganda ignited a predictable rush as hundreds of green young men from eastern farms and cities overran the West to join the new western aristocracy, the cattlemen. In 1860, no cattle were reported in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado; by 1880, the census listed a figure of 1,881,769 cattle in these states and territories. 
In Wyoming, traders had brought cattle to the southeastern part of the state by the 1850s, while Mormons may have introduced cattle in the southwestern part of the state during the same period. John Wesley Iliff, a Colorado rancher, introduced the first large herd into the Cheyenne area in 1868. In 1870, the Wyoming Territorial tax assessment rolls listed 8,143 cattle in Wyoming; in 1880, the U.S. census listed 521,213 cattle in Wyoming Territory. By 1885, there were an estimated 1,500,000 cattle in Wyoming. The Scottish-owned-and-financed Swan Land and Cattle Company was the largest "outfit" in Wyoming, owning 123,460 head in 1885. The majority of cattle in Wyoming were Texas cattle. Cattle similar to longhorns came from the Midwest, Oregon, Washington, and Utah. A. H. Swan and J. M. Carey introduced the first Hereford cattle in 1878, and members of the Wyoming Hereford Association imported 400 head of Hereford bulls and cows in 1883.
In the 1880s, cattlemen dominated the politics and economy of the Wyoming Territory. Cattle accounted for more than three-quarters of the territory's wealth, while the Wyoming Stock Growers Association emerged as the single most powerful organization, wielding tremendous political influence. "Cattle Kings," along with merchants, comprised the social elite in the territorial capital in Cheyenne. 
The promise of tremendous profits led to an overstocked range. Experienced ranchers watched in alarm as prime grasslands shrunk and deteriorated under the onslaught of thousands of cattle. Furthermore, the increased supply of beef caused prices to decline. Adverse weather busted the industry, beginning with a hard winter in 1885-1886. Drought gripped the land during the summer of 1886. Concerned about the weakened condition of their herds, some ranchers dumped their cattle; as a result, the price of a steer plummeted from $30 per head in 1885 to no more than $10 each in 1886. Those who sold and took crippling losses may have been lucky.
The winter of 1886-1887 was one of the worst in recorded history and ended the days of free-ranging cattle on the Great Plains. The spring thaw revealed the extent of the disaster; cowboys spent a lifetime trying to forget the horror of thousands of dead cattle, piled up in ravines and along fence lines. Accurate numbers are difficult to determine, but it is estimated that winter losses totaled 40 to 50 percent of the cattle on the plains. 
Ranchers in Wyoming suffered less, as losses were believed to be no more than 15 percent of the herds. But this figure is deceptive; the assessed value of cattle in the territory dropped 30 percent, surviving cattle were in poor shape, and the year's calf numbers were small. Low prices continued as ranchers dumped cattle on the market. Bankruptcy became the only solution for many, sparing neither small ranchers nor cattle barons. When the Swan Land and Cattle Company went bankrupt in May 1887, shock waves emanated through the industry. 
Other developments limited the future of the open range cattle industry. In the 1870s, farmers began settling the plains, preempting grazing range and water used by ranchers. Then, in the 1880s, the wool market boomed and sheep were introduced on the range, causing serious competition for grass and subsequent range wars between sheepherders and cattle men. The collapse of open-range cattle grazing pointed out the fundamental inefficiency of the system; free-ranging cattle were easy prey for rustlers and predators such as wolves, while overgrazing proved wasteful and depleted the overall quality of rangelands. 
The open-range days were nearing their end when the first cattle were reported in Jackson Hole. As cattle ranged throughout the West, ranchers introduced herds adjacent to Jackson Hole, primarily in the Green River Basin and southeast Idaho. By 1880, there were approximately 30,000 cattle in southeast Idaho, and perhaps as many as 50,000 in the Green River Basin.  In the company of a posse in pursuit of horse thieves, William Simpson entered the valley in 1883 and reported the presence of 100 legally-owned cattle. Most references speculate that the cattle belonged to John Holland, John Carnes, and Mike Detweiler. Since Carnes and Holland came from the Green River country, the cattle may have been driven into the valley over the divide separating the Green and Gros Ventre Rivers. However, this conflicts with most accounts that cite 1884 as the date of Holland and Carnes arrival. The cattle may have been trailed into the valley to graze for the season. 
Jackson Hole's environment prohibited the year-round grazing of cattle on range lands as practiced on the Great Plains. After the disaster of 1887, cattlemen adopted mountain valley ranching, called range ranching on the Great Plains. Rather than let cattle range freely in winter, ranchers cultivated hay and fed their herds during the winter months. Cattle were released on the open range during the summer and autumn only. Winter shelters were also built to protect the animals from the worst storms. Thus, the cowboy rapidly became an agricultural laborer, cutting and stacking hay and digging post-holes for fences. 
Long winters, with 30 to 40 inches of snow covering the ground, and limited range made this area unattractive to large companies or cattle kings. Small ranches developed in the valley during the 1890s; the cattle herds were typically small, limited by the amount of winter feed cultivated. They were often indistinguishable from a farm. Some settlers began with such small herds that they raised hay or grain to sell on the local market, and thus should be classified as farms rather than ranches. Others switched from one to the other as circumstances dictated. For example, Jim Chambers raised cattle and hay after a hailstorm flattened 40 acres of wheat on his Poverty Flats farm. Lacking water, Andy Chambers dry farmed his land on Mormon Row, raising grains such as oats and wheat until 1927, when he constructed an irrigation system and switched to raising cattle and hay. 
Cattle ranching became the economic mainstay of Jackson Hole. Virtually all homesteaders prior to 1900 started cattle ranches. Pierce Cunningham, Emile Wolff, James Uhl, Jim Budge, Jim May, Frank Sebastian, Frank McBride, and Fred Lovejoy were ranchers in today's park prior to 1900.  Four factors circumscribed the size of the ranches. First, the availability of winter feed dictated the number of cattle kept through the winter. In turn, the cultivable acreage of the home ranch determined the tonnage of hay produced each year. For example, according to the tax rolls of Uinta County, Pierce Cunningham owned 27 cattle in 1899. Ranchers planned to feed their cattle for about six months per year. Each cow consumed an average of 20 pounds of hay per day, or 4,000 pounds per season. If we assume that Cunningham fed his cattle for 180 days, he would have needed 54 tons of hay for his herd. In addition, hay would be needed for saddle and draft horses, which required about 5,000 pounds of hay per season. In the final proof papers for both his desert and homestead entries, Cunningham testified that he cultivated hay on 100 acres at his homestead, plus 75 tons on his desert entry. The production of hay can vary greatly in Jackson Hole, depending on soils, weather, and irrigation. If we assume that Cunningham produced an average of two tons per acre on 100 acres, he would have had 275 tons of hay available each year. In 1900, he should have had a large surplus of hay. According to his final proof papers, Cunningham raised 100 cattle and eight horses in 1897, which would have required 220 tons for the winter, providing a small surplus of hay. 
Federal homestead lawswhich failed to allow sufficient acreage for a cattle ranch in the West also determined the size of ranches. In 1878, John Wesley Powell of the U.S. Geological Survey issued his famous report which, among other things, recommended that homesteaders be allowed to preempt a minimum of 2,560 acres for stock-raising purposes. In Jackson Hole, early ranchers tried to raise cattle on a 160-acre claim under the Homestead Act of 1862, and an additional 160 acres allowed under the amended Desert Land Act of 1891. Some tried to ranch a 160-acre parcel, which was too small to be successful. Congress passed the Stock-Raising Act in 1916, which allowed settlers to preempt up to 640 acres of land suitable only for grazing. Theoretically, cultivable lands were excluded from this law.
Third, as homesteading accelerated in the valley after 1910, newcomers claimed more accessible grazing lands in the valley, forcing ranchers to drive their cattle to more remote range. This reduced the grazing acreage available and drove up operating costs.  Finally, after 1900, the Forest Service began to restrict grazing on public lands through a permit system. Like their predecessors on the Great Plains, Jackson Hole ranchers grazed livestock on the public domain, free and unchecked. The creation of the Yellowstone Timber Preserve in 1891 through the Forest Reserve Act served notice that conservation was a function of government. The service intended to prevent rangeland damage by restricting grazing to specific areas and limiting livestock numbers.
Establishing the grazing permit system became one of the most difficult and persistent problems faced by the Forest Service in its early years, mainly because of public resistance. At first, ranchers balked at any kind of compliance, perceiving grazing permits as an infringement of individual freedom. They also feared that large cattle ranches and companies would secure most of the permits and squeeze out the smaller ranches of Jackson Hole. The Johnson County War of 1892 remained fresh in the memories of local ranchers. This confrontation demonstrated the antagonism that existed between the cattle kings and small ranchers. Eventually, ranchers accepted the permit system, grudgingly in some cases, for several reasons. Cattlemen saw grazing permits on the national forest as a tool to prevent sheep from entering cattle range. Furthermore, their fears of losing public grazing rights to large cattlemen never materialized. And, finally, a few ranchers recognized that unregulated grazing would destroy grasslands over time and, in turn, the cattle business. The acceptance of grazing restrictions represented a victory of conservation values over a 300-year tradition of exploitation. According to Forest Service records, Martin Henrie obtained the first permit to graze cattle and horses in the Teton Forest Reserve, reserving rights to land in the Ditch and Turpin Creeks' drainages in 1902. By 1906, officials of the reserve had issued 56 permits for 4,072 cattle and horses. 
The cattle population is difficult to determine but, in general, ranching experienced growth in the valley through the 1930s. Elizabeth Wied Hayden conducted extensive research on this topic, gathering statistics from numerous sources. As stated earlier, William Simpson reported 100 cattle in Jackson Hole in 1883. Sylvester Wilson brought in 80 cattle in 1889, but no reliable figures exist until 1895, when numbers were reported by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Twenty Jackson Hole cattle men, owning 736 cattle, were members of the association. Only two ranchers owned 100 or more cattle: Brig Adams and his brother owned 100, while R. E. Miller owned 126. Other ranchers were: John Cherry, 13 cattle; John Carnes, 51 cattle; Bill Crawford, 59 cattle; Pierce and Fred Cunningham, 30 cattle; Selar Cheney, 10 cattle; Mose Giltner, 45 cattle; "Slough Grass" Nelson, 52 cattle; Ham Wort, 23 cattle; Sylvester Wilson, 41 cattle. The list may have included only association members, as some ranchers are conspicuously absent from the rolls such as Stephen Leek, Emile Wolff, and Jack Shive. In 1896, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association listed 15 ranchers and 546 cattle in Jackson Hole. Mose Giltner, who became one of the valley's largest ranchers, expanded his herd from 45 to 120 animals. By 1899, the local membership in the association grew to 28 members, owning 882 cattle. 
The Uinta County tax rolls for the Jackson Hole area in 1899 listed 72 cattle owners and 1,339 cattle, valued at $21,281. This figure indicates that the Wyoming Stock Growers Association included only members on their rolls; thus the numbers are low. The total number of owners is also deceptive. Very few could be called cattle ranchers compared to the scale practiced on the Great Plains. No less than 12 of the 72 owned only one cow, which may have been the family milk cow. Fourteen settlers struggled to establish a ranch with a "starter" herd of two cattle; among them were Jim Budge, John Barker, Joe Henrie, and Frank Petersen. The tax rolls suggest that few homesteaders seriously engaged in cattle ranching, as only 19 owned more than 20 cattle. The largest ranchers were Mose Giltner with 152, R. E. Miller with 198, Bill Crawford with 99 bearing his Bar over C brand, and Mary Wilson with 86 cattle. The following list is a breakdown of cattle ownership by numbers: 
Several inferences can be made about cattle ranching in Jackson Hole at the turn of the century. First, by 1900 the cattle population topped 1,000. Second, ownership was concentrated in the hands of a few. For example, the five largest ranchers owned 590 cattle, or 44 percent of 1,339 head; in contrast, almost three-quarters of the 72 ranchers owned less than one-quarter304 cattle. Third, none of the Jackson Hole cattlemen, even the largest owners, could be considered cattle kings, in the sense of barons such as John Iliff or Conrad Kohrs. Last, no cattle barons established themselves in Jackson Hole.
Between 1901 and 1910, cattle numbers increased dramatically. In 1901, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association listed 29 members in Jackson Hole and 1,540 cattle; by 1910 there were 61 ranchers and 10,919 head. (These figures are low since non-members were not included on the list.) Grazing records for the Teton Forest Reserve provide different figures. For example, 39 Jackson Hole ranchers owned 3,257 head of cattle in 1906; Forest Service records issued 56 grazing permits for 4,072 cattle. Not all permittees were Jackson Hole ranchers. Forest Service grazing records listed only 4,905 cattle in the Teton National Forest in 1910, compared to the Stock Growers Association count of 10,919 head. This is a significant difference, reinforcing the difficulty in securing accurate numbers. At any rate, individual ranchers prospered over this decade. Mose Giltner doubled the size of his herd to 301 head; Joseph Henrie had increased his numbers from two to 31 animals; likewise, his neighbor, Jim Budge, had a herd numbering 35; near Spread Creek, Pierce Cunningham claimed 132 cattle in 1910 compared to 32 head in 1901. 
Prices increased steadily through the First World War. In 1916, no fewer than 159 cattle brands were registered in Jackson Hole. Not all of the brands represented full-fledged cattle ranches, since the list included dude ranches, gentlemen's retreats, or homesteads that were never known as working cattle ranches. The Manges place is one example. To promote the return of stray livestock, stockmen advertised their brands in the Jackson's Hole Courier. In 1918, 26 cattlemen or companies published their brands in the local paper. These lists included most of the larger ranches in the valley. 
Since cattle were Jackson Hole's sole export, access to markets became critical. Ranchers drove their cattle over Teton Pass or over the old Marysville Road north of Jackson Lake to railroad lines in Idaho. By 1910, the Oregon Short Line, a branch of the Union Pacific, had reached Ashton, Idaho, and by 1912, extended south to Driggs and Victor. Even Rexburg or Idaho Falls, Idaho, proved a shorter drive than the nearest railroads in Wyoming. The Union Pacific tracks passed through Rock Springs in 1868, but this was nearly 200 miles from Jackson Hole. In 1906, the Chicago & Northwestern extended tracks to Lander, Wyoming, but this was about 150 miles from Jackson Hole. Marion Allen recalled participating in a cattle drive to Hudson, Wyoming, a town on the Lander Line in 1920, where D. E. Skinner and other Blackrock grazers hoped to secure better prices. But the trails over Teton Pass and the Ashton-Marysville roads remained the primary routes. For example, in 1917, 42 carloads of cattle were driven over Teton Pass to Victor in early October, most of them owned by Preston Redmond and Roy McBride. Jim Francis, a prominent cattleman in Spring Gulch, drove his cattle to Victor every year from 1913 through 1944. 
Cattle ranching thrived in the valley as prices increased between 1900 and 1919. A chart listing the price of calves per hundredweight records steady increases between 1910 and 1919. Although the accuracy of cattle counts are suspect, they indicate that ranching and grazing increased significantly in these years. Cattle grazing on the Teton National Forest tripled from 5,229 head in 1908 to 15,284 in 1917. According to these records, the number of cattle broke 10,000 first in 1916, when 12,591 cattle grazed in the forest. During this period calf prices increased from $7.30 per hundredweight in October 1910, to $10.20 in October 1916, and $12 in October 1917. Figures from October or November were used, because most ranchers sold their stock after the fall round-up. Ranchers lived and died by market prices and were quick to complain about declines. In November 1917, the Courier described the prices of cows and steers as meager, despite the fact that prices were good during this period.
After the end of World War I in 1918, the prices for agricultural products plummeted as demand declined and the federal government dropped price supports. In Jackson Hole, the drought of 1919 ruined crops, crippling both ranchers and farmers. In 1918, a rancher who sold calves in October received $12.10 per hundredweight; in 1919, he received $10.60 per hundredweight, a difference of $1.50. The next year brought even worse news as calves sold for $10.00 per hundredweight in October and $9.60 in November. Despite falling prices, cattle broker W. J. Kelly described a top market at Omaha, and passed on compliments concerning the quality of Jackson Hole cattle. In 1921, Kelly reported a slow market, partially caused by the availability of corn-fed beef from the Midwest. Calf prices plummeted to $7.50 per hundredweight in October, and $7.40 per hundredweight in November. 
From 1921 through 1926, cattle prices remained poor. By 1924, only 16 ranches advertised brands in the Courier, down from 26 in 1918. Within the national forest, cattle grazing declined from 15,284 head in 1917, to 6,594 cattle in the Teton County section of the forest in 1926. Although the last figure does not include all cattle grazing on forest lands, it suggests the severity of cattle ranching's slide. Furthermore, a 1925 petition signed by 97 landowners, many of them cattlemen, was prompted in large part by the agricultural depression of the 1920s. This petition supported the creation of a preserve or recreation area in Jackson Hole and the Teton Range, and the willingness of the signers to sell their lands. 
Prices increased between 1927 and 1929 with prices per hundredweight topping $10 for the first time since 1920. Struthers Burt wrote to Horace Albright that "the cattlemen, for the first time in years, expected to make money." More important, Burt noted that the "dejected state of mind" that had gripped the valley for several years was gone.  In August 1928, the Courier reported that the cattle market had improved, and some stockgrowers held their herds hoping to build up higher prices "to clear up past obligations," a euphemism for debts. By early October, Jackson Hole ranchers had shipped 100 carloads of cattle from Victor, while another 37 carloads of cattle were being trailed over Teton Pass. In that month, calf prices were $12.40 per hundredweight. The next year, the October price reached a high of $12.50 on the 15th. On October 24, 1929, stock market prices collapsed, and the day, known as Black Thursday, marked the beginning of the worst depression in the nation's history. 
Calf prices plummeted from $12.60 in 1929 to $8.30 per hundredweight in October 1930. The bottom fell out as prices nosedived to figures unheard of since the turn of the century. The prices per hundredweight were as follows:
The Great Depression hit Americans hard; but unlike most of the nation, ranchers and farmers had contended with an economic depression since the 1920s.  Cattle ranching declined in the 1930s, not only because of the depression, but the land acquisition program of the Snake River Land Company. The company purchased more than 30,000 acres between 1928 and 1933, much of it belonging to prominent ranchers. Cattle populations remained relatively stable in Teton County, because even though there were fewer ranchers, they owned larger cattle herds to survive lean years and prosper in good years. The cattle population of Teton County remained stable from 1936 through 1942: 1936, 10,838; 1937, 12,307; 1938, 10,604; 1939, 10,906; 1940, 12,337; 1941, 12,129; and 1942, 12,580. 
The advent of World War II brought hell to earth for eight years, but for American agriculture it brought prosperity as worldwide demand for foodstuffs escalated. War began with the Japanese invasion of China in July 1937, followed by the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. By the end of 1941, the war had boosted cattle prices; in September, calves per hundredweight fetched $10 for the first time since 1930. The cattle industry thrived for the next two decades.  Like ranching in the American West, world events and economic conditions influenced the cattle business in Jackson Hole as much as local factors.
Cattle ranching in Jackson Hole followed patterns that occurred elsewhere in the West, including stock improvement. Cattlemen imported improved breeds by the 1870s. Wyoming cattlemen introduced English Herefords in 1878. No record was found of the first breed of cattle brought to Jackson Hole, but ranchers were undoubtedly influenced by the trend of improving the quality of herds through selective breeding. Elizabeth Hayden determined that the Wilson brothers introduced the first purebred Hereford bulls in Jackson Hole in 1901. Hereford and Black Angus became the predominant breeds in the valley. In 1914, Bill Kelly purchased a Durham bull for Harold Hammond of the White Grass, who intended to establish a cattle ranch. Gerrit Hardeman, a Dutch immigrant, bought the Charles E. Davis homestead in 1919 for $2,500 and established one of the finest herds of Hereford cattle in the region. 
Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004