western US history - cattle war?

I just finished re-reading The Virginian (A Horseman Of The Plains) by Owen Wister (dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt). Published in 1902, it’s the story of a cowboy in Wyoming. The book ends with the following sentences:

What does this refer to? I’ve heard of fights between sheepherders and cattlemen (a “documentary” starring cartoon character Droopy clearing pastures with his sheep and driving away a rancher comes to mind), but I don’t remember a war in the USA. But then I’m not very well-versed in USA history. Is it the modern-day consensus that the opponents of the cattle barons were “thieves”?

They weren’t actual “wars”, in the sense that governments were fighting; more like feuds between competing interests. The cattlemen let their stock roam freely. In the spring they would have a “round up” and they would seperate the cattle by owner. Calves belonged to the cattleman who owned the mother. As settlers moved west, they started fencing off their land. They didn’t want cattle eating their crops. The cattlemen didn’t like the restriction of their enterprise and there was some violence between the cattlemen and the farmers.

IIRC, the 1889 “war” in Montana was the basis of the film Heaven’s Gate. Immigrants were moving into traditional cattle territory and taking up land. Of course, the cattle barons were there first and had taken the best land. Some immigrants occasionally killed some stock; it was a matter of survival. (Of course, there were accusations that they were stealing the stock to pay for the services of “Cattle Kate’s” prostitutes.) The Stock Grower’s Association decided to take action. They hired “hit men” to kill the immigrants they suspected of stealing their stock. This is where I mix up history and the movies. In Heaven’s Gate there is a large fight between the immigrants and the stockmen’s mercenaries. I don’t remember if that happened IRL.

I’m at work, and I’ve already spent too much time on the board, so you might want to do a search on “johnson county war” and “cattle kate”.

And there’s the phone!

Thank you Johnny. I looked at a few web pages for the “Johnson County Cattle War”, and found many mentions of it, but no detailed accounts. From what I’ve read, it seems that a few cattle “land barons” used hired guns in a dispute with farmers that were attempting to put fences around their land. It seems that farmers were trying to reserve land that the cattle raisers thought should be public. As to who really owned the land, who knows?

It’s something of a simplification to say that it was the cattle barons vs. the homesteaders, because many of the homesteaders were merely cattlemen who got there a bit late. And indeed many of these Johnny-come-latelys built up very respectable herds by rustling the bigger outfits’ cattle.

In fact, it was a pretty standard custom to never eat your own beef when you sat down for a meal (one I might add, that continued well into the last few decades of the 20th century among many cattlemen). People like Tom Horn, Butch Cassidy and Isom Dart all were caught up in the situation or related sutuations.

It should be pointed out that the cattle barons (many of whom were absentee landowners still residing “Back East”, or even in the British Isles) had a pretty valid argument about the land not being good small homestead country. Twenty-five years after the war, most of the homesteaders were gone because the land, the weather and the economy combined to beat them.

But land entrapauners were bringing out small farmers from the east and from Europe with the offer of free or very cheap land. These farmers didn’t realize that the land they were settling on was not fit for small farm plots. They were used to more furtile land that wouldn’t be sapped of its nutrients in ten years or less.

I’m sure the big cattlemen didn’t realize it either, but they did know that their way of life was being threatened by the newcomers (many of whom didn’t even speak English - so immediately suspect)and their stock disappearing in very large numbers (thanks to people like Cassidy and Dart). That’s why the cattlemens’ associations hired regulators, enforcers and “stock detectives” (like Horn) to communicate their points of view. These were not subtle men, nor were many of the gunslinger “hands” the cattle barons hired like the Virginian.

The battle scenes in Chamino’s “Heavans Gate” are quite historically accurate.

And because of the numbers involved on the homsteaders side, it was not much later when the newcomers took control of the Wyoming legislature and put through land reform laws to protect themselves, but as I said earlier, the cattlemen had the last laugh in that a good portion of the homesteaders and their small spreads were gone within 20 to 25 years.

Similar land wars took place in Colorado and New Mexico (notable in the latter were John Chisholm and William [Billy the Kid] Bonny).

Sorry about the length - I got carried away.


Good answer TV time.

Arnold: Although it took some liberties with history, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is a beautiful film (photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond). It was known as “the $40 million flop” because it was only on screens for three days. I don’t want to say much about it in case you decide to rent it, but it’s one of my favourite films. The costuming and set design are brilliant, and are all based on period photographs. And seeing Isabelle Hupert naked in half of her scenes isn’t bad either. :wink:

Tom Horn is another film about the “war”. It seems that Horn accidentally killed a youth and was sentenced to death by hanging. IIRC (from historical sources, not the movie) nobody wanted to be the one who opened the trap door that would cause Horn to jerk to his death, so they tried designing an automatic openner. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film, so I don’t remember how it was handled in it.

The American West was a fascinating era, and well worth study. (You can pick up tidbits like: The Pony Express only lasted a year.)

Are you coming to the Dopefest tomorrow at 8:00 PM at Ye Olde King’s Head in Santa Monica? (I forgot if you said so or not in the other thread.)

The Johnson County of “Johnson County Cattle War” is actually in Wyoming. http://www.buffalowyo.org/

There were numbers of conflicts over land and water, some big enough for the Army to step in to restore order. The TIME/LIFE THE OLD WEST series gives a quick overview in the “Ranchers” volume. It wasn’t just farmers v. ranchers, it was cows v. sheep, too. Until irrigation and Russian Red made winter wheat farming feasible, farming West of the 30 inches of rainfall line made crop farming an unduly risky enterprise

[quote[The Johnson County of “Johnson County Cattle War” is actually in Wyoming.[/quote]

Correct. I have a book called The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate but I haven’t read it yet and it’s packed away.

Thank you all and especially TVTime for an informative post. I’ll try to visit the library one of these days for an account of these events. In The Virginian the author mentions how “lynching is necessary because the courts are not punishing the cattle thieves”. It sounds like this statement might have had some truth to it (the second part of the statement, about courts not punishing the cattle thieves).

P.S. Sorry Johnny, can’t make it to Santa Monica tonight. I was hoping to meet Spiny Norman. Tell him I said hi.

And also Heaven’s Gate has been on my list of films to see for a long time. This thread has given me the impetus to finally get off my duff and try to find it.