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May 2: The Fences Must Come Down

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Concern about meat production arose in the 1880s when Department of Agriculture chemist Harvey W. Wiley reported on health hazards within the meat industry. Those included the use of unsafe preservatives and coloring agents. Wiley began lobbying for federal legislation governing the packing and purity of food products. Concerns about the quality of meat grew when three large meat packers joined forces in 1902. Swift, Armour, and Morris formed the National Packing Company. This gave them control of packing houses in three cities. The near monopoly was a cause for concern regarding both meat quality and higher prices made possible by the lack of competition.

Into this fray comes Teddy Roosevelt. After only one hundred ninety-four days as vice president, he stepped into the White House when President McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Roosevelt quickly developed a reputation as a trust buster through his regulatory reforms and antitrust prosecutions.

He quickly turned his attention to the meat industry. Roosevelt, also a staunch conservationist, stressed the importance of the efficient use of natural resources, and he expanded the national park system. Therefore, it was no surprise when he combined his opposition to business monopolies with his reputation as a conservationist.

On this date in 1901, Roosevelt indirectly challenged the meat industry while promoting the conservation of public lands. He said that the fences erected by ranchers on those had to come down. He said that millions of acres of public land had been illegally fenced by the cattle trust, unfairly benefitting the biggest ranchers at the expense of small family ranches. This, in combination with the meat packing monopoly, had raised prices for ordinary Americans. Roosevelt’s order to remove fencing affected large areas in the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, and Colorado.

Although a law against the fences had been passed in 1885, it had never been rigorously enforced. Roosevelt was determined to change that. The ranchers resisted. They said the purpose of the fences was not to keep the public out, but to keep the cattle from wandering. They brought several court cases to overturn the policy, but lost each one.

In 1907, the public was informed that the fences were coming down once and for all, and there would be no further reprieve.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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