Montana Cattle Ranching

I will give here an account of the methods of cattle-growers in Montana and the adjoining country. The land belonging to the government, which made no charge for pasturage, and the cattle requiring little if any care during the winter, the cost of keeping them was trifling, and consisted mainly in the wages paid to a few herders. Formerly all cattle were permitted to mix promiscuously, being distinguished only by their brands. They separated into bands, and sought favorite localities, as men do, being governed in their choice by the quality of their feed, water, shade, and the prevailing winds. If they preferred a certain grazing-ground several miles from water, they travelled that distance daily to drink. As the number of herds increased, some necessary regulations were introduced, as to the extent of ranges, in organized counties. In 1874 the legislature of Montana enacted a law providing that the county commissioners should divide their respective counties into not less than three nor more than ten stock-districts, with a place designated in each for the ’round-up,’ which occurred annually or semi-annually – the ’round-up’ being the gathering together of the cattle for the purpose of separating the herds, and branding the young cattle with their owners’ marks, which were described, and recorded with the county register. See Annual Rept of auditor and treasurer of Montana 1880, for brands and marks of owners, to the number of 281, delineated in the printed pages. If any strange cattle or estrays were found in the herds they were given in charge of a person appointed by the commissioner, who was allowed a suitable compensation for taking care of them. Notice of a round up was to be given 30 days in advance, and no two districts should held these meetings on the same day. On the 1st Monday in June 1874 the county commissioners should held a public meeting of the bona fide residents of each stock district, in their respective counties, for the purpose of organizing a stock-board in each district, which should consist of three stock-inspectors, elected by the actual stock-owners of the district, to held office for one year. The board should elect a superintendent and a clerk, and the duty of the former should bo to attend all round-ups, and have the care and custody of unclaimed stock; while the latter should keep a correct description of all unclaimed or estray stock, in a book of record, and should send a copy of such descriptions to the clerks of the other districts. The stock-boards should have a separate brand for each district, which brand should be recorded in the county clerk’s office, and remain in the keeping of the superintendent, to be used only by the direction of a majority of the board. Estrays should be branded with the district mark, which on their being claimed should be ‘vented,’ i. e., obliterated. Heavy fines were imposed for branding the property of another with a false mark; and all animals suffering from contagious diseases should be taken 6 miles away from any herd, and contained in a secure enclosure, failing in which the owner should be punished by a fine of from $50 to $500. The Missoulian, Feb. 20, 1874. Herders were appointed for each district. Missoula County was divided into 9 districts, with the following herders, which in this instance are presumed to be the owners: Jasper Deschamps, J. K. Clark, D. C. O’Keefe, Sidney Mitchell, Samuel Miller, James H. Cowan, Joseph Pardee, Thomas Simpson, and Thomas Fruin. This law may have received some modifications.

Certainly the cattlemen have come to occupy a large extent of country. Eight men, in the territory surrounding the Yellowstone National Park, control an area large enough to herd, and let increase, 190,000 head of cattle. I get this statement from manuscript Notes Recueilhes sur les Elevagea d’Animaux dans les Etats de l’Ouest de l’Amerique du Nord, by G. Weis, 1884, p 4. This is an exhaustive account of the business of cattle raising, from which I take some further information. Weis says that the number of herders, ‘cowboys’ they were called, was almost in inverse ratio to the number of cattle to be herded. There was usually a foreman where the herd was large, and the cowboys will herd 1,200 or 1,400 head of cattle. The wages of a foreman depended on his value – from $100 to $200 per month, or sometimes more, and the cowboys got from $30 to $90, with food, lodging, horses to ride, and ammunition. During winter, when there was little to do, the proprietor might dismiss a part of the herders, keeping these who, having spent their money in debauchery, were willing to work for their keeping. They were faithful to their employers generally and performed their duties willing. Mexicans were preferred on account of their horsemanship.

The round up is the great event of the year. At the close of winter proprietors meet at the rendezvous and decide where the round up shall held and when; what road they will take, and how many men and horses each will furnish, with provisions for the same. Five horses to the man is number usually allotted, on account of the labor required of them. A chief or superintendent is chosen, and a number of deputies, to secure the proper execution of details A large number of persons being brought together much merriment is indulged in, the scene of the encampment being usually well-chosen and picturesque. For several days the work of driving in continues. As the calves are with their mothers at this season, it is admit that a calf belongs to the cow which it follows and suckles. The propriety having separated their stock from the general herd, proceed to brand young, renew obliterated marks, castrate the young males not desired for breeding, and sort out these that are to be sold. If another proprietors chooses to purchase, his mark is branded on the opposite side from first. But it is to dealers from eastern stockyards, or their agents, that are usually made. These purchasers have a copy of all the brands, to avoid buying stolen stock. Whether the cattle are sold on the ground, or taken to market – usually Chicago – they are driven to the railroad at some point where conveniences for shipping stock have been provided, as at Bozeman or Billings. Here the eastern agents are again met with, who keep an eye upon the shipment and telegraph information to the markets, or receive it from them. The Northern Pacific railroad in 1885 charged $100 a car-load of from 16 to 20 to animals, and disembarked the cattle at certain places where the pasturage was good, allowing them to feed several hours each day, assuming the risk of accidents to the cattle, charging $40 or $50 per day for the whole train. Free passage was granted to the proprietors, who took the usual passenger trains, and to a certain number of cowboys, who had a special car attached to the cattle train, which took from 6 to 7 days to reach Chicago. The cattle sold are generally beeves, 3 or 4 years old, and weigh 900 to 1,100 pounds when embarked, but lose 120 or 100 on the journey. They bring from 3½ to 5 cents per pound; or sell for an average of $35. If kept another year or two, they may bring $45. Improvements are being made in the methods of transporting stock, to save it from loss of weight, or total loss, which does not often happen. The plan of production and sale is to part with one fourth of the herd annually. Bulls raised in the herds are not considered desirable, but these used for breeding purposes are taken from foreign localities, and the best possible, the English shorthorns being preferred, after them Durhams, then Spanish. A cow will usually cost from $24 to $27, and will produce a calf annually for ten years. The increase can be counted on to be half male and half female. The female half in 2 years doubled itself, and so on in arithmetical progression, and at little cost to the owner. The following table illustrates the cattle raiser’s increase in 10 years, beginning with a herd of 890:

Years. Steers. Yearlings. Cows. Born. Total.

1st 190 190 300 290 970

2d 90 290 400 300 1,080

3d 80 300 970 400 1,750

4th 100 400 720 600 1,820

5th 190 500 1,070 800 2,060

6th 200 800 1,470 1,000 3,470

7th 300 1,000 2,070 1,600 4,790

8th 500 1,600 2,870 2,500 7,470

9th 790 2,500 4,100 4,000 11,390

10th 1,000 4,000 6,000 9,900 21,000

The table above allows for accidents, and loss by cold, drought, etc., and supposes the steers only to have been sold. The yearlings comprise all the animals born of either sex one year after birth.

The expense of caring for cattle or horses in herds of 1,000 or more is about 75 cents per head. Adding taxes and all the costs of producing a steer worth $30, and we have a total of $3.50. Previous to 1879-80 the average loss from storms was about two per cent per annum. In that year the loss was 7 or 8 per cent, and the following winter it was also unusually large; but many were cattle driven in from Oregon late, and in poor condition. The banks loaned money to be invested in stock, and there was no more sure investment in Montana. A firm which borrowed $13,500 at two per cent per month for six years showed a profit of $51,073 over total investment and expenses. Strahorn’s Montana, 103. The West, compiled from the Census of 1880 by Robert P. Porter, and presenting a significant array of facts concerning the Pacific states, says that there were in Montana, in 1877, 220,000 head of cattle, 40,000 horses, and 120,000 sheep, and that the census of 1880 shows 489,500 cattle, 512,600 sheep, and 29,000 swine. It should be borne in mind, also, that the figures in a census report are always below the facts. In E. J. Farmer’s Resources of the Rocky Mountains, published in 1883, containing brief descriptions of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Dakota, and Montana, it is stated that there were at that date 400,000 cattle and nearly 500,000 sheep in Montana; the cattle being worth at $25 per head $10,000,000, and the sheep $1,750,000, the wool clip being not less than 3,000,000 pounds.

A large stockowner in Montana was Baron de Bonnemain, born in 1851, at Means, Seine -et-Marie, France. He served in the French army under Marshal McMahen in the Franco-Prussian war, after which he immigrated to New York, and visiting Montana on a hunting expedition, perceived the advantages of stock-growing on the natural ranges, and engaged in the business. He had 3,200 head in 1883, and a range of 32 miles. The baron had furnished my library with a manuscript on the subject, Stock Raising in Montana, which agrees with that of Weis and other accounts.

The first blooded horses introduced into Montana in 1873 were owned by Mr Campbell of Gallatin City. The first large sales of cattle to eastern shippers was in 1874; by 1876 a regular trade was established, bringing in 8120,000. Charles Anceny was one of the most enterprising cattle raisers in Gallatin County, in the beginning of the business. The Montana Wool Grower’s Association was organized in September 1877. In 1878 John Healy of San Francisco, agent for a California company, established a depot at Helena for grading wool. The wool clip of that year was 1,000,000 pounds. An effort has been made to domesticate the Rocky Mountain sheep, but with out success. Helena Gazette, Oct. 3, 1873; Helena Independent, Sept, 30, 1875; Winser’s Guide to N. P. Railroad, 172-3; Deer Lodge Independent, Oct 18, 1869.


Bancroft, Hubert H. Bancroft Works, Volume 31, History Of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889. San Francisco: The History Company. 1890.

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