Friday, January 18, 2013

Much Ado About Mutton - Meg Mims

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.

The Sheepmen – 1958 Glenn Ford film

Picture credits: 
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

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!


Caroline Clemmons said...

Meg, there was also a funny western starring Doris Day as a woman rancher (already there's trouble) who brought sheep into a cattle area. Funny, just last night I was reading about the sheep vs. cattle wars. Cattlemen erroneously believed the secretion on sheep hooves repelled cattle from grazing the same area and that sheep killed the grass. Good post.

Neil A. Waring said...

As a teacher of western and Wyoming history for over 40 years I enjoyed your post. Range wars between the cow people vs. sheep people did play a prominent place in Wyoming history. In 1905 a sheep man named Louis Gantz was moving 7,000 sheep to a new grazing area. Ten masked men attacked and killed, clubbed and burned over 4,000 of his sheep. They also burned his wagon, killed his team of horses and destroyed over $700 worth of grain.
Not the best of the good ol’ days but a unique part of western history.

“Sheep range, cattle sure won’t graze
But—cowboys hate sheep anyways”
-Frank Benton

You can find me at -

Paty Jager said...

Meg, there was a cattle/sheep war here in Central Oregon that still has bad feelings going on. And the ironicness of it is the sheep will actually eat the nasty weeds the cows won't.

Ellen O'Connell said...

I don't know about anyone else, but sometimes reading about some of these events, even though they're long over, can bring a lump to my throat. I didn't get to the post on the Alton prison until today. The Civil War fascinates me, but there are many parts of it that horrify, and what was done to men in prisons is one. The thought of men killing thousands of dumb animals (and in my experience sheep are pretty dumb) in such brutal ways because of prejudice is another.

If only it were all in the past - but I read headlines from around the world and it isn't.

Unknown said...

Great post, Meg! Sheep and barbed wire both served as burs under cattlemen's saddles, at least in Texas. How things change in 100 years! Today, Texas produces more wool, mutton, and lamb than any oher state in the union. Go figure. :-D

Meg said...

I SAW THAT movie!! The Ballad of Josie -- HOW could I have forgotten! Oh man. Funny movie, too. My hub is a Doris Day fan, so we've seen most of her movies.

Meg said...

WHOA!! I knew it happened in Wyoming, but that's horrible. Poor Louis - good thing he wasn't murdered, I guess. Those poor sheep and even his horses. Sad, isn't it. THANKS so much for stopping in -- I love research on the Old West. Will check out your blog, too.

Meg said...

HA! go figure, Paty. That image of the slaughtered sheep was from Oregon -- sooo sad. I thought twice about putting that up, but it really shows how bad things were back then.

Meg said...

Totally agree, Ellen. How awful, and I could have gone on and on about all the instances of brutality. I decided not to dig too deep. That one image was bad enough.

Meg said...

Yes, I'm reading now about barbed wire, range wars, etc. Isn't that odd about the sheep biz, especially since Texas had a gazillion mossy-horned cattle roamed wild during the Civil War when the men were gone. Times do change quick! Computers, TV and phones -- let's NOT go there! LOL

Devon Matthews said...

Terrific post, Meg! Seeing all those dead sheep makes me sad though. When you think about all the senseless slaughter in the sheep wars, fence wars, etc. it boggles the mind.

Jacquie Rogers said...

There was lots of animosity, murders, and mayhem between the sheepmen and cattlemen in Idaho, too. Like the others, I just don't want acknowledge the killing of all those innocent animals, especially the waste of all that wool and meat. But I guess if a man really thought his livelihood was threatened, he'd do whatever he could, including mass slaughter.

Meg said...

Ain't that the truth??? That's a lotta mutton!

Meg said...

You betcha. You'd think there was plenty of room, though!

Ron Scheer said...

Excellent post, Meg. I come across this theme now and again in the early westerns I'm reading. Another novel is Agnes C. Laut's THE FREEBOOTERS OF THE WILDERNESS (1910), in which a herd of sheep is driven over a cliff, along with the young herder. Cowboys were particularly resentful about sheep, for all the reasons you mention, and the fact that it was not a job that involved ropin' and ridin'.

Sheepherding was a lonely job, too, which was supposed to produce a kind of mental derangement after too much of it. And like you say, herders were normally Mexican or Basque, and therefore "inferior" by birth. For the cattleman, it was a simple matter of competition for grazing land. I grew up on a farm with beef, dairy, AND sheep, so I don't have any particular bias.

Meg said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ron! And yes, isn't it a shame that back then, ranchers didn't realize there was PLENTY of room for both?? Good grief.

Lyn Horner said...

Here I am late to the party again! I'm terrible about keeping track of everyone's posts. Sorry about that.

Meg, your post is an eye opener. I of course knew about the war betweeb cattlemen and sheepmen, but I had no idea it was SO very brutal. Those poor animals!

This reminds me of what Col. Ranald Mackenzie ordered done after the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. Mackenzie and his superiors knew the only way to "tame" the Comanches,Kiowas and their allies was to un-horse them. To accomplish this, Bad Hand (the Indians' name for Mackenzie due to the two fingers he had shot off during the Civil War) ordered his men to shoot well over 1,000 horses left behind by the escaping Indians. I admire Mackenzie's savvy and bravery, but I detest that barbarous slaughter of innocent animals.

Meg said...

I'm with you, Lyn - always playing catch up. OH MY -- all those gorgeous horses!! that must have killed the Indians to see that. And one movie I forgot to mention, although it's a "spoof" really, is Rustler's Rhapsody. Just watched it, and it's a HOOT!