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The Cattle Kingdom

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Between the Red River and teh Rocky Mountians, and from teh 49th parellel north to the Artic, lies a region of relatively short, hot summers and uncertain rainfall. For centuries this was a region apparently unsuited to agriculture. The story of it's conquest by one of the greatest wheat economies the world has yet known is an epic chapter in the history of civilization. Between the Red and the Rockies
Copyright 1952 University of Toronto Press
300 pages,

Ranchland traditions were inherited from the south. The stock-saddle, and all that went with it, followed the ranch herds north from Texas, across Montana, and over the border into Canada. The inheritance was Spanish but it became as typically western as buckbrush.

The earliest explorers saw buffalo in abundance but no cattle. The latter were not native. But it is told that Columbus, who wanted to establish a colony in the West Indies, carried Spanish cattle on his second voyage in 1493. When taken to the mainland, the Spanish cattle increased rapidly and many went wild on the grassy plains of what are now Florida, Mexico, and Texas. These were the forbears of the rangy, slow-maturing, thin-loined, narrow-bodied cattle later known as Texas Longhorns - long in horn and long in bad temper, but short in beef. Spanish priests estimated the wild cattle in southern Texas in 1833 at more than a quarter of a million.

The Texan Republic declared the wild cattle to be public property, and in the early forties well-beaten cattle trails led to the markets of New Orleans, Galveston, and Mobile. Longer drives followed to Chicago and to Abilene, Kansas, which in 1867, on the coming of the railroad, sprang into prominence as a cattle metropolis with the suddenness and glamour of a gold rush. Thirty-five thousand head of cattle were loaded out of Abilene that year; 350,000 went out in 1869 and 700,000 in 1871. Then business began to shift to other Kansas points and by 1876, Dodge City could claim to be the "cowboy capital of the world." Trailing southern cattle continued until 1887 when it was estimated that not less than seven million head had been shipped from that point alone in the preceding 15 years.

Through all these years of trailing, the cattle business was shifting northward. Unfinished cattle and those not wanted by the market were turned off the trail to graze and thus the more northerly grass was put to test. At first men were surprised that cattle could winter out on those northern ranges, and winter well. Finally they concluded that cattle would probably thrive in any part of the buffalo country. When Dodge City became the principal marketing point, therefore, many of the females and young steers were sold to stock ranges farther north. By every test the northern grass was good and the Texas-bred cattle were actually growing to bigger size and finishing better than they were expected to do south of the Rio Grande.

Nelson Storey drove 3,000 cattle from Texas to Bozeman, Montana, in 1866 but these were for slaughter in the mining camps. A breeding herd was taken to the Sun River area in 1871. At first, forays of hunger-crazed Indians were a terrific obstacle to ranch expansion in Montana and Wyoming, but by 1877 and 1878, when the Indians were under control, there was a notable rush to obtain squatter's rights on the best land and establish claim to waterholes. A hundred thousand Texas cows found their way to Montana in 1879.

Large-scale cattle companies, financed by Eastern, Scottish, and English capital, were a feature of the next few years, both north and south. Frequently these were directed from an office in New York or Edinburgh or some equally remote metropolis. Scottish companies were especially numerous. Among the prominent Scottish and English companies were the Swan, Prairie, Matador, Texas, Hansford, Arkansas, Powder River, Pastoral, and Western Land. At their peak, about 1885, the Prairie Cattle Company and the Swan Land and Cattle Company had as many as 120,000 cattle each. But the "XIT," the Matador, and the King were the largest and best known. The "XIT" or Capitol Syndicate, operated from Chicago, carried 160,000 head, and branded calf crops numbering up to 35,000.

The first drives into Canada were made to feed the goldminers of the Fraser and Caribou, and F. W. Laing suggests that over 22,000 head of cattle were driven into British Columbia between 1859 and 1870. Many of the cattle of the 1862 drives were bought by H. O. Bowes, who had a stopping place on the river trail at Alkali Lake. Bowes found himself with more cattle than the trade would take and turned the surplus loose. They grew fat and came through the ensuing winter in good order, as anyone who has known the Alkali Lake Ranch of recent years and has seen its fine grass would expect. But the real founders of ranching in the inter-mountain country were the Harper brothers, Jerome and Thaddeus. They chose a ranch site still known as the Harper Ranch, a few miles east of Kamloops on the South Thompson. The Harper brand, J-i combining Jerome Harper's initials, is the oldest registered cattle brand in British Columbia and is in use at the time of writing. After the beef market at the mines fell away, Thaddeus Harper drove 1,200 head into northern Idaho, summered them there, and a year and a half after leaving the home ranges brought them into the markets of San Francisco rolling in fat after crossing five states and travelling not less than 2,000 miles, most of which was mountainous and wild. It was roughly the equivalent of starting a big herd at Calgary, driving over unmarked country, mountainous country, Indian country, and dry spots, and ending in the suburbs of the city of Toronto.

Although Canadian cattle ranching thus started in the intermountain ranges of British Columbia, the Great Architect seemed to have marked the Chinook belt especially for cattle and sheep. It always had a unique quality. Its climate was different; its grass was different; its Indians were different. But the real merits of the area were not established quickly and not until two years after Winnipeg was incorporated as a city were the first cattle released in what is now southern Alberta.

For long years that southwestern area was avoided rather carefully by traders and travellers. It was reputed to have very few furs, and moreover, it was Blackfoot Indian country. But the buffalo were good judges of pasture and preferred the nutritious, short-growing grass of the plains to the relatively lush growth in the Park Belt. Palliser and Macoun recognized that what the prairie grass lacked in quantity it made up ill quality. Nor was this its only advantage; it tended to cure on the ground and remain palatable and nutritious through winter months, thus making winter grazing possible where the Chinook winds cleared away the snow.

"Chinook" suggests cowboys and roundups just as "Broadway" suggests dancing girls and bright lights. In the West, the name is considered suitable for anything from race tracks to bottled beer and from steamboats to babies. Only those who have experienced a western winter can appreciate a western thaw, or understand the nostalgia roused by a mention of these balmy winds. Their name comes from the Indians of the lower Columbia River, from whose direction they were observed to blow. As these winds are forced upward to pass over the mountains the reduced atmospheric pressure causes them to expand, cool, and lose their moisture as rain or snow. During their descent on the opposite side of the mountains, the pressure increasing with the lower altitude, causes a corresponding rise in temperature, so that when they pass over southern Alberta they are dry as well as warm. Thus they not only melt the snow but suck away the moisture.

Indian legend furnished another explanation, one more romantic than scientific. Chinook was an Indian beauty who wandered into the mountains in dead of winter and became lost. When a pretty girl goes mountain climbing, she doesn't have to travel alone and Chinook paid a heavy penalty for her rash independence. Young braves hunted diligently for the lost girl and old men found it easy to be heroic when they thought about Chinook, but finally they gave up and the young squaw was presumed to be dead. Then, before the period of mourning had passed, a warm and kindly wind swept down from the peaks and took away the snow. Said her admirers, "It is the gentle breath of the lost Chinook."

The warm and "gentle breath of the lost Chinook," is a frequent visitor over the foothills and plains. It comes unheralded when winter covers the prairies with snow and drives the herds to shelter in breaks or coulees. An hour may produce a temperature change of 50 degrees and cause a moderate covering of snow to disappear. Snow two feet deep has been known to vanish overnight. This means that cattle can find food in the Chinook country for most of the winter.

It was not, however, until after Blackfoot Treaty No.7, last of the major Indian treaties, was signed in 1877, that foothills ranching began as an experiment in the great grassy plains which blended with the green-blanketed foothills.


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