Cattle Kingdom; The Hidden History of the Cowboy West by Christopher Knowlton. Harcourt, 2017.

Cattle Kingdom; The Hidden History of the Cowboy West by Christopher Knowlton. Harcourt, 2017.

Some years ago the eminent historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, located the closing of the American land frontier in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Christopher Knowlton has made a similar declaration to explain the history of the ‘cattle frontier’. Cattlemen were exploiting the grass lands of the Great Plains to fatten their cattle. The US investing community saw opportunities and bought up huge parcels of ranchland being used for grazing. The construction of trans-continental railroads and cow towns along their right-of-way facilitated the growth of the ‘kingdom.’ Eventually the cattle kingdom reached its environmental limits.

Knowlton includes a colorful description of these cow towns and their institutions, their saloons, ramshackle hotels, and retailers that supplied the cowboys with their needs. The most famous cow towns were Dodge City and Abilene in Kansas and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

It was impractical to ship livestock in cattle cars for long distances, so the cattle were converted into beef steak and then transported. That in turn required refrigerated railroad cars. Chicago, where those cross-continental rail lines terminated, became the center of a meat-packing industry.

Not just US investors got involved. English and Scottish nobility were intrigued by the cattle business, entertained by the lore of the cattle drive and the cowboy it fashioned. The cattle kingdom offered employment and adventure for their younger sons. (Winston Churchill’s father had tried his hand at herding cattle on the Great Plains.)

These European nobles joined young males from prominent US families hoping to prove their manly virility. Theodore Roosevelt had some fun playing cowboy “out west”. In 1884, he interrupted his political career, bought a ranch in the Dakotas, and took on a cattleman persona. He learned the hard way about the perils of the business; a severe freeze in the winter of 1886-87 devastated his herd.

Most ‘cowboys’ were hard-up for employment and the cattle business, though seasonal, was an opportunity. The required skill-set was minimal. The would-be cowboys tended to specialize: shooters or skinners, cooks in charge of the chuck wagons, wranglers who looked after the saddle horses.

The Western prairie had not always been as “empty” as it appeared in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It was empty only because of the slaughter of the vast bison (buffalo) herds for their hides, long exploited by Native Americans. Recreational hunters joined in the decimation. A motivation not acknowledged at the time was to rid the plains of the bison and its population of migratory Indian tribes, creating that empty space that the cattle industry could exploit.

While Knowlton acknowledges the gun violence of these cattle towns, he contends that they were no more violent than the eastern seaboard cities. The problem was law enforcement. In the absence of a working justice system, there were numerous “necktie occasions.” Cattle rustlers and horse thieves were the most common offenders that were strung up, usually without a legal procedure.

Although the cowboys did not normally go around armed, there were armed confrontations generated by feuds between homesteaders and small ranch owners vs. the owners of the large spreads and the gangs they employed to keep order, including Pinkerton Detectives.

Perhaps the most violent episode in the years of the cattle business on the Great Plains was the Johnson County War in Wyoming. Knowlton describes in some detail the feud between one group of wealthy ranch owners associated with the Wyoming Stockowners Association headquartered in Cheyenne and another group, mostly smaller ranchers, challenging their dominance. The former accused the latter of cattle and horse theft. There were several impromptu hangings and shootouts by hired gunmen out of Texas. Eventually a unit of cavalry from Fort McKinney near present-day Buffalo, Wyoming was sent in to quell the violence. The story of the War was later retold in a novel published in 1902 by Owen Wister entitled The Virginian.

Knowlton acknowledges that the Johnson County War may have had environmental elements as well. The overgrazing of the Great Plains in these years had pitted ranchers against ranchers. He also suggests that the disappearing cattle may have been the result of the revival of the gray wolf.

Cattle Kingdom; The Hidden History of the Cowboy West explains a good deal of the standard plot of the ‘Western’ book genre that my dad’s generation enjoyed.  That cavalry sent out to quell disturbances pictured in many a Western film thrilled my generation of youthful movie goers in the 1950s and 1960s.



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