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Good Shepherds


As I compose this essay, it occurs to me that Christian parishes across the land are celebrating the Sunday of the Good Shepherd. Countless sermons are being preached from the Twenty-Third Psalm--the author of which, as I read the Old Testament, had pretty sketchy credentials as a shepherd, but I guess he knew one when he saw one.


And I see quite a few of them, too, in the territorial and early statehood press of the northern plains, as during the 1880s and 1890s, flocks streamed into Dakota to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the open-range cattle industry. Heavy English breeds rode the rails in from the east; nimble Merinos commonly walked in.


As the 1890s opened, the Northern Pacific Railroad transported many thousands of Merinos from western ranges. The Valley City Alliance reported in early August 1890 Messrs. Nestor and Billberry were just in from Montana on a special stock train they had made up, costing them $700--sixteen cars carrying 2200 sheep.


The same paper noted that three farmers in Nelson County had received the first shipment of several comprising seven thousand head from Montana; they planned to “engage in sheep raising on a large scale,” it was reported.


A year later the Jamestown Weekly Alert recounted that Dan Ringer had bought a large flock at Boise City, Idaho, walked it to the NP line, and followed the railroad across Wyoming and Montana. Ringer had been on the trail since the previous May, so he decided to load the sheep at Glendive and ship them the last leg to Jamestown.


About the same time the press got wind of an epic drive being conducted by a man named John Nichols and his shepherds, who were driving for the partnership of Lloyd & Hamilton. They gathered a flock of four thousand sheep in Wyoming and walked them east across the badlands, headed for Pierre, there to cross the Missouri River on the pontoon bridge. The western leg of the drive took ten weeks.


It was nearly two months later that Nichols brought the flock into Jamestown and spilled a fantastic travel narrative to the Jamestown Weekly Alert. He had kept a daily diary of the journal, and it was full of wonders.


Nichols also carried a box of fossils, for he discovered that the West River country was full of them, that “there seemed to have congregated the last remaining individuals of both land and sea eras.” He declared the country “abounds with remains of ancient inhabitants of earth and water.” He picked up snails sixteen inches across and found the “remains of an ancient lizard 80 feet long.”


It was the living fauna that bedeviled Nichols, however, for the country was alive with rattlesnakes. The shepherds killed seven in one day, more than 150 in all. They brought in a box of rattles and gave them out as souvenirs. Sheep were terrified of the reptiles and would jump over one another to escape them.


Fifty or more sheep were bitten, and nine died of snakebite. More would have, except that Nichols devised a treatment of coal oil (kerosene) spiked with Pond’s Extract--a solution of witch hazel--which concoction the shepherd swore “was repeatedly tried with success.”


At the same time, as early as 1890 operators were finishing sheep on Dakota ranges and shipping to Chicago for slaughter. In February 1897 the banker W. A. Lanterman, of Mandan, received a flock of 1500 animals from Washburn and loaded them for shipment east. Shepherds had brought the flock downriver the whole way on the river ice.


Still waters, indeed. Good shepherds.


-Tom Isern

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