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

XV

The Range Wars

FOUR FAIRLY DISTINCT RANGE WARS over the use of government land were fought between the Civil War and World War I: the fight between the trail drivers who drove large herds of cattle from Texas to the northern Plains, and the faint line of farmers who were pushing out onto the prairies; strife between the ranchers who had established prior rights, and the homesteaders who located on their grazing grounds; a struggle between the big rancher who had gained control of the waterholes and range, and the little rancher who was just getting started and wanted a share of free grazing privileges (since homesteaders usually had some cattle, there was often a gray area between the homesteaders and the little rancher, especially after the advent of the enlarged homestead, making the differentiation between the second and third of these wars hazy in some instances); and a bloody conflict between the ranchers who held their range by prior use, and the sheepmen who attempted to drive across the area grazed by the cattle or sought to graze on government land. Since these conflicts overlap in point of time they will be treated topically rather than chronologically.

The first of these wars was the war of the trails. The Civil War had caused a shortage of cattle in the East while in Texas the herds had multiplied beyond comparison. As a result, enterprising men drove great herds of Texas cattle hundreds of miles north to shipping points on the railroad in a movement known as the Long Drive. Often the cattle were driven 1,000 or 1,500 miles across the public domain to favorable locations where ranches were being established. Naturally the farmers who were beginning to occupy the prairie country objected to the trail drivers pushing a herd of wild cattle through their part of the country. Not only was there danger of stampeding across cultivated fields, but the problem was aggravated by the fact that Texas cattle usually were afflicted with a disease known as Texas fever. Although the cause of the disease was unknown at the time,

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