On the trail of the Colorado and Wyoming sheep and cattle wars.
- Written by Candy Moulton
- Published August 28, 2011
You wouldn’t know it today when you drive across Colorado and Wyoming, seeing cattle grazing with sheep herds nearby, that a century ago such juxtaposition was not only unusual, but, in many cases, very, very unwelcome—sometimes deadly.
Range wars flared up for a number of reasons: conflict between large cattle ranchers and homesteaders; disagreement between ranchers over water rights; and then there were the sheep and cattle wars.
Cattlemen did not like sheep because they believed the smaller animals with their sharply pointed hoofs cut the range grasses and made the ground stink so that cattle wouldn’t use it. Quite simply, they did not want to share the range. But certainly some ranchers saw sheep as an opportunity, another way to turn grass into a commodity in the form of meat or wool.
Stockmen came to the area around Craig, Colorado, to establish cattle ranches, but in the early 1890s, sheep started moving onto the range trailing south from Wyoming where they had been raised for some 20 years. The first large herds in southern Wyoming were headquartered out of Rawlins, in part because of the Union Pacific Railroad and its ready way to ship animals to markets, and also because of the large areas of rangeland to the south and west.
The sheep summered in the Sierra Madre Range in 1894 and then moved down into Colorado, where conflict already brewed. In an area south of Craig and Meeker, 3,800 sheep were stampeded over a bluff into Parachute Creek. Herder Carl Brown tried to keep the raiders from rushing the sheep over the cliff and was shot in the hip. When a posse from Parachute, Colorado, went to the area, the men found a mass of dead sheep at the foot of a 1,000-foot bluff; climbing up the narrow trail, they found the wounded Brown.
“The owners are residents of Parachute with rights to the adjacent range and the posse made a futile race to apprehend the raiders. John Miller owned seventeen hundred of the sheep and Charles Brown, uncle of the wounded man, twenty-one hundred,” the Craig Courier reported on September 14, 1894.
Colorado Protests Wyoming Sheep
Many of the sheep moved north out of Colorado for the winter as they were trailed to desert country in south-central Wyoming, where they could endure conditions that weren’t so harsh as the situation would be if they remained in the northern Colorado mountain valleys. But when spring had melted the snow in 1895, the sheep again moved south through Wyoming to graze along the Little Snake River. Everyone expected they would soon push into Colorado. The Colorado cattlemen responded quickly, passing resolutions in May 1895 that prohibited sheep from entering the Yampa River Valley. A showdown was on the way.
The Cheyenne Leader of May 23, 1895, reported that four days earlier, “riders were sent out to scour the country and warn the settlers that sheepmen now holding their flocks on Snake River at the Wyoming line, were contemplating an invasion of the Bear River cattle ranges. The effect was electrical, and by noon today fully 350 cattlemen and feeders were assembled to decide upon positive action to keep the sheep back....”
At community meetings cattle owners unanimously adopted resolutions outlining the “danger to cattle and ranchers by a sheep invasion,” the Leader reported. In all cases the resolutions prohibited sheep from grazing or being herded through the “country drained by the Bear River, which includes all the territory from the Continental Divide west to Utah....” In essence sheep were not allowed anywhere in northwestern Colorado.
But, the Leader went on to report, “It is believed that the sheepmen will disregard the warning of the stock raisers, and attempt to drive through the forbidden territory, fattening their mutton as they approach the railroad [in Colorado], depending on state aid in the protection of their rights.”
To forestall such action, the “stock feeders and cowboys, with a force of eight hundred to a thousand (men) are holding themselves in readiness forcibly to resist any advance made south of Hahn’s Peak by the sheep owners,” the newspaper reported. “A war is imminent and unless the more conservative heads prevail, the rifle will figure a conspicuous part in a Routt County sheep war. The sheep that are causing the trouble are some sixty thousand head belonging to J. G. and G.W. Edwards and others in Wyoming.”
By early June armed men in Hayden prepared to defend their range in Colorado. “Since daylight troops of cavalry have been dashing into town [Hayden] at short intervals from all directions, representing every settlement of the county east of the established sheep country,” the Leader reported on June 2, 1895. “During the day fully two hundred armed men, representing the ranching and cattle industries, arrived in town, soon to disperse and scatter for the night among the ranchmen in the vicinity of Hayden for a distance of five miles on each side of the town.”
The cattlemen organized in military fashion electing a “general” and 10 captains who would command companies of “soldiers” with “quartermasters” appointed to wagon trains to provide supplies for the ...
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