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The Price of Progress

In 1882 the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its magnificent, now-iconic bridge across the Missouri River at Bismarck. Dedication ceremonies hailed this as a triumph of progress. Cattle hereafter would be shipped readily into the northern Dakota badlands, while settlers would take up land near the railway and commence field agriculture.

This meant potential conflict of the biblical sort as the price of progress. In 1871 the legislature of Dakota Territory, in its wisdom, had becalmed the territorial range by passing a herd law. Such a law meant that farmers would not have to fence their crops to protect them from livestock at large. Rather, stockmen would have to restrain their beasts by herding them or by fencing their pastures, otherwise pay damages.

This was a satisfactory arrangement all around because de-facto open range prevailed west of the Missouri River. Stockmen complained a little, but they were not much bothered by settlers, whom they called “nesters” and other disparaging terms.

Now this railroad crossing the Missouri, it was potential trouble. Incoming farmers expected the full protection of the herd law. Northwestern stockmen decided they better make a stand, before territorial status ended, while they would have the Black Hills counties still on side.

Mandan and Dickinson became information centers for the struggle between stock and farm interests. In early January 1885 the Mandan Pioneer reported “a pretty general feeling up the line, at Dickinson for example, that something should be done in the interests of the West Missouri country, to get the herd law repealed, or amended at least.”

The situation was going to get intolerable for stockmen, argued the (ironically named) Pioneer, when “the country surrounding them becomes settled up more completely by the pre-emptor and the homesteader.” The Pioneer then wandered off into rhetorical misdirection to talk about farmers making unwarranted damage claims--not a single example cited, but a gratuitous slur against Jews thrown in.

After that the Pioneer proposed an apparently reasonably compromise: keep the herd law for the growing season, but suspend it once grain crops were gathered in. At that point in the fall, let the animals run. Stockmen figured they could herd their beasts for the warm season of the year, but would have trouble holding them in a blizzard, and they didn’t want to pay if the stock got into some farmer’s stacks.

Farmers saw this coming. One of them quickly wrote the Dickinson Press, “The larger cattle owners, those who own five hundred head or more and devote their time and means exclusively to the cattle business will ask the legislature to make a sweeping repeal of the herd laws and leave the farmers at their mercy.”

A Richardton farmer chimed in, “We want the herd law to remain as it is, to protect our property at all seasons of the year. It would be an impossible thing for us to fence all our land to protect our crops. The settler . . . would be driven away.”

What doomed the compromise proposal of a seasonal herd law was that farmers, who mainly raised wheat, also kept cattle. Sometimes in the fall they stacked their grain and left it in the field for months while awaiting a contract thresher. They also put hay up into stacks. Thus suspending herd law in the fall would threaten their stacks and the very viability of mixed farmers. And “mixed farming”--combining grain growing with livestock operations--that was the holy grail of agricultural experts.

So the conflict fizzled, there was no range war, and as we all know, stockmen and farmers, western North Dakotans and eastern North Dakotans, have lived together happily ever after.

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