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More Wyo Livestock Industry – 1897

Written by Dick Perue

Part two of Wyoming’s livestock industry, as portrayed in the 1897 publication “Collections of the Wyoming Historical Society,” is the topic of this week’s column.

The discovery of the capabilities of Wyoming for grazing purposes is said to have been accidental, and is thus described, “Early in December 1864, a government trader with a wagon train of supplies drawn by oxen was on his way west to Camp Douglas, in the Territory of Utah, but on being overtaken on the Laramie Plains, WY by an unusually severe snowstorm, he was compelled at once to go into winter quarters. He turned his cattle adrift expecting, as a matter, of course, that they would soon perish from exposure and starvation, but they remained about the camp, and as the snow was blown off the highlands, the dried grass afforded them an abundance of forage. When the spring opened, they were found to be even in better condition than when turned out to die four months previously.”

In 1869, a similar experience happened at Fort Russell, near Cheyenne, when some Texas cattle were driven there in the fall to supply beef for the garrison. They were scattered by a violent snowstorm, but in the following spring the cattle were all gathered in excellent condition. These discoveries led to the purchase of stock cattle in Texas to be matured and fattened in the northern ranges, and the trade has steadily grown to its present enormous proportions, accelerated greatly during the past 25 years by the building of railroads.

The range cattle business of the western states and territories is carried on chiefly upon the public lands. With the exception of a small percentage of lands, the title of which has been secured under the provisions of the homestead and preemption laws and desert land acts of the United States or the timber culture acts, the cattle upon the northern ranges feed upon the public lands of the United States their owners being simply tenants by sufferance upon such lands.

The managers of the transcontinental lines appear from the beginning to have regarded the cattle traffic as one of great possibilities and have pursued towards it a liberal and far sighted policy of imposing such rates as would tend to develop it.

The increase in cattle has been most rapid in the newer western states and territories. There was much dissatisfaction in recent years with the low price of cattle, which tended to a reduction in numbers in some places and in others holding for better prices has tended to increase the numbers. There is much local complaint of the combination of dealers and butchers to control prices and of the discrimination of railroad companies in freight rates. In many localities, there is a marked
improvement in the quality of the cattle, and increased interest in raising the grades. The low price of cattle for a time directed more attention to horse raising, and a marked improvement in quality was apparent. Enlarged demand for draught horses was caused by activity in railroad building a few years ago, and the heavy traffic carried on in cities, but during recent years the demand for horses has greatly fallen off, owing to the use of electric cars and other causes. This has had the effect of making the business of horse raising unprofitable for some years.

The low price of wool has kept the sheep industry under a cloud, but at the same time there has been a steady expansion of the business, the number of sheep having increased from 308,997 in 1886, to 1,3088,063 in 1896.