Wyoming Cattle Drives History
It doesn’t take long standing in the lush knee-high Spring grass during one of our authentic cattle drive vacations to understand how Wyoming became cattle country shortly after the end of the Civil War. All other factors aside, Wyoming is simply a great place to raise beef. There is plenty of space, plenty of water, and plenty of feed.
Seth Ward Invents Montana Winter Grazing
Legend has it that in the winter of 1852, stockman Seth Ward left some cattle to graze north of Cheyenne while he retreated from the harsh Wyoming winter. Returning that next spring, he found the herd healthy and thriving. Word spread of Ward’s success, and soon others would try on purpose what he had happened upon by accident.
The discovery of winter grazing in Wyoming would quickly attract a small but steady stream of adventurers and rugged folks. These first cowboys had to invent the art and science of the Wyoming cattle drive from the ground up. Timing was everything. Knowledge and skill were hard-won through trial and error, grit and determination. Many men and women made brand new lives out on the range. Many died trying. There’s a reason they call them pioneers.
During the decade between 1850 and 1870, many events conspired to change what was a hardscrabble handful of family businesses into one of the largest capital industries in the country. Chief among them was the Civil War. After its eruption in 1861, the American beef industry changed dramatically.
Reportedly, Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “an army marches on its belly.” This was certainly true of the Union Army. The Northern war machine consumed an unprecedented amount of beef, taking full advantage of the then-new technology of industrial canning. For ten years prior to the outbreak of hostilities, the railroad had been spreading and branching across the northern midwest. This infrastructure, the fastest means of transportation mankind had ever devised up until that point, was able to move more cattle more quickly than ever before by orders of magnitude.
Of course, cattle don’t ranch themselves. Refugees and adventures, disenfranchised by war and economic stagnation, headed west to take advantage of the war-time demand for beef. While the conflict raged, cattle was good money in Wyoming. The war turned around a nation-wide trend in declining beef consumption, and the railroad and telegraph effectively spread the word of the Wyoming beef industry’s success to anyone who was interested in a new life out West.
Beef in Wyoming only grew in stature and prominence over the next three decades after the Civil War. Massive fortunes and powerful political dynasties have their roots in this time of seemingly limitless possibilities. Government incentives like the Homestead Act of 1862, the Timber Culture Act of 1872 and the Desert Land Act of 1877 all allowed anybody with enough guts and gumption to tackle the great American frontier. Many left home with nothing but a claim and name, eager to take advantage of what seemed like a never-ending supply of rangeland and an ever-growing demand for beef.
A Legacy of Cattle Drive Vacations
But it could not last. 1886 was the culmination of a few bad years that saw Wyoming herds decimated. This, combined with falling beef prices, marked the end of the boom times that established Wyoming as its own kind of place with its own kind of people. Those people still live there. They still drive cattle. They still love the wide-open spaces and the star-bright night skies.
Book your Dryhead Ranch cattle drive holiday and make your own Wyoming history.
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