Congdon emphasizes use of history in looking toward the future
Powell – “‘You have no idea where you’re going unless you have a good understanding of where you’ve been,’” commented Wally Congdon, Montana lawyer and cattle producer quoting Montana pioneer Granville Stuart. “It is important to understand who are we, where did we come from and what is our story. That is the story of the Drover’s Road.”
Congdon started the story of the West in the early days of Scotland.
“The best news happened in 1379, when the 50 year war with England was finally over,” said Congdon. “The drovers of Scotland finally received a license to trail and trade cattle in England.”
Nearly 700 years ago, Congdon marked, the beginning of the cattle trade really began.
“By 1379, we exported 51,000 hides – much before Columbus and the first year of the Chism Trail,” he said.
The Drover’s Road led Scottish cattleman to England. Cattle swam across the ocean separating the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Man from England and were trailed many miles to markets.
“We didn’t have a lot of horses, and we had no money, so we trailed them all the way,” he commented. “What boosted the Drover’s Road to fame was a book by Sir Walter Scott called The Tale of Two Drovers.”
Congdon noted that Scott’s book is one of the best accounts of the history of drover and trailing cattle.
The Scottish, Congdon said, also were rampantly engaged in “trysting.”
“What you call rustling, theft, pillaging and blundering, was trysting,” he explained. “We just borrowed another man’s cattle – for a day, a week or maybe years. If the 50,000 hides that we sold spoke with an English moo, the Scottish were happier.”
Until 1883, trysting wasn’t illegal and was common practice of Scottish drovers.
“Our trysting habit drove what we did best,” said Congdon, referencing an age-old rivalry between the Aberdeen and Macintosh clans of Scotland.
“The Aberdeen boys did not like the boys from the Macintosh clan, so they kept their cattle black,” said Congdon. “The Macintosh’s sorted in red, because that way the Aberdeen boys couldn’t steal their cattle.”
Theft, Congdon said, motivated both groups to keep toward more pure lines, and Aberdeen Angus are still known today.
Moving in the 1900s, Congdon noted that a rapid depopulation of Scotland had begun with a desire to increase open spaces and wildlife and build large estates in the country. Scottish people were moving to the U.S. to join with the groups of Scotsmen that already settled in the West.
Moving to America
Prominent men with deep Scottish ties had already settled and claimed land in the West.
Five acts between 1841 and 1888 additionally allowed homesteading, but by 1887, Congress passed laws that no longer allowed foreign peoples to invest in land in the West.
With names such as Mackenzie, Chism and Grant already present in the U.S., Scotsman took residence in the large ranches of the West, raising sheep and cattle and bringing influence to today’s American cattle populations.
Learning from history
“Our cattle showed up at George Grant’s Ranch in Kansas in 1873,” said Congdon. “We started converting America from red and white, mottled and brindle to black. Henry Ford was right – you can have a Model T in any color, as long as it’s black.”
The cattle brought by the Scottish were Durham cattle, and Congdon marked an extensive list of breeds that were influenced by Durham lines, including Charolais, Maine Anjou, Japanese Black and Murray Grey.
Today, he notes that the same thing is happening with the Angus breed. Producers are again utilizing black cattle and breeding with others to create new crosses, mentioning Chi-angus and Maine Angus as examples.
In the ancient records of the roundups and cattle and sheep production of 1910, Congdon noted that records weren’t written in English, but rather in Gaelic – the language that the Scottish learned.
“The observation of the Scots were written down,” said Congdon, who quoted one such observation by a Scotsman. “‘Unless the desisting of policy which places the preservation of deer and other game above the production of food and prevents the depopulation of the country for the pleasure of the wealth and foreign nations, this decline will rapidly accelerate. People will immigrate to the colonies, rather than continue to bear the evils and abuses.’”
“It is 2013, and if you said, instead of deer, wolves, grizzly bears and sage chickens it reads the same,” Congdon continued. “We have no idea where we are going unless we have a good understanding of where we have been.”