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May 30: Tramp Sheepmen and Tramp Sheep

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The American West underwent major changes in the early 1900s. Cities and towns were springing up, railroads crisscrossed the countryside, and fences put land off-limits to public use. The Federal government also established Forest Reserves. Grazing livestock in these areas required a permit. In an effort to avoid paying for permits, some livestock owners moved their herds from place to place in search of grazing and water. This was common for sheepherders.

Sheep arrived on the northern Great Plains when North Dakota was still part of Dakota Territory. In 1883, Rancher Dugald* Campbell brought thirteen hundred sheep to his ranch south of Bismarck. The Bismarck Tribune observed that “the soil, climate, and grasses of this region are peculiarly adapted to sheep culture.” A few ranchers in western North Dakota tried their hand at raising sheep, but it never caught on like raising cattle and horses.

On this date in 1902, the Bismarck Daily Tribune alerted readers to sheep coming in from other states to graze on North Dakota grass. Herders who were dubbed “tramp sheepmen” were bringing large herds into the state and turning them loose to graze. Coming from out of state and moving their herds around allowed them to avoid paying state taxes, like local sheepherders.

The state took the incursion seriously. Arrest warrants were issued for sheepmen who failed to notify the sheep inspector five days in advance of their arrival as required by law. And the county treasurer of Billings County seized a large herd, advertising them for sale at fifty cents a head. The sheepmen responded by hiring lawyers. Judge Amidon issued a restraining order halting the sale until the matter could be sorted out.

North Dakota sheep ranchers said sheep coming from other states destroyed the grass and had the potential to bring disease. The so-called tramp sheep were resented, considered a constant source of trouble, but the authorities had not successfully prevented them from coming. Gradually, the practice died out on its own.

Today, cattle greatly outnumber sheep in North Dakota with over a million and a half cattle to about a half million sheep. But sheep ranching still plays an important role in the state’s economy.

 Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher

 *Name appeared in the source newspaper as DuGold, but we assume a typo, as DuGald is a known Scottish first name, whereas DuGold is not.


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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