Friday, November 27, 2009

The Big Freeze of 1886: What was Thought as the End of Public Ranching...

Too bad it was not,...but there is a lesson to be learned here; if you dont have enough land of your own, or the proper facilities to feed AND house your animals ---you shouildnt OWN THEM!

From Wyoming Tales and Trails

This page: Roundups, Chuckwagons, the Great Die-off, Moreton Frewen, C. D. Kirkland.

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Roundup Camp, Wyoming, 1880's

The flat brimmed hats some of the cowboys are wearing is the Stetson "Boss of the Plains" hat originated in 1865 and sold for $5.00. By 1900 it was sold by Sears Robuck and Company for $4.50 plus postage. Shaping of the brim and crown was done by the owner. As noted with regard the discussion of Cheyenne, the chuckwagon was invented by Charles Goodnight. Brands included Studebaker, South Bend, Owensburrow, McCormick-Deering and Weber. McCormick-Deering in 1907 changed its name to International Harvester and continued to supply wagons until the 1940's. After 1936 all of the International wagons were manufactured by Keller Manufacturing Company which discontinued production in 1943 and converted to the manufacture of furniture. Studebaker also built a heavier wagon known as the "roundup wagon" more suited to roundups but not as well suited to trail drives as the lighter chuckwagon. On large drives an additional wagon known as a "hoodlum wagon" was used for carrying bed rolls and personal gear.

In the early 1880's a discussed with regard to the Swan Land and Cattle Company , a cattle boom swept the Great Plains, attracting many eastern and British investors. Although the editor of the Sheridan City Directory, as noted on the Sheridan Page, may have believed that "in winter the friendly 'chinook' wind mitigates the cold, killing winters of the Dakotas," as illustrated by C. M. Russell's famous sketch pictured lower on the page, chinooks are somewhat unreliable.

The winter of 1886-1887 was devasting to Wyoming's cattle industry. The giant British-owned Swan Land & Cattle Company, Limited, headquartered in Chugwater and Cheyenne, lost 50% of its calves and 15 to 20% of its entire stock. On one wintry day across the street from the Cheyenne Club, ranchmen gathered in Luke Murrin's saloon to lament their losses. Luke, realizing that herds were often sold by "book count" rather than actual census, offered the assurance, "Cheer up boys, whatever happens, the books won't freeze." It did little to assuage their fears. Nor was their confidence helped when on January 1, 1887, when the giant Dolores Land and Cattle Company, owned by Gilbert A. Searight and his family made an assignment for the benefit of creditors. The previous year Searight sold the Goose Egg Ranch on Poison Spider Creek to J. M. Cary and Brother losing an estimated $200,000.00 in the transaction. According to the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, January 3, 1897, The Dolores Land and Cattle Company was regarded as one of the wealthiest cattle organizations. It was capitalized at $2,000,000. Searight had been used by William Makepeace Thayer in his 1887 "Marvels of the New West as an example of the fortunes to be made in the cattle business.

On May 14, 1887, cattle interests in Wyoming were further shaken when Alexander Swan and his brother Thomas Swan declared their insolvency and entered into a general assignment of assets for the benefit of creditors. Less than a month before, the Swan Brothers' accountant had declared to the First National Bank of Cheyenne that the two were worth more than $800,000.00 above liabillities. Shortly thereafter, creditors, bankers, and lawyers began gathering around the Cheyenne Land & Live-Stock Company which had extensive land and irrigation holdings along Horse Creek. And like prairie wolves the creditors were soon fighting amongst themselves as they picked at the carcass. Other large companies such as the Niobrara Land and Cattle Company which had interests from Texas to Montana failed. In the instance of the Swan Land and Cattle Co. fraud, as discussed on the Chugwater page, may also have contributed to large losses.

On November 13, 1886, it started to snow and continued for a month. In mid-December, however, there was a thaw, turning the snow to slush. In late December the temperature turned to the minus 30's turning the slush to a solid sheet of ice. January of 1887, was the coldest in memory and included one 72-hour blizzard. Teddy Blue Abbott, who received his nickname as a result of an incident with a soiled dove in Miles City, Mt., noted:

"It was all so slow, plunging after them through the deep snow . . . .The horses' feet were cut and bleeding from the heavy crust, the cattle had the hair and hide wore off their legs to the knees and the hocks. It was surely hell to see big four-year-old steers just able to stagger along. It was the same all over Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, western Nebraska, and western Kansas."

"A Blizzard on the Range," F. W. Schultz, 1907

Theodore Roosevelt who owned a ranch in Dakota Territory described the scene when Spring thaw came:

It would be impossible to imagine any sight more dreary and melancholy than that offered by the ranges when the snow went off in March. The land was a mere barren waste; not a green thing could be seen; the dead grass eaten off till the country looked as if it had been shaved with a razor. Occasionally among the desolate hills a rider would come across a band of gaunt, hollow-flanked cattle feebly cropping the sparse, dry pasturage, too listless to move out of the way; and the blackened carcasses lay in the sheltered spots, some stretched out, others in as natural a position as if the animals had merely lain down to rest. It was small wonder that cheerful stockmen were rare objects that spring.

"Drifting Before the Storm," Frederic Remington, Collier's Magazine, July, 1904

Andy Adams in his 1907 novel Reed Anthony, a Cowman described the impact of the great storm on cattle:

The removed cattle, strangers in a strange land, drifted to the fences and were cut to the quick by the biting blasts. Early in January the worst blizzard in the history of the plains swept down from the north, and the poor wandering cattle were driven to the divides and frozen to death against the line fences. * * * * [W]e were powerless to relieve the drifting cattle. The morning after the great storm, with others, I rode to a south string of fence on a divide, and found thousands of our cattle huddled against it, many frozen to death, partially through and hanging on the wire. We cut the fences in order to allow them to drift on to shelter, but the legs of many of them were so badly frozen that, when they moved, the skin cracked open and their hoofs dropped off. Hundreds of young steers were wandering aimlessly around on hoofless stumps, while their tails cracked and broke like icicles. In angles and nooks of the fence, hundreds had perished against the wire, their bodies forming a scaling ladder, permitting late arrivals to walk over the dead and dying as they passed on with the fury of the storm. I had been a soldier and seen sad sights, but nothing to compare to this; the moaning of the cattle freezing to death would have melted a heart of adamant. All we could do was to cut the fences and let them drift, for to halt was to die; and when the storm abated one could have walked for miles on the bodies of dead animals.

Drift fences were constructed to preclude cattle from wandering too far. Thus, a drift fence would make a round-up easier. The most famous of the drift fences was that constructed by the XIT from the New Mexico border all the was across the Panhandle of Texas. In Wyoming, the Two-Bar constructed one in Goshen Hole. But in the winter, three or four days before a blizzard would come out of the north, the cattle would start drifting to the south. This would necessitate cowboys having to ride the line to prevent the fence from being broken. James Mooney, who became a cowboy at age 13 and trail boss by age 19, explained:

One of the purpose for which the drift fence was builded, was to hold the herds from drifting into territory beyond the fence. West of that fence was a rough brush section and when cattle got into it was a pert job to get the critters out. The drift fence saved work and riders. We could always tell, two and three days ahead, when a norther was going to hit, because the cattle began to drift for shelter and by the time the storm hit the herd would be drifting a-plenty. Before the days of the drift fence, holding the herd before a coming norther was like trying to stop a preacher from accepting donations.
Along that drift fence, during that dry spell I saw carcasses laying one against the other. The critters drifted to the fence and there died.
The drift fence were put up in many sections of the range country. The ranchmen ranging cattle in a section would jointly pay the cost and the expense of keeping the fence up. For each 25 miles of fence a rider was used who did nothing but ride the fence line and fix breaks. He carried a hammer, pliers, and staples in the saddle bag as his tools for the job. Our outfit always put on extra fence riders when a norther was headed our way. As soon as the cattle started drifting the extra riders would go on and stay untill the storm was over. With the catching of them two bunches of rustlers, we had this satisfaction that they did not cut any more fences, unless they did it in hell.

"Fall of the Cowboy," Frederic Remington, oil on canvas, 1895.

Remington's The Fall of the Cowboy was used as the last of five illustrations for Owen Wister's "The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher", Harper's New Monthly Magazine, September 1895. In the article, Wister laments the passimg of the American cowboy:

They galloped by the side of the older hands, and caught something of the swing and tradition of the first years. They developed heartiness and honesty in virtue and in vice alike. Their evil deeds were not of the sneaking kind, but had always the saving grace of courage. Their code had no place for the man who steals a pocket-book or stabs in the back. And what has become of them? Where is this latest outcropping of the Saxon gone? Except where he lingers in the mountains of New Mexico he has been dispersed, as the elk, as the buffalo, as all wild animals must inevitably be dispersed. Three things swept him away -- the exhausting of the virgin pastures, the coming of the wire fence, and Mr. Armour of Chicago, who set the price of beef to suit himself. But all this may be summed up in the word Progress.

The effect of the die-off was such that many eastern investors now withdrew and foreign ranchers simply left. Roosevelt noted: "For the first time I have been utterly unable to enjoy a visit to my ranch. I shall be glad to get home. In its present form, stock-raising on the plains is doomed and can hardly outlast the century."

Moreton Frewen, approx. 1880, see text below.

Among those who left Wyoming was Sir Winston Churchill's uncle, Moreton Frewen (1853-1924). Reportedly, Frewen arrived in Wyoming with £16,000 and departed owing £30,000. Frewen convinced others, including Lords Dunraven and Londsdale, to invest in cattle. Frewen, referred to by some as "Mortal Ruin" and by others as a "sublime failure" and as the "splendid pauper," is now most remembered for his log mansion on Powder River which, among other things, boasted a solid walnut staircase. At the mansion, Frewen entertained the rich and famous of the Empire with lavish hunting parties.Some, at least, could best be described by the Australian term "Pom" or "Pommy," so-called from the name of a tropical fruit. One visitor was the Marquis of Queensberry, referred to by Oscar Wilde as the "Scarlet Marquis." Wilde apparently did not care for the Marquis, describing him as ""drunken, declasse and half-witted, and had, according to Wilde, a stableman's gait and dress, bowed legs, twitching hands, a hanging lower lip and a bestial grin.

Another visitor, later famed as a diplomat, Sir Maurice de Bunsen, sucessfully stalked and killed the ranch's only milch cow, thinking it to be a skinny bison.

Among those entertained were the Seventh Earl of Mayo, Dermot Robert Wyndham Bourke. The Seventh Earl's father had served as Vice-Roy of India but was assassinated at Port Blair by a madman just as the band was striking up Rule, Brittannia. Also visiting the ranch were Sir Samuel and Lady Baker. Although Sir Samuel was a noted world explorer, the Queen avoided receiving him due, in part, to the unconventional courtship of Sir Samuel and Lady Baker. Sir Samuel purchased the future Lady Baker at a bazaar in Bulgaria. Addtionally, Sir Samuel's reception in Victorian society was not helped when Sir Samuel's brother Valentine was accused of committing an indecent assault upon a woman in a railway carriage. Another who made the 250 miles trip north from Rock Creek, was the Fifth Earl of Donoughmore. During the Boer War, the Earl with other Irish lords raised two companies derisively known as the "Irish Hunt Contingent." The contingent's adventures, in the words of Thomas Pakenham, raised a "ripple of mirth" in the Empire. It was problably not funny to Lord Roberts. Twenty thousand troops had to be diverted in a vain attempt to effectate the contingent's rescue.

One hunting expedition in 1884 was spoiled by the death of Member of Parliament, the Honorable Gilbert H. C. "Gilly" Leigh, the eldest son of the William Henry Leigh, the Second Baron Leigh (Second Creation). For the circumstances of Leigh's death see Ten Sleep. The Leighs were famous cricketeers who spared no expense on the game. The First Baron Leigh had played cricket with Lord Byron in the first Harrow-Eton match. The First Baron's younger son, Gilbert's uncle, played for Harrow, Oxford, Gentlemen of Warwichshire and I Zingali. Thus, it should not have been a surprise, when Gilbert turned twenty-one, the birthday celebration took a week and included illuminations, fireworks, and feasting. The centerpiece of the celebration was a two-day cricket match between the Gentlemen of Warwichshire and I Zingali, the most exclusive and socially correct wandering cricket club in all of the Empire.

Gilbert and his uncle played for I Zingali and his brother played for the Gentlemen. the match ended when Gilbert, the last man out, scored a duck (in American terminology, a "goose egg"). I Zingali had few rules. The annual subscription was not permitted to exceed the entrance fee. There was no entrance fee. Membership was limited to 50. In 1845, one of the members was designated as the Perpetual President. Since the presidency was perpetual, no president has been elected since. The team colors were red, black, and gold. Wearing of ties with the team colors, however, was regarded as gauche, it simply was not done.

The death of Gilly Leigh was not the first time that reported deaths caused concern on for the hunting parties on Powder River. On August 20, 1879 The New York Times reported that the Honorable James Boothby Burke Roche, second son of Baron Fermoy of Ireland, had been killed. The Times report was greatly and prematurely exaggerated. Later Roche became the Third Baron and finally died in 1920. Two of Roche's brothers, Alexis Charles Burke Roche (1853-1914) and Edmund Burke Roche (1856-1919) also worked at the ranch. Indeed Alexis ran the place for a while causing so much dissension amongst the cowboys that Horace Plunkett, Frewen's partner, feared that he would have to work the ranch himself. After Alexis returned to Ireland, he created an equal stir there. He sold a horse to Sir Timmothy O'Brien. The horse was proved to be a broken-winded nag. Roche refused to take the horse back. At the Dunhallow Hunt, Sir Timmothy confronted Roche, "You are a liar and a cheat and a swindler; you have lived by swindling for the past 20 years." Roche sued. Ultimately the trial court found for Roche and awarded him one farthing, each party to bear their own costs and counsel fees. Roche appealed and the case was retried in London. This time, Roche was awarded £5. Fees and costs, however, were assessed against Sir Timmothy, the amount of which for the two trials practically broke Sir Timmothy. One moment of hilarity arose during the trial:

WITNESS: Lord Fermoy grabbed Sir Timothy's bridle.

THE JUDGE: For legal accuracy, was it the horse's bridle or Sir Timothy's?

WITNESS: The horses, my Lord, Sir Timothy was not bridled that day.

Moreton Frewen

On a bright and sunny morning in June, 1885, Moreton Frewen turned his horse south from the log mansion, never to return. His departure from Wyoming was unlamented. Later, the Cheyenne Sun observed, "Of all the English snobs of great pretensions who flew so high and sunk so low, probably the Frewens are the chiefs." The Sun's comments were mild compared with those of some of Frewen's friends. Sir Shane Leslie wrote the scathing biogaphy Studies in Sublime Failure, noting that at Cambridge Frewen was president of the Athenaeum, "a society of young men devoted to Baccus rather than to Pallas."

During his stay in Wyoming, Frewen worked for the preservation of the American bison and the wapiti and proposed that Yellowstone be expanded to take in the Big Horn Basin. Upon his return to England, Frewen for a time resided in the game keeper's house at the family manor, Brede Place. The manor is reputedly the second oldest inhabited structure in England. Her Majesty's residence at Windsor is the oldest, but at least it was updated by George IV. Brede Place is also reputedly the most haunted house in England. Amongst the ghosts is that of Sir Goddard Oxenbridge who allegedly dined on small children. The children of Sussex, fearful of being eaten, joined together and tempted Sir Goddard with a barrel of mead upon which he got drunk and passed out. The children then took a saw and cut Sir Goddard in half. When Colonel Cody's Wild West was performing in England in 1903, some of the cowboys who previously worked on Frewen's ranch persuaded him to drive the Deadwood Stage in the show.. Admiral Lord Charles Beresford and Frewen's cousin, Sir Shane Leslie, rode shotgun.

Frewen's finances recovered somewhat when in 1896 an uncle died while sailing and Frewen inherited a hunting lodge in County Cork. The income from Ireland provided Frewen with £2,000 a year. An additional inheritance in favor of Frewen's wife provided another £1,000. Nevertheless, the money was soon gone, expended on various schemes spread from Canada to Australia, India, and Africa. The schemes included irrigation in Indian, promotion of a gold crushing machine and a scheme to separate tin from zinc in Australia, shipping of timber from Siberia to Europe via the Northwest Passage, use of bat guano from Mexico for fertilizer (When he gave some to friends for use in their gardens, the plants died.), an elixir to be used on stale fish, and a proposal to capture German zeppelins to be used to carry the Royal Mail. In Wyoming, he proposed to fatten cattle, 4,000 head at a time in a cold-proof building at Superior, Wisconsin, for shipment to England and he proposed construction of a meat packing plant at Sherman Hill. The idea was that it would not be necessary to have an ice plant or refrigeration. Of Frewen's time in the cattle business, Sir Shane wrote, "Moreton believed that Britannia, like Europa, could be carried on the back of a steer."

Frewen's children were often embarrassed by the failure of Frewen to pay their school bills. Yet, somehow he managed to timely pay his club bills lest he be asked to resign. And nevertheless, as Frewen gadded about the planet losing fortunes for others, Frewen managed to impress American politicians to whom he was attracted like a fly to molasses, including William Jennings Bryan, with his economic ideas relating to silver. He widely predicted the election of Bryan. When Bryan lost the Nation gloated "the awful fact that, as usual, Mr. Moreton Frewen had not the slightest knowledge of the things he was talking about." His fervent promotion of "bimetalism" led John Hay to refer to Frewen as a "argento-maniac human."

To raise money, Frewen rented Brede Place out. One of the tenants was Stephen Crane who entertained the literati of the time at the estate. The manor, probably due to the penury of Frewen, had not been brought completely up-to-date and lacked some modern conveniences such as in-door plumbing. One house-guest, H. G. Wells, looked out a window one cold morning and observed the hill "studded with melancholy, preoccupied male guests." The County Cork lodge was burned down during the "Troubles."

Frewen's life was one which prompted Sir Shane Leslie to observe in a letter to Rudyard Kipling of "poor old Moreton," that his life "was worthier of making a novel from your pen than being trimmed into a biography." Kipling observed that Frewen lived "in every sense, except what is called common sense, very richly and wisely to his own extreme content, and if he had ever reached the golden crock of his dreams, he would have perished." Phil Sheridan was less complimentary, referring to Frewen as "a greedy, grasping Englishman." When Frewen died, his estate consisted of less than £50. Frewen Castle on Powder River was razed about 1912.

Sir Horace Plunkett

Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett, third son of the 16th Lord Dunsany of Meath, returned to Ireland. Sir Horace was a partner of Frewen in the Western Live-stock and Land Company and the Powder River Cattle Company. Sir Horace was also President of the Frontier Land and Cattle Company. He ran the E K Ranch and was a participant with J. M. Carey, William Irvine and F. E. Warren in the Wyoming Development Company which gave rise to Wheatland. The lessons learned by Sir Horace in Wyoming, however, did not go unheeded. Today, Sir Horace is remembered as the father of Irish agriculture. In Ireland, Sir Horace was elected to Parliament not withstanding that he was a Unionist, lisped and stuttered. He failed, however, of reelection. During the Irish Civil War, Sir Horace was treated, to use his own analogy from Ireland in the New Century, J. Murray, London (1904), "like a dog in a tennis court." As was Frewen's lodge, Sir Horace's house was burned down. Sir Horace moved to England. For the remainder of his life he was noted for his use of cowboy metaphors.

Thus, the era of the large foreign-owned cattle companies came to an end. As John Clay, manager of the Swan Land and Cattle Company, observed:

The gains of the open range business were swallowed up by the losses. From the inception of the opern range business in the West and Northwest, from say 1870 to 1888, it is doubtful if a single cent was made if you average up the business as a whole."

Thus, Clay noted, "As the South Sea bubble burst, as the Dutch tulip craze dissolved, this cattle gold brick withstood not the snow of winter."

But there is always an exception. John Clay was the exception. Clay had come to Wyoming in the 1880's to manage, among others the Swan Land and Cattle Company after Swan was fired. He owned the 71 Quarter Circle on the Sweetwater. He acted as agent with William H. Forrest for the Y L Cattle Company on the North Canadian. In 1886, he, with Charles H. Robinson, Sr. and Forrest, formed Clay, Robinson and Company which grew to be the largest commission agency in the country with offices in Chicaco, Omaha, St. Paul, Fort Worth, and Denver. By 1913, Clay, Robinson had some $120,000,000 in annual sales and purchases and owned 15 banks including ones in Cheyenne, Billings, Miles City, and Belle Fourche.. A commission agent is one who arranges the sale of a stockgrowers stock. The stock would be shipped to the stockyard and consigned to the commission agent who would then sell the cattle, sheep, etc. to the highest bidder and remit the proceeds as instructed by the stockgrower.

"Waiting for a Chinook," C. M. Russell

In 1886 Charlie Russell was employed by Kaufman and Stadler. Kaufman wrote asking how the cattle had fared. The response by Russell was a sketch of a starving cow in the snow. Kaufman displayed the sketch in his office which led to its popularity with requests of Russell for more copies. The version shown to the right was painted about 1903.

But the snow of winter was not the sole cause for the failures. As a result of over production of beef, prices the preceding year had plummeted. Thus, many stockgrowers had held on their cattle over the winter. Thus many were already under a financial strain. Micah Saufley noted that as early as November, 1886, Alexander Swan, "trembling on the verge of bankruptcy," began transferring assets into his wife's and daughter's names.

The ultimate impact, however, was a change in operations, a trend toward smaller ranches, the growing of alfalfa and hay, and the movement to sheep. Even the Two-Bar began the improvement of pasture and the growing of hay to carry smaller herds over the winter.

Music this page, The Big Corral. Not all cowboy songs date to the 19th Century. The Big Corral was written by Romaine Lowdermilk in 1922 and based on the gospel tune Press Along to Glory Land.

The Big Corral


That chuckwagon brute from the cattle chute.
Press along to the Big Corral.
He should be branded on the snoot.
Press along to the Big Corral


Press along cowboy, press along,
Press along with a cowboy yell.
Press along with a noise, big noise,
Press along to the Big Corral.


Well, early in the mornin' 'bout -- half past four.
Press along to the Big Corral.
You'll hear him open his face to roar.
Press along to the Big Corral.

(Repeat Chorus)


The wrangler's out a-combing the hills.
Press along to the Big Corral.
So jump in your britches and grease up your gills.
Press along to the Big Corral.

(Repeat Chorus)


That chuck we get ain't fit to eat.
Press along to the Big Corral.
There's rocks in the beans and sand in the meat.
Press along to the Big Corral.

Click on title above for original article and more range stories with pics;
Next Page, Roundups continued.

1 comment:

D.M. McGowan said...

I love this post!
I've read several things about the great North American Blizzard of the West and it's aftermath. I believe it to be an important part of what makes the west (US and Canada) the West. The Blizzard is an important part of my novel "Homesteader" and I expect to use it again in a future story.