There is a curious gap in our historical memory as to the culture of sheep on the northern plains.
We love to tell the story of the range cattle industry. Although we recognize it was a transitory enterprise and generally date its demise sometime around the hard winter of 1887, we like to think there was a ready transition from the open range to modern ranching. We are loath to admit that in fact, the range cattle industry failed and was replaced, for the better part of a generation, by the sheep industry.
So let us converse for a moment with A. T. Packard, the gingery editor of the Bad Lands Cow Boy, of Medora, in early 1884. We find him contemplating the failure of the sheep-raising initiative of the Marquis de Mores and insisting, in the heart of cattle country, “that the Bad Lands is a sheep country, if the right kind of sheep are bred.” The Marquis failed because he shipped in his sheep too late in the fall, and sheep “need to get acquainted with the range earlier in the season.” In time, Packard predicted, “sheep will undoubtedly prove as remunerative in the Bad Lands as cattle.”
Or more so, and not only in the West River but also in the Missouri Coteau, the hill country east of the Missouri River. In 1882, as recounted in a letter to the Bismarck Tribune in 1888, Alexander Campbell and sons, operating at Glencoe, Emmons County, decided to invest in sheep.
“We formed the opinion that this part of Dakota was well adapted for sheep raising,” Campbell recalls. “This on account of the abundance of rich pasturage for nine months of the year; the comparative cheapness with which hay could be put up; the dryness of the soil; the plentifulness of water; the absence of long continuing rains and the convenience of timber for building sheds.” The reason Campbell mentions dry soil and the lack of long rainy spells was the common problem of footrot in flocks around the world.
In triumph Campbell continues, “Last winter (1887) - the worst on stock ever experienced in the west - the loss from November to April in eighteen hundred head wintered at Goose Lake was twenty-three head. In five hundred wintered at Glencoe the loss was six head.”
Besides making net returns on wool of $1.18 a head, the Campbells’ sheep had “not required dipping, as scab or parasites of any kind are so far unknown.” Here the pioneering pastoralist refers to another global issue with flocks, the pandemic of scab, a parasitic infection of the sheep’s skin.
“Dakota is a sheep country,” declared Campbell, “even with her natural grasses,” and would be even better with the establishment of improved pastures - “especially blue grass, which has so far done finely.”
By end of 1890 sheep farmer H. C. Ayers was confirming to the Jamestown Weekly Alert the superiority of the Dakotas, specifically including North Dakota, to “any other country in the world” for raising sheep. The soil, he attested, was “usually dry and affords solid footing.” The environment was one of “robust health for man and beast.” Pasturage was “practically unlimited,” water abundant. There was local grain for feeding out mutton beasts to be shipped to St. Paul, Duluth, Chicago, Omaha.
Was this simply hopeful rhetoric? Not at all. In May 1892 a correspondent of the Dickinson Press made a careful reconnaissance of farms and ranches around New England and along the Cannonball River. All of them kept scores of cattle, but they had hundreds, or thousands, of sheep.
The historic character of North Dakota as a sheep country has been our little secret for more than a century. It’s time we fessed up to it.