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Plains Folk

Cattle Kings and Trick Horses

If I use the word “pastoralism,” it’s usually misunderstood. People think I’m talking about clergymen, possibly of the Lutheran variety--when really I’m speaking of what we in the United States generally call “ranching.” In the rest of the English-speaking world that’s pastoralism, and if practiced on the open range, that’s “extensive pastoralism.” And the open range is referred to as “waste lands.”

So, in terms the rest of the world would understand, here on the Great Plains we have a particularly interesting history of extensive pastoralism. It came about because we also have a particularly interesting history of transportation, by which I mean railroads.

Elsewhere, in the history of settlement, people like Daniel Boone beat a pathway to the frontier, built their cabins, and hoped others would follow to raise property values. Eventually, investors built railroads and canals to connect settlements to the rest of the world.

Here on the Great Plains we flipped that process: first came the railroads (built with government funding), then came the pioneer farmers to settle alongside and ship their produce. In the meantime, after the previous (American Indian) pastoral cultures of the plains collapsed under pressure, we had open-range ranching. Which was English-style extensive pastoralism outfitted in Spanish gear and vocabulary.

While writing a general history of agriculture on the Great Plains for an academic work, I realized what I’ve been talking about is all a matter of what our animal-science people like nowadays to call “animal agriculture.” So I had to fit it into the narrative.

Which wasn’t hard, because we have a wonderful literature of extensive pastoralism--oh, sorry, ranching--on the plains. I’ll mention just a few of the classic primary works, in case you’re building a personal library. Begin with Historic Sketches of the Cattle Industry of the West and Southwest, by Joseph McCoy, 1874. McCoy was the guy with the bright idea of bringing the cattle trade to the little village of Abilene, Kansas, on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, thus transforming it into a global phenomenon.

Move on then to Andy Adams, Log of a Cowboy, 1903, which recounts memorably how the cattle industry moved north to fill the plains. If you’re not satisfied with that, get yourself a copy of Hunter’s Trail Drivers of Texas, 1920, for a collection of narratives thick enough you can use it to block your pickup wheels when you park on a hill.

A generation after the closing of the open range, the historians take the field. The original cowboy historian was Edward Everett Dale, a cowboy, deputy sheriff, and country schoolteacher from western Oklahoma who got himself a couple of degrees from Harvard and settled in to teach at the University of Oklahoma, Stetson and all. There he wrote The Range Cattle Industry, published in 1930.

To the north we have Ernest Staples Osgood, a Massachusetts boy with a degree from Wisconsin who taught at the University of Minnesota. His book, The Day of the Cattlemen, 1929, is the classic explanation of how ranching capitalists organized the open range of the northern plains. I do think Osgood is somewhat captured by his sources, which were mainly the papers of the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association.

Osgood began the trend of celebrating the so-called “cattle kings” as the aristocratic heroes of the open range. As best I can tell, however, that term was a bit of a spoof, used to make fun of cattlemen with aristocratic pretensions. In the 1880s there was a touring dramatic production called The Cattle Kings that was a great popular favorite. Its stars were a company of performing horses that were brought on-stage. Then they exited the stage--as did the extensive pastoralists of the western range, once their time was past.

-Tom Isern

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