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Long X Ranch

10/18/2004:

The Long X Ranch is the largest and, possibly, the most historic cattle ranch in McKenzie County. The original ranch site was on Squaw Creek, southwest of Watford City, near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The first whites to claim the acreage were two sheepherders named Hall and Braden. This was during the days of cattle drives that came north to take advantage of the open range in Dakota Territory. Sheepherders and cattle drivers were competitors who didn’t see eye to eye. In the 1880s, vigilantes made a notorious raid through Montana and western North Dakota, during which they burned Hall and Braden’s hay. The raid put the men out of business, and they had to sell out the next spring.

Meanwhile down in Texas, two brothers, William and George Reynolds, were moving their longhorn cattle around New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado in search of better grazing. In the spring of 1884, they moved a large herd farther north, where they met two fur traders near what is now Wibaux, MT. The trappers told the trail foreman, Arthur Jefferies, that he and his trail drivers should head east toward the Badlands, where the grass was “stirrup high.”

A cattleman doesn’t ignore grass as high as his horse’s belly. The outfit took the trappers at their word and moved 4,000 longhorns east into the Badlands. This is reportedly the first herd of Longhorns to ever come into that region.

By 1888, the Reynolds brothers were bringing up three herds a year. Every cowboy was in the saddle from dawn until dark, and each of them, except the cook, worked in two-hour shifts throughout the night to stand guard over the herd.

The Reynolds learned about Hall and Braden losing their sheep and bought their spread. They named it for their official brand, the “Long X,” which is said to be one of the first two brands recorded in North Dakota. In fact, the Reynolds descendants still use it today.

The Long X developed a reputation for doing business more economically than other Western ranching outfits. They employed a large number of cowboys, especially during spring branding season and fall roundups. The Long X cowboys worked seven days a week, in every type of weather, during their roundups. The only thing that stopped them was prairie fires; at that point, cowboys deserted the cattle and tried to save the range. Without grass, the cattle would starve.

The one thing the Reynolds brothers didn’t like about Dakota was winter. In the deadly winter of 1886-87, they were grazing 11,000 head in the fall, but only 7,000 were left by spring. According to a 1993 article in North Dakota Horizons, the Long X operation never fully recovered and ended up selling the entire McKenzie County spread to the Converse Cattle Co. Much of that land is now within the boundaries of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Although the Reynolds went back to Texas, the name and history of the Long X lives on in North Dakota. A bridge on US Hwy 85, south of Watford City, is called the Long X, and a bar in Grassy Butte carries the name, as well. A public marker in the North Unit of the Park tells about the Long X Trail that passed through that area, and the Park maintains a small herd of Longhorns to pay homage to their history in the Badlands. By next summer, a Long X Visitor Center and Museum is slated to open in Watford City.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm