The Cattle Boom in Southern Arizona: Towards a Critical Political Ecology

By Sayre, Nathan | Journal of the Southwest, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The Cattle Boom in Southern Arizona: Towards a Critical Political Ecology


Sayre, Nathan, Journal of the Southwest


Pioneering across the continent, the livestock industry traveled in easy stages, since Colonial beginnings in the seventeenth century, three thousand miles westward till it reached the Pacific. Always just in advance of the oncoming settlers with their implements of agriculture, it has been the expression of a life of freedom and adventure. Even the imagination of the stay-at-home capitalists of the Old World was caught by this picturesque industry, and in the heyday of our trans-Mississippi development scores of Scotch and English "pastoral companies" were formed to operate in America. On the vast unclaimed open prairies west of the Mississippi the business developed spectacularly and made fortunes for many of its followers. These successes, however, were due largely to the bounteousness of nature. Methods were crude; system and management were preceded by chance and fortitude. The cost of the herd or flock was small and expenses of operation almost negligible, except for the death toll that Nature exacted.

--Forrest M. Larmer, Financing the Livestock Industry (1926:1)

No period is more important to the political ecology of ranching in southern Arizona than the cattle boom of 1873-1893. Yet its very occurrence is unknown to many critics of ranching today, and even among environmental historians and other scholars its causes and dynamics have been poorly understood. In some measure, this is a consequence of incomplete information: before about 1934, for example, the figures for the number of cattle in Arizona are estimates with indeterminable margins of error. Additionally, the best scholarship on the cattle boom was done before 1970, when the environmental consequences of grazing were scarcely an issue, let alone well understood. More recent scholarship has addressed this shortcoming but it has failed to incorporate the other insights from earlier works. Finally, the cattle boom has usually been treated as a phenomenon originating in Texas and spreading north and west across the Great Plains of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. Its effects on southern Arizona have scarcely been remarked.

Richard White (1991: 236) has characterized the post-Civil War West as "an economy that instead of advancing in carefully calibrated stages from subsistence to commercial production had rushed headlong into the world markets."(1) Eastern and European capital flooded into the region in the form of railroads, telegraphs, mines, mills, and plows as well as cattle, but it was as cattle that capital would have the most extensive impact on landscapes in Arizona and the West more generally. This was a product of both the scale and rate of capital immigration. International investors simply did not notice, or much care, when the effects of their money overwhelmed the vegetation growth, soils, water, and climate that sustained local and regional ecosystems. The historical conditions that made the cattle boom possible--particularly a surplus of capital in Great Britain and the "open range" land policy of the federal government--also distinguish it structurally from twentieth-century ranching.

AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL DEFINITION OF RANCHING

Perhaps the single greatest obstacle to effective analysis of the cattle boom stems from an inadequate specification of what "ranching" is. Ranching in the American West has typically been understood as a simple hybrid of livestock production and capitalism, essentially continuous with its pre-capitalist antecedents. Walter Prescott Webb (1931: 228,240), for example, defined ranching as "the practice of raising cattle on a large scale," which the Industrial Revolution converted "from an adventure into a business which is today carried on with as much system as farming or manufacturing." Donald Worster (1992: 37, 40) echoes this conceptualization, locating the origins of ranching in the 1860s and stressing that "the ranch was unmistakably a modern capitalist institution. …

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