An Isolated Empire: A History of Northwest Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Chapter VII:

While the western slope near the Continental Divide was developing during the 1870s, the far western side of the state was also undergoing major changes. The construction of the Union Pacific railroad through Wyoming introduced new economics into the area. The crews needed beef, and while buffalo supplied by hunters was substantial, it was not nearly enough; beef was needed, and suppliers were quick to fill the demand.

The father of the cattle industry in Wyoming was Judge William Carter of Fort Bridger, who began to ship Texas Longhorns by rail to Fort Bridger in 1868, which had just been reached by the Union Pacific. He also imported a carload of Shorthorns to improve the breed. [1]

By 1871 the first cattle had been driven into northwest Colorado. The winter of 1871-72 had been one of the worst on record; few spots of open range were to be found on the western range. A New Mexican cattleman named George Baggs trailed 900 steers from southern Colorado into Brown's Hole in November; by spring he had not lost a single head. Baggs' partner William Crawford, after talking it over with Baggs, decided to locate in the Brown's Hole region, and raise cattle on the lush grasses in the valley. This was the first entrance of cattle to northwestern Colorado. Brown's Hole was considered ideal for cattle raising, but it had its disadvantages as well. The "Hole" had long been used by fur trappers, and then later by bandits, who could hide in the valley with little fear of being caught. It was the watering place for several well-known outlaws, such as "Mexican Joe" Herrera and the Tip Gault Gang. [2]

Dangers notwithstanding, rancher-settlers found their way into Brown's Park. In 1874 W. G. Tittsworth and Griff Edwards drove several hundred head of cattle into the area, but were soon forced out by the partnership of Jesse and Valentine Hoy. The Hoys were the dominant cattlemen in the Park by 1876, after the Baggs' group. Along with the big ranchers, there were modest settlers like Charles Crouse, "Bibleback Brown", Jimmie Reed, and Sam Bassett.

The Brown's Park region soon became notorious because of the constant rustling going on within the valley. The center of this illegal activity seemed to be the Bassett ranch. In addition to common cattle theft, other problems cropped up in the valley. It was a hide-out for several nationally famous gangs, including Butch Cassidy (George LeRoy Parker) and his gang, the Matt Warner Gang, Elza Lay, Cassidy's right-hand man, and numerous other desperados. [3]

The Cassidy gang worked out of the Park until the early 1900s when the Union Pacific Railroad, along with the famous "Rolling Posse" drove the group out of the country. [4]

Brown's Park was not the only area that was opened to cattle. The Little Snake and Yampa Valleys became major cattle centers. George Baggs moved his outfit up the Little Snake into Wyoming, where he found the land between Fortification Creek and Savery Creek more to his liking. Here he put up a ranch building which eventually became the nucleus of Baggs, Wyoming. Baggs was the merchandising center of northwestern Colorado until the advent of Craig; it was almost dead-center between the Yampa Valley and the Union Pacific line at Rawlins. For many years Baggs was the primary cattle town of the region; it was finally superseded by Steamboat Springs when the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad reached that city in 1909. Baggs not only left his name on the map, so did his common-law wife, Maggie, after whom Maggie's Nipple, a butte in the northwestern corner, is named. [5]

Other little settlements, mainly ranches, sprang up in the area. Such places as Lay, Maybell, and Hayden became cattle centers, devoted to providing mail service and merchandise to cattlemen. The major cattlemen in the Yampa Valley were Ora Haley, the Carey Brothers, Jim Norvell, Pat Cullen, Si Dawson, and numerous others. They saw to it that their spreads took most of the available rangeland. The 1880's, 1890's, and early 1900's were the heydays of open range cattle. This meant that cattle were put out on the range year round, and in winter depended on native forage for survival; in some years this could be a very profitable venture, while in others, many cattlemen went broke. The Little Snake, Yampa, and White River valleys were generally good for range cattle, while the areas north and south of these valleys were marginal. Where water was available regularly, there was usually no problem; but in the dry north, cattle fared poorly. North Park cattle were in much the same position as far northwestern cattle. This area was also open range country, and here, too, the hard winters often took terrible tolls on cattle. However, the industry survived, thanks to credit and high prices. Many a cattleman was wiped out, but he would go back again the next year while the bank collected anywhere from twelve to eighteen percent interest. [6]

The White River country was also a major cattle producing area. From Meeker, cattle were driven south through Douglas Canyon to Rifle, Colorado, where they were shipped on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to Denver and points east. There was no road to Rifle until 1879, and the JQS cattle trail was used to drive the animals south. [7]

A great fear of western Colorado cattlemen was an invasion of sheep. The sheep industry was not new in Colorado. By the 1860's there were hundreds of thousands of head in the San Luis Valley and throughout southern Colorado. The cattlemen in the north considered themselves lucky that sheep had not moved onto their range. However, the inevitable was coming; the Meeker Herald, on January 14, 1888, warned that sheep were going to be brought in from Utah to use the White River grazing areas, including the Axial Basin and the Iles Ranch area. [8] Frightened cattlemen were prepared to meet the sheepmen at the border and turn them back, but the scare never materialized, and cattle remained supreme until the 1890's.

The first attempt to bring sheep into cattle country in the northwest corner came in 1894, when Jack Edwards from Wyoming tried to bring several thousand head into Routt County. Edwards claimed that he was being forced to move into Colorado, because Tom Kinney's 75,000 head of sheep had driven his 30,000 sheep out of Wyoming. A few local farmers favored the importation of sheep to get rid of a surplus of hay that had accumulated in the country, but the cattle barons refused to consider the admittance of sheep. A posse rode to the Wyoming border (near Dixon) and turned back the Edwards band. [9]

The Cattle Industry Was the Mainstay of Northwestern Colorado For Many Years. Colorado State Historical Society.

The primary complaint that cattlemen had about sheep was that they grazed to the roots, preventing cattle from getting enough grass, and not permitting the range to grow back. Cattlemen also argued that sheep and cattle could not mix together, and that the smell of sheep was so bad that the cattle panicked when sheep were near. About the only truth in the various stories was that sheep may graze to the roots.

The sheep wars that broke out in Routt county and later in Rio Blanco county came in the early 1900's. However, prior to this time, cattle raisers had problems with rustlers. Numerous cattlemen's associations were formed to deal with the problem; the most notorious example of the use of hired guns came with the formation of the Yampa Valley Cattle growers Association. This group hired Tom Horn to exterminate suspected rustlers, which he did with relish. Horn killed Isom Dart, a well-known black cattleman; and Matt Rash, one of the founders of a cattlemen's association in Brown's Park, was ambushed by Horn. [10] In addition to cleaning up suspected cattle rustlers of the region, the cattlemen's associations tried to eliminate predators, and in some cases, competition. One of the best examples of the smaller ranchers ganging up on big outfits was the establishment of the Snake River Association, using the OVO brand. This group was dedicated to marketing on a cooperative basis, and competing with ranches such as the much hated Ora Haley Two Bar outfit. [11]

In 1902 the Brown's Park Ranchmen's Association was formed to combat grey wolves. They offered a bounty of $20 per hide. In North Park an association was created for the same purpose in 1903. [12]

If cattlemen did not have enough problems with rustlers, sheepmen, and predators, another crisis occurred in 1891 when the White River Forest was created. This withdrew some 750,000 acres of prime Federal grazing land. Now cattlemen had to get grazing permits, and worse they had to compete with sheepmen for the right to use the land. [13] The White River Reserve was expanded in 1907 to 1,133,330 acres, which made grazing lands harder to obtain. The other factor that influenced the cattle industry was the Forest Homestead Act of 1906 by which forest lands could be filed on. Actually, due to the extreme care of the Agriculture Department, only 177,000 acres were ever taken out. [14]

Most of the intra-industry cattle conflicts were between smaller cattle outfits and large companies. By 1912 the Forest Service and the small cattle companies had been able to out-maneuver the large cattlemen such as Ora Haley. This marked the end of open range operations. Carefully controlled grazing was now the rule. [15] In desperation, cattlemen (of the large companies) began to harrass settlers who were using grazing lands, (such as a colony of Swedes who were dry-land farming several mesas in Routt County), and sheep owners who were gaining grazing permits from the Forest Service.

The Routt County range wars reached new depths in 1911 with the George Woolley Sheep Massacre, when several hundred sheep were "rimrocked" by driving them over a cliff. The citizens of Routt County were outraged by the crime, and although the perpetrators were never caught, the sheep industry gained much sympathy. The war degenerated to the use of strychnine on sheep in 1913. By 1915 sheep were grazing in Routt National Forest (having been brought into Whiskey Park in 1910), and in 1920 the Northwest Sheepgrowers Association was formed for mutual protection.

The year 1920 marked the culmination of the sheep wars, when the Battle of Yellowjacket Pass occurred between sheepmen and cattle interests. The Colorado militia had to be called in to restore order. [16] In 1934 the Taylor Grazing service was created to control grazing (and over-grazing) on public lands other than forest withdrawals. This service allotted land to cattlemen, sheepmen, and others for grazing purposes. For all practical purposes, the balance of public domain land was withdrawn in northwestern Colorado by this Act, and the era of the open range ended. In 1946 the General Land Office, the original caretaker of public lands, and the Taylor Grazing Service, were merged as the Bureau of Land Management. This organization continues to issue grazing permits and, for the most part, to keep the public domain from being overused.

The cattle industry in northwestern Colorado boomed when transportation was brought to the Yampa Valley. Prior to the coming of the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad, cattle were shipped to Rawlins, Wyoming, for trans-shipment on the Union Pacific, or herds were driven to Wolcott, Colorado, on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, where they were shipped to Denver and points east. The Wyoming route was generally preferred, as it was not as hard on cattle as trying to drive them down the Yampa Valley, over the Gore Range, and into the railhead. Losses were more severe using this route than they were when driven north. However, by 1909 Steamboat Springs had rail service, and it became the largest shipper in the northwestern corner. In fact, at one point it was the biggest cattle shipping point in the United States. [17]

One of the other major factors in the change in the cattle industry of this region was the introduction in the early 1900's of new breeding stock. Cattlemen found that the market demanded more than stringy Longhorns; most Texas cattle were Longhorns that had various defects, such as peculiar diseases which affected their ability to gain weight. Cattlemen in the northwest corner proceeded to import special breeds such as Shorthorns and Herefords to improve the weight-gaining ability of Longhorns. [18]

The innovation of using hay to winter-feed cattle came during the late 1890's and early 1900's in this region. Range cattle did not always survive winters due to lack of ground cover forage. There was an abundance of top quality wild hay in the Yampa Valley and in North Park; both of these areas were using this natural resource by 1900 to winter feed cattle. Further, North Park cattlemen learned that cattle close-herded, fed on hay, and not allowed to roam, would bring better prices on the market.

Thanks to the need for hay, a new industry was developed; wild hay was soon turned into a domestic product. North Park became famous for its quality hay, and thousands of tons were exported yearly from the Park to Denver and other eastern cities; even horsemen from Kentucky specified North Park hay. Balers came into use by the 1890's when a North Park cowboy named Joe Lawrence invented a way to use horses to pull a hayrack that would bale automatically; this revolutionized the industry and production soared. The Yampa Valley also produced good native hay.

One of the basic cultural conflicts that arose between the cattle industry and sheep and farming interests was that of land ownership. Nearly all the grazing area involved was public land administered by the General Land Office (GLO). This public domain was open to anyone who could pay a filing fee, and who would stay on it for five years. When the first cattlemen came in, they simply assumed that grazing was possible and that no one would try to settle the area. For about twenty years this remained true, and cattlemen came to feel that the land they used was theirs, not public. As time wore on and the increased demands for land were heard, even marginal land was settled. Additionally, cattlemen were pressured by sheep raisers to use the land. Homesteaders claimed land that cattle interests felt was theirs by right of prior claim. The conflicts that arose were often violent, and cattle owners were loath to give up what they saw as theirs by right of first occupation.

The pressure increased and the attitude of most Americans at the time was that the land must be used; it must provide profit. After all, why not use land that was taken from the indolent Indians to its fullest extent? Cattlemen had already used the land by overgrazing and over-stocking. Now, just when the land was marginal for cattle, homesteaders and sheepmen wanted to finish its use. Sheep would graze what was left and leave a barren plain, while homesteaders would turn over the soil, try to plant it, and hope that a crop would grow. No matter how one viewed it, the land was not fit for this use. Perhaps the cattlemen realized this more than most, but the pressures of demand caused them to engage in open conflict with those who would occupy their ranges. This cultural conflict lasted from the 1890's to 1920, when the open range cattle industry died of its own demand for lands that others wanted to develop more intensely. [19]

The cattle industry of northwestern Colorado was the mainstay of the economy until 1910. Since cattle were the prime commodity in the area, it was natural that cattlemen were key figures in politics, the economy, and in society. The land was cattle land, and the people were there because of cattle. In 1904 it was estimated that the value of cattle in Routt County was $836,410, or more than half the total assessed value of the county. [20]

Cattle remained the largest single industry in the region until the 1920's when other industries such as coal, oil, and sheep threatened to overtake the cattle industry.

Map 7. Concentration of Sheep and Cattle Ranges, ca. 1870-1920 (click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008