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Introduction

T
hroughout the summer and fall of 1886 a series of puzzling
natural occurrences unfolded on the open range of the
American West. In the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming,
the sky turned so hazy at times that a pale halo formed around the
sun. Exceptionally dry and hot weather sparked prairie brushfires
that burned out of control. Elsewhere, hatches of grasshoppers,
known as Rocky Mountain locusts, grew into deafening swarms
and ate the little grass that was available.
John Clay, the Scottish-born manager of the Cattle Ranch &
Land Company, rode out to inspect the Wyoming rangeland, tak-
ing the old pony express route through Lost Soldier and Crooks
Gap: There was scarce a spear of grass by the wayside. We rode
many miles over the range. Cattle were thin and green grass was
an unknown quantity except in some bog hole, or where a stream
had overflowed in the spring. It was a painful sort of trip. There
you were helpless. There was no market for young cattle, your aged
steers were not fat, and your cows and calves were miserably poor.
He could not shake a sickening sense of foreboding.

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xiv | Introduction

Lincoln Lang, a rancher in the Badlands, noticed that beavers


were furiously at work on the walls of their lodges and piling up
unusual quantities of saplings for winter food. Others observed that
the winter coats of the elk and the moose grew in thick and heavy.
Birds, especially the cedar waxwings and the Canada geese, flocked
and migrated south a full six weeks earlier than normal.
Over in Montana, the veteran trail driver E.C. Teddy Blue Ab-
bott noticed snowy owls perched in the Douglas firs and paused on
his horse to examine them from a distance. In his sixteen years on
the open range, he could not recall ever having seen one before.
Teddy Blues boss, the cattle baron and former gold miner Gran-
ville Stuart, noticed the owls too. One local Native American tribal
leader wagged his finger at Stuart and warned him that the birds
were the ghostly harbingers of a harsh winter to come.
The cattlemen were already grumpy. Beef prices had been in
sharp decline for several years now, which had prompted many of
the cattle operations to take fewer steers to market. That meant
there were more cattle on the already overstocked open range. The
problem was compounded when a presidential order, signed by
Grover Cleveland in July of the prior year, forced the cattle herds
off the giant Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian Reservation, which
encompassed most of Colorado and the lower portion of Wyo-
ming. The cattlemen drove many of those herds, comprising some
210,000 head of cattle, onto the northern ranges and then moved
them from valley to valley, like the pieces on a giant checkerboard,
in an effort to find the little remaining grass and water available in
areas still free of the suddenly ubiquitous barbed wire.
Many of the veteran cattlemen had grown rich during the boom
the greatest agricultural expansion the country had ever seen.
But there were worries that they had overexpanded and overlever-
aged themselves to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving industry.
By some accounts, total investment in the cattle industry now ex-
ceeded the capitalization of the entire American banking system.
By other accounts, Cheyenne, Wyoming, the epicenter of the boom,
had the highest median per capita income in the world. Many of

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Introduction | xv

the countrys richest families and individualsMarshall Field, the


Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Flaglers, the Whitneys, the Selig-
mans, and the Ameseswere now cattle investors.
The open range was crowded with speculators and new money
and giant cattle conglomerates. At the Cheyenne Club, the posh
watering hole of the cattle barons, there were whispers about lax
management, overcounting of cattle herds, even the questionable
solvency of some of the larger outfits. One of the most prominent
members, a former president of the club named Hubert Tesche-
macher, had actually resolved that fall to liquidate his ranch at a
loss, to the consternation of his Boston and New York investors.
Another club member, Moreton Frewen, a Sussex squire who
founded the first joint-stock cattle company registered in England,
arrived in town after a year away and wrote to his wife how quiet
Cheyenne seemed. It was as though its boomtown businesses, an-
ticipating some calamity, had come to a momentary standstill.
Twenty-eight-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, who had just com-
pleted his third year as a cattle entrepreneur in the Dakota Territory,
displayed a shrewd understanding of the situation when he wrote
that fall, in an article for The Century Magazine, In our country,
which is even now getting crowded, it is merely a question of time
as to when a winter will come that will understock the ranges by the
summary process of killing off about half of all the cattle through-
out the North-west.
His assessment would prove accurate.
A week before he left the Dakotas to return to New York via the
Northern Pacific Railroad, Roosevelt said goodbye to his two best
hired men, Bill Sewall and Sewalls nephew Wilmot Dow, who had
managed the Elkhorn Ranch for him. The two men had decided to
return east with their wives to their native Maine. Sewall had ar-
gued from the outset that the Badlands were unsuitable rangeland
for cattle. Roosevelt had contradicted him and now would pay the
price.
A short time later Roosevelts Badlands neighbor, the Frenchman
known as the Marquis de Mors, departed for Paris, as he did every

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xvi | Introduction

fall, leaving behind his towering slaughterhouse and immense beef-


packing plant, by far the largest plant west of Chicago, a monument
that matched his own ambition and ego. Although he wouldnt ad-
mit it to a local reporter, who had heard rumors and questioned
him at the train station, his empire was teetering on the brink of
insolvency.
The first snowstorm arrived in November, followed in Decem-
ber by a gale-force blizzard that would last for three days. Granville
Stuart was caught on a stagecoach between Musselshell and Flat
Willow when the second storm hit. The visibility was so poor that
he and the other passengers took turns walking in front of the team
of horses with a lantern to guide them.
In January a brief thaw arrived, accompanied by a warm wind
known as a chinook, but the thaw served only to melt the snow
enough to create a thick crust when the cold returned, which it
did, with conviction, a few days later. The next storm lasted for ten
full days. The temperature dropped to an excruciating twenty-two
below zero Fahrenheit and kept falling, to twenty-eight below, to
thirty below, and finally, on January 15, to forty-six below zero. Over
in the Dakotas the temperature reached sixty degrees below zero in
places and remained there. The snow was so fine that it stung the
face. Whipped by the wind, it pushed through crevices and under
doorsills and left little piles as fine as the sand of an hourglass.
The cattle tried to drift before the storm, but the icy crust on
the snow scraped the flesh from their knees and hocks. Those that
sought refuge in the gullies and coulees were soon buried in snow-
drifts, where often they suffocated to death. When another group of
cattle arrived to seek shelter, soon they would add a second layer of
carcasses. Others were trapped against barbed-wire fences where,
immobile, they froze in the wind. The calf-bearing cows died first,
followed by the old bulls, and finally the heifers and the steers.
When the worst of the cold arrived, even the fattest steers died on
their feet, literally frozen in their tracks.
That winter on the northern ranges would be the coldest on
record.

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Introduction | xvii

Most of the ranches had trimmed their staff for the winter
months, leaving few cowboys available to try to move the cattle
to safety. Teddy Blue described the situation: Think of riding all
day in a blinding snowstorm, the temperature fifty and sixty below
zero, and no dinner. Youd get one bunch of cattle up a hill and an-
other one would be coming down behind you, and it was all so slow,
plunging after them through the deep snow that way; youd have to
fight every step of the road... It was the same all over Wyoming,
Montana, and Colorado, western Nebraska, and western Kansas.
Cattle wandered onto the frozen rivers, where they fell into air
holes. They walked out onto the ice, and the ones behind pushed
the ones in front into the icy water. Teddy Blue estimated that six
thousand of Granville Stuarts cattle were lost this way. The ice
kind of sloped down to the holes. I remember when we was trying
to push them back into the hills, there was one poor cow that had
slipped through, and she had her head up and was just holding on
by her head. We couldnt get her outour horses werent shod for
iceand so we shot her.
The weakened cattle soon made the gray wolves fat and bold.
When Lincoln Lang came across a wolf pack eyeing a starving steer
from a safe distance, he took revenge by mercy-killing the steer and
lacing its carcass with an entire bottles worth of strychnine. The
next morning he found fifteen large wolves dead in the snowin
his opinion, a record kill from a single piece of bait.
Another barrage of storms, less severe but more frequent, blew
through in February, and the surviving cattle were by now in des-
perate shape. Dying herds wandered into the towns, looking for
food and shelter. Cattle smashed their heads through the glass
windows of ranch houses or tried to push through the doors; in
their frantic hunger they ate the tarpaper off the sides of farm build-
ings. From indoors the ranchers listened to the desperate lowing of
cows, and the knowledge that they could do nothing to save them
wrenched their hearts. More than a few would hear that lowing in
their dreams for months to come.
The deadly winter proceeded, almost biblical in its ferocity and

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xviii | Introduction

duration, as though it had every intention of humbling and shaming


anyone who had participated in the great cattle boom.
When the thaw finally arrived in April, the stench of death re-
placed the snow. The corpses of cattle crowded the coulees and the
arroyos and blanketed countless fields. Carcasses were found hang-
ing from treestrees that the cattle had scaled from snowbanks in
an effort to eat the branches. The dead bodies clogged the drain-
ages and the spring creeks and damned sections of the rivers. Said
Lincoln Lang, One had only to stand by the river bank for a few
minutes and watch the grim procession ceaselessly going down, to
realize in full depth the tragedy that had been enacted within the
past few months. Cowboys quickly coined a name for the debacle:
the Big Die-Up.
Teddy Roosevelt returned to the Badlands to inspect the damage
and reportedly rode on horseback for three days without seeing a
single living steer.
The animal loss, as well as the financial loss, at first seemed incal-
culable. As Granville Stuart observed, This was the death knell to
the range cattle business on anything like the scale it had been run
on before... A business that had been fascinating to me suddenly
became distasteful. I wanted no more of it. I never wanted to own
again an animal that I could not feed and shelter.
Roosevelt, who had lost over two-thirds of his herd, wrote to his
friend Henry Cabot Lodge, The losses are crippling. For the first
time I have been utterly unable to enjoy a visit to my ranch. I shall
be glad to get home. To his sister Anna he wrote, I am bluer than
indigo about the cattle; it is even worse than I feared; I wish I was
sure I would lose no more than half the money I invested out here.
I am planning how to get out of it.
One of the greatest speculative bubbles of the Gilded Age was
over. Yet its full impact on American identity, on industrial devel-
opment, on the conservation movement, even on American foreign
policy, was still to be felt. Perhaps no boom-bust cycle has had as
lasting an impact on American society as the rise and fall of the

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Introduction | xix

cattle kingdom, and yet, oddly, this epic saga is largely forgotten
today.
Here, then, is the story of the open-range cattle era, the tale of
how ranching emerged as an industry across a land once dismissed
as the Great American Desert, and how cattle displaced bison, herd
by herd, until cattle fever grew into an investment stampede.
Why, the reader might ask, do we need a new history of an ob-
scure cattle boom at this point in American history? The fact that
it has been over forty years since this story was last properly told is
perhaps reason enough. The other reasons are fourfold. In the wake
of recent oil, real estate, and dot-com bubbles, every American has
been reminded of how often our free-enterprise system subjects us
to the shocks of boom-bust cycles. One goal here is to shine light
on the psychology and greed that drive an investment mania, and
on the financial and human catastrophes that result from the burst-
ing of a commodity bubble. There are lessons to be learned. Sec-
ond, for this writer, a former financial journalist and investment
manager retired to Wyoming and prospecting for literary ideas, the
story stood out as an apposite morality tale about the price paid by
those who ignore economic and ecological realities in their single-
minded pursuit of the American Dream. Third, hindsight and a
deeper understanding of the natural world today allow us a wider
frame of reference for studying an environmental disaster such
as the Big Die-Up. Finally, the era provided an opportunity to tell
a remarkable tale: the story of the cowboy and his rise to mythic
stature.
This book traces the arduous trail drives of the longhorns from
the mesquite and thorn scrub of southern Texas to the pop-up cat-
tle towns of Kansas. It then follows the beef through the gates of the
gory slaughterhouses of the Union Stock Yards in Chicago to the
celebrated New York City dining palaces of the Delmonico broth-
ers, who first popularized the American steak. It will show what life
was really like for a cowboy, along the dusty trail and in the saloons,
and how the myth that grew up around him was remarkably at odds

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xx | Introduction

with the realities of his daily existence. That myth, while inaccurate,
proved remarkably durable, especially after its definitive embellish-
ment by the author Owen Wister. It gave birth to an enduring genre
of entertainment and has influenced our national politics in sur-
prising ways.
One destination will be Cheyenne, Wyoming, the greatest of
the cattle towns of the north, and its boomtown shops and grand
homes. A visit to the private clubrooms of the exclusive Cheyenne
Club will reveal the cattle barons at work and at play, and show
how their high times ended with the questionable use of vigilante
justice.
At a more personal level, this book depicts how opportunities
and challenges arose for young men, rich and poor, recent graduates
of Harvard College or farm boys like Teddy Blue Abbott, who were
daring enough to enter the cattle profession. The book will track
the careers of three aristocratic twenty-five-year-olds, in thrall to
cattle fever, who sought their fortune in the trade: the Englishman
Moreton Frewen, the Frenchman the Marquis de Mors, and the
New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt. Thanks in part to the experience
of Roosevelt during his years as a ranchman in the Dakota Terri-
tory, this era gave birth to the American conservation movement.
At times the narrative takes a step back from these proceedings
to examine the larger forces that shaped and spurred the industri-
alization of agriculture. It looks at how global trade and flows of
capital drove events every bit as much as the trail drivers them-
selves, luring investment by Scottish and English moneymen seek-
ing better returns on their capital. The cattle industrys connections
to other nations and markets pushed the boundaries of the nations
commerce toward the emerging global marketplace. And thanks to
the multicultural nature of the cattle tradeits diverse group of
cowboys and cattlemen and its competition with an equally diverse
population of immigrant settlersthe industry not only helped
heal the regional divides created by the Civil War but also laid the
foundations for the multicultural nation that is the United States
today. Far more than the Gold Rush, the cattle era gave birth to

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Introduction | xxi

a romantic notion of entrepreneurialism: the pursuit of individual


freedom and economic opportunity that today sends young college
graduates to Silicon Valley.
In fact, entrepreneurs in refrigeration and meatpacking, men like
Gustavus Swift and Philip Danforth Armour, set the stage for the
American Century with groundbreaking managerial insights that
grew their enterprises into the countrys first fully integrated in-
dustrial combines. Thanks to the cattle kingdom and its rapid-fire
efforts to codify the raising, slaughtering, and transporting of cattle,
the country took a giant step closer to becoming a predominantly
industrial society.
Also fitting for a period of American history so rife with innova-
tion, great strides were made in cattle-industry medicine and tech-
nology, breakthroughs that built fortunes and saved lives. None was
more significant than the creation of barbed wire, which literally
reshaped the landscape and set the stage for the eras eventual de-
structionat great personal cost to so many of its key players.
Today, thanks in no small part to the impact of the cattle king-
dom, we are called upon to negotiate compromises between con-
flicting economic ambitions and use of our public lands. We are
compelled to balance free-market exploitation of our natural re-
sources with sound stewardship of the environment. That all began
in the late 1860s on the open range.
Although the cattle kingdom did not formally conclude with the
Big Die-Up itself, it badly staggered the industry. The true end of
the era is better signposted, according to most historians, by the
most famous of the range wars that followed: the murderous and
controversial crossroads known as the Johnson County War. For it
is here that the cowboy and the cattleman, representing dwindling
labor and capital, respectively, finally collide in a violent finale fit for
a Hollywood western.
Only three of the men featured in this narrative survived on the
open range until the eras close. They are the cowboy Teddy Blue
Abbott, the urbane Harvard man Hubert Teschemacher, and the
savvy Scotsman John Clay. They might not be as well remembered

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xxii | Introduction

as other characters, but the personal stories of this trio round out
the variety of experiences faced by young men in this treacherous
business.
When the number of dead animals was finally tallied in the late
spring of 1887, the losses incurred in the Big Die-Up totaled nearly
a million head of cattle, 50 to 80 percent of the various herds across
the northernmost rangesthe greatest loss of animal life in pasto-
ral history. For animal carnage, only one event could possibly com-
pete. It occurred just twenty years earlier, across the same land-
scape, at the outset of the great cattle era: the extermination of the
American buffalo, or as it is more accurately called, the bison.

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