History of Oregon by Oregon Historical Society
homeSection 4Subtopic: End of the Open...
Subtopic : Pre-Industrial Period: 1870-1910: End of the Open Range

Themes: People and the Environment, Economics

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Riding in the Fossil Hills
Crook County, c. 1890s
OrHi 37764

After Congress established the Forest Reserves in the 1890s and the National Forest system in 1905, the forested ranges were closed to new homestead filings, and the Forest Service limited grazing. As a result, fewer sheep were grazed in the mountains on either the public domain or on private homestead tracts. Lower elevation range land was the best alternative, but it also had its share of problems. Large cattle companies like Miller and Lux had gained control of much of the range by buying up water sources and fencing them to exclude smaller operators. The lower elevation range was traditionally cattle country, and sheep and cattle operators did not hold each other in high esteem for a variety of reasons. Cattlemen blamed sheep for overgrazing and for damaging the native grasses. Sheep herders, in turn, blamed the cattlemen for  excluding them from the public lands by controlling the water sources.

There were also cultural and ethnic conflicts.  The cattle business on the West Coast followed the Mexican model, as it developed on the ranches of California. Western cattle workers called themselves “buckaroos,” a term derived from the Spanish vaquero. In the sheep business, there was a lively ethnic mixture of Irish and Basque. These differing heritages did not always mix well, especially in cow town saloons.

Sheep and Cattle Wars
Throughout the American West, periodic conflicts over range lands in the public domain were called “range wars.” The central Oregon range wars started around the turn of the century as more sheep competed with cattle for the lower-elevation grazing. Cattlemen tried to exclude sheep from the public lands by threatening the sheep herders and occasionally shooting the sheep. The Crooked River country was one center of hostilities, and perhaps 10,000 sheep were killed over a period of three years on the ranges east of Prineville. The human toll was slight, however, with only one killing—that of a Silver Lake store keeper—clearly attributed to the conflict.

Decline of the Livestock Business
The livestock business was an important part of central Oregon’s history and provided the first means for Euro-Americans to sustain themselves on the land. However, the stories of the ranching period in central Oregon are not uniformly happy ones. Pioneer rancher John Y. Todd lost most of the 5,000 cattle on his 1880 cattle drive to Cheyenne and was bankrupted. He had to sell his beloved Farewell Bend Ranch to settle his debts. Crook County rancher Bill Brown lost his extensive herds and his 140,000 acres in the 1920s and ended his days in a home for the aged in Salem. The legendary Baldwin Ranch in Jefferson County was sold in 1909, soon after the Forest Service canceled the ranch’s grazing permits. John Newton Williamson, who extolled the virtues of “stock raising country,” was prosecuted by a federal grand jury for land fraud in 1905. On a smaller scale, the Robbins family gave up their homestead on Ochoco Creek and moved into Prineville. One remarkable woman who homesteaded a small ranch alone in the Crooked River Valley finally “starved out” in 1929 and went back east to live with her relatives. Alice Day Pratt wrote in her memoirs:

I gave away my chickens to friends who had helped me in many a tight place.  These friends...were to care for...my ponies, which were to run...as long as they lived. I blessed the fact that horses were so over-abundant that they were unencumbered with a mortgage.

© Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens, 2004.

Themes: People and the Environment,Economics

Regions: Central Oregon

Date: 1880-1930

Author: Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens

The establishment of public lands and forests limited the practices of open-range grazing.

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