The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal

By Everett Dick | Go to book overview
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XIV

Free Grass, the Cattleman's Paradise

FROM THE TIME of the early English settlements in America, the towns had set aside commons for stock-grazing. As the frontier moved westward, the settlers grazed their cattle, horses, and hogs on free government land to the westward, or on the range as it was called. Immediately after the Civil War the ranching area on the western fringe of settlement expanded into an area larger than the cultivated area of the United States and became an important economic factor in the life of the nation. With the building of the transcontinental railroads, the buffalo herds were killed, leaving vast grasslands to be occupied by cattle. The transcontinental railroads, although they spelled the doom of the Indian and the buffalo, made it possible to market the products from this vast ranching area.

Cattle-raising on the Plains had its beginnings along the trails that traversed the West. As early as 1835 the Bent brothers -- at Bent's Fort on the Santa Fe Trail -- were doing a limited ranching business in connection with their fur-trading activities. By the late 1850's, so-called road ranches along the trails a little farther north traded fresh cattle and oxen with passing travelers. Many of these ranchers were former trappers and, a little later, unsuccessful miners who squatted at favorable spots along the trails and on the Plains at the edge of the highlands.

In Texas, meanwhile, millions of head of cattle were awaiting a market. The railroads slowly being built across the Plains beckoned to the pent-up Texas herds. Enterprising cattlemen from Texas and the North conceived the idea of driving the cattle to a point on the railroad for shipment east. In 1867 a farseeing Illinois cattleman, Joseph G. McCoy, located a marketing point near the western end of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, at Abilene, Kansas, and invited Texans to drive their herds to that point. This was the beginning of the successful operation of the Long Drive, which was made possible by the open Indian or government-owned land that extended

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