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To Advance the Interests of Stock-Growers

 

My friends in the West River keep working toward the establishment of a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, a great thing for this part of the country. Bricks and mortar are in the future, but in the meantime, they have been building up the digital collections pertaining to TR and his western experience. Such as this intriguing item: the “By-Laws of the Little Missouri River Stockmen’s Association,” 1885. Chairman: Theodore Roosevelt.

Stockmen’s associations of the nineteenth-century American West, sometimes known as pools, were all over the open range--the country where cattlemen moved in with their herds without benefit of title to the lands on which they grazed.

Nearly ninety years ago Ernest Osgood published his classic work, The Day of the Cattleman. This is a great book, but somewhat blinkered, because it is based almost entirely on the records of the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association.

The way Osgood tells it, the story is nothing less than the rebirth of American democracy on the plains. Having ventured into territory without benefit of the rule of law, stockmen made their own law--by forming such associations as the one chaired by Roosevelt in 1885.

The record of such organizations is a little more checkered than as portrayed by Osgood. The Cherokee Strip Livestock Association used political intrigue to gain control over lands owned by the Cherokees in Oklahoma. In Montana, the livestock association led by Granville Stuart earned the sobriquet “Stuart’s Stranglers” for its excessive lynching of alleged rustlers. And back in Osgood’s Wyoming, recent research reveals it was the association itself, more so than the so-called “rustlers” it battled in the Johnson County War, that was lawless.

So what sort of organization was this one headed by TR in 1885? Its stated purpose was “to advance the interests of stock-growers and dealers in live stock of all kinds in Western Dakota.” Its regulations were adopted by ballot, one vote to each “firm.” The by-laws say, “firm,” not “ranch” or “outfit.” Which is to say, the language is that of Gilded-Age business practice.

Even the clause about “protection . . . against frauds and swindlers, and to prevent the stealing, taking, and driving away of horned cattle, sheep, horses, and other stock,” while referring to territorial conditions, nevertheless contains undertones of suppression of competition. The same goes for the clauses about excluding non-members from roundups.

Next, look at the roster of founding members, listing twenty firms. Several obviously are what we would today call multi-national corporations. Local personages are named, but most of them are managers for distant capitalists. For instance, Gregor Lang, Roosevelt’s friend and neighbor, is manager of the Nimmela Ranch--which he managed for Sir John Pender, a Scots capitalist in London who laid the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.

Roosevelt’s own operations are listed as “Maltese Cross Brand” and “Elkhorn Brand”--the only ones invoking the term “brand.” Evidently he wanted his rhetoric to partake of the territory.

On the other hand, there was Gustavus Grisy, who with his wife ran a little store over in Mingusville, Montana. Their vote counted the same at that of the Marquis de Mores. This was democracy, of a sort, but democracy of a complex nature--as, I suspect, it always is. ~Tom Isern

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