I confess. I stole the clever title for this blog post. The original was used for a conference workshop about mutton-eating in Detroit's old days. But it certainly fits the history of the cattle-sheep wars in the old West from 1870 to the 1920s. I also confess I had to do some quick research about the topic, since I haven’t read enough Western history of the cattle barons, trails, stockyards, open range and the like.
Cattle vs. sheep wars were not like the big, bad Johnson County cattle range wars -- not that I'm up on that history either. I discovered the most common states experiencing cattle vs. sheep troubles were Arizona, Texas, Wyoming and Colorado. Were murders and the slaughter of animals really rampant? Numbers prove it – over fifty men murdered and between 50,000 and 100,000 sheep slaughtered. Serious enough!
Remember I’m an eastern greenhorn, born and raised in Michigan. Land of trees, the Great Lakes, lighthouses, beaches and cars. Yes, the automobile – which replaced horses after the turn of the 20th century. And yes, prior to that, horses were common (along with horse dung) all across the country, whether for riding or pulling omnibuses, wagons and stagecoaches. So the “beef vs. mutton” dispute is news to me.
Let’s face it, cowboys (cow hands, really, since they were anything but boys) worked cattle drives on horseback. After the buffalo herds were slaughtered, the open range favored cattle driven northward on “trails” to stockyards where they were sent east to meat-packing plants in St. Louis and Chicago. Ranches could be small or huge, sprawling affairs, and disputes arose about rustling or branding mavericks to swell the herds. But sheep? Cowhands considered them an insult.
What factors played a role in the conflict between cattle and sheep men in the Old West? First, some believed that sheep with their smaller mouths grazed closer to the ground and ruined the range, and that cattle would not drink from water sources “polluted” by sheep. Second, ethnicity may have played a shadowy role – men of Spanish origin herded sheep, and herders worked the sheep on foot or burro, sometimes on horseback. The ratio of animals to men were far smaller with sheep than cattle. You can imagine how “outnumbered” the sheep and herders would be in a range dispute.
For example, Charles Goodnight’s cowhands drove over four hundred sheep into the Canadian River and drowned them after herders “invaded” their range along the Texas-New Mexico border in 1875. 2400 sheep were slaughtered in Oregon in 1903 by driving them off a cliff, or “rimrock,” and the survivors shot. Other sheep herds were stampeded or poisoned.
But some disputes turned into murder. The 1886-1887 Pleasant Valley war (not so pleasant, really) in Arizona between the Graham and Tewksbury feuding factions resulted in about thirty dead men. Plenty of books and movies, some factual and some far-fetched, were spawned out of these Old West range wars.
By 1920 disputes between cattle and sheep ranchers cooled down, since the “open range” had been fenced off by that time. I'm partial to beef burgers over mutton on my dinner plate, but I do enjoy gyros. That's about as close to a cow or sheep I'll ever get.
Here’s a few interesting books, blogs and movie resources.
Bill O'Neal, Cattlemen vs. Sheepherders: Five Decades of Violence in the West, 1880–1920, Eakin Press, 1989
The Sheepmen – 1958 Glenn Ford film
Book cover and illustrations by Maynard Dixon, from the 1910 edition of Hidden Water – which I “rustled” from Ron Scheer’s BUDDIES IN THE SADDLE blog. Slaughtered sheep image from en.wikipedia.org
Meg Mims is the award-winning author of DOUBLE CROSSING (2012 Spur Award - Best First Novel, Finalist in Best Books of 2012 by USA Book News), available on Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords, in e-book, trade paperback and hardcover. To the right is the cover for the HC large print edition from Center Point Publishing.
Meg is working on the sequel, DOUBLE OR NOTHING, and hopes to release it in early spring. Want a sneak peek? Check out her blog for The Next Big Thing!