Spread of the Cattle Kingdom on the Plains

“In this way the cattle kingdom spread from Texas and utilized the Plains area, which would otherwise have lain idle and useless. Abilene offered the market; the market offered inducement to Northern money; Texas furnished the base stock, the original supply, and a method of handling cattle on horseback; the Plains offered free grass. From these conditions and from these elements emerged the range and ranch cattle industry, perhaps the most unique and distinctive institution that America has produced. This spread of the range cattle industry over the Great Plains is the final step in the creation of the cattle kingdom.

The first step was made when the Spaniards and Mexicans established their ranches in the Nueces country of southern Texas, where natural conditions produced a hardy breed of cattle that could grow wild ; the second step occurred when the Texans took over these herds and learned to handle them in the only way they could have been handled – on horse-back; the third step was taken when the cattle were driven northward to market ; the fourth came when a permanent depot was set up at Abilene which enabled trail-driving to become standardized; the fifth took place when the overflow from the trail went west to the free grass of the Great Plains. . . .

The purpose here is to set forth the processes by which civilization came about on the Great Plains. We are well aware that the Texans did not take the first cattle to the northern Plains; the Spaniards, of course, took the first. The Mormons, the Oregon Trailers, the Santa Fe Traders. the Forty-niners, and perhaps others took live stock. But all these took cows, not cattle: domestic stock, not range stock. There were survivals of the old Spanish ranching system in California and in New Mexico. But the process by which the Great Plains were stocked with cattle, by which ranches were set up wherever there was grass, much or little, was essentially as described. All the exceptions may be admitted, are admitted, but the essentials of the story remain the same.

The following, from the Nimmo Report, pp. 95-96, is an account that one commonly finds of how people learned the value of the Northern range. People inferred from the presence of buffalo that the northern range would be suitable for cattle; but the first practical demonstration of the fattening effects of Northern grasses came in the winter of 1864-1865, when E. S. Newman, who was conducting a train of supplies overland to Camp Douglas, was snowed up on the Laramie Plains. He made a winter camp and turned the oxen out to die. Spring found them not only alive, but in much better condition than when turned loose to starve and feed the wolves. This accidental discovery led to the purchase of cattle and the beginning of cattle-raising on the ranges of the Northwest.”