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The Finger of Blame


The disease was known and cursed in South Africa in the 1600s. From there we may backtrack to its origins in the Mediterranean region; Cato the Elder wrote about it some two centuries before Christ. The writer of Leviticus enjoined the faithful never to present a sacrifice of “scabbed” sheep. Which reveals to you the disease I am talking about, a global plague for millennia, is the scab of sheep.


Scab is a skin disease caused by a tiny mite, Psoroptes ovis, which causes itching, scabbing, wool loss, and emaciation. It is transmitted by contact, sheep to sheep. One flock infects another, or, sheep may pick up the disease merely by going onto ground recently grazed by infected animals. Thus scab was a particular problem in eras of colonization and open range, when flocks were not separated by fences.


Thus I became familiar with scab as a historical problem through my research in New Zealand in the 1990s. New Zealanders blamed the historic infestation on Merino flocks brought across the Tasman from Australia. Scab had entered New South Wales with the First Fleet bringing convicts to Sydney in 1788.


Now I find that scab was a persistent problem, too, in the American West, including the Dakota Territory during the time when the open-range cattle industry collapsed and sheep were driven or transported in to fill the void. This was in the 1880s and 1890s.


A USDA bulletin from 1890, Animal Parasites of Sheep, addresses the issue bluntly. The author, Cooper Curtice, writes, “Of all the diseases of sheep in this country, scab is the most feared by the flockmaster. So insidious is its attack, so rapid its course, so destructive its effects, and so difficult is it to exterminate that it has justly earned the distinction of being more injurious than any other disease caused by external parasites.”


Defeating the disease required two things: immersion and legislation. Infected sheep had to be dipped in solutions of tobacco, tar, arsenic, sulphur, lime, and other toxic stuff. Then, owners of clean sheep had to be protected, by inspection and quarantine, from reinfection by less conscientious operators.


Thus in 1885 the legislative assembly of Dakota Territory passed a law authorizing county commissioners to appoint inspectors to whom anyone bringing sheep into the county had to report. The inspector would make record of any diseased flock and see to its quarantine.


Which brings us to Emmons County, North Dakota, the spring of 1891, where one E. Woorster was the appointed sheep inspector. As recounted to the Bismarck Tribune, Woorster was incensed. To this point there had been no scab in Emmons County, despite the presence of some large flocks.


“The finger of blame,” charged Woorster, “points in but one direction--toward the United States Sheep Company, of Fargo,” the business of a banker named E. Ashley Mears. This investor, attracted by the profits of the open range, had placed multiple flocks out with farmers scattered through the county. 


“Irreparable damage has been done in this county to the public generally, and more particularly to the suffering, trusting men who have given their time, labor and hard-earned means to a work which was doomed from the start,” lamented the sheep inspector. It would be a long time cleaning up this infectious mess.


All of which is to say, on the Dakota range, the most intractable problems could not be solved by rugged individuals going their own way. Only cooperative community spirit, applied with persistence and backed up if necessary by law, could make the country livable and profitable.


-Tom Isern

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