When the snow melted, thousands of cattle lay dead.
Cowboys rode the range in the spring of 1887, finding death and disaster at every turn. Cattle, trying to find shelter from the blizzard, died from cold, thirst and starvation, and the winter of 1886-1887, eventually called the Great Die-Up, changed the West.
It started with complacency caused by wet summers and mild winters. Ranchers in the 1880s ran cattle on the open range. They bought parcels of land with water and thus controlled the rest, which was useless without water. They owned monstrous herds and used no fences, some ranches numbering hundreds of thousands of acres. They bet their fortunes and the lives of their animals on a weather pattern that was too good to last. Mild winters and wet summers encouraged them.
Ogden Tanner, in “The Ranchers” from the Time-Life Old West series, wrote that the weather changed in the spring of 1886, when little rain fell, and no rain fell that summer. By July, land was scorched and the grass was short and poor. Pools of water turned alkaline, and the animals became thin and weak. No autumn rains alleviated the drought, and the cattle were in no shape to handle what was to come.
Birds started south early that fall, and white arctic owls came to Montana for the first time since the last unusually cold winter. Beavers collected great amounts of willow saplings, and muskrats built lodges twice as large and thick.
Blizzards and bitter cold assaulted the West in November, from Dakota to Texas, with subzero temperatures and heavy snow that continued into December. A brief mild spell melted the top of the snow, which froze into a crust of ice when the temperature dropped again.
The Blizzard of 1887 struck on Jan. 9 and continued for 10 days. On the first day, 16 inches of snow fell in 16 hours, and the temperature in Montana was minus 46 degrees. More storms came in February.
“The cow was the animal least fitted to fight a blizzard. The buffalo had learned to swing his massive head and push away the snow. The horse would paw down through the snow, finding grass beneath. Sheep would eat snow if water was lacking. Turkeys roosted in trees to escape the drifts, and chickens pecked till they reached ground and gulped snow to form water. The cow never learned any of these survival tricks; up to its belly in snow, it would die of thirst,” wrote James Michener in Centennial.
The storm was most catastrophic in Montana, and the Pioneer Cattle Co., a well-run ranch, lost two-thirds of its stock. Others lost more.
That spring, an old cowhand at Pioneer looked at the sun and said, “Where the hell was you last January?”
It was the end of the open range. Many ranchers quit the business or turned to sheep, which could eat sparse scrub vegetation, and ranchers who stayed with cows kept smaller herds, grew hay for winter feed, bought or leased land, and erected fences, encouraged by the invention of the first practical barbed wire in 1874 by Joseph F. Glidden. On Feb. 8, Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act, which empowered the president to end Indian tribal government and land ownership and divide the land into parcels for sale to non-Indians. In April 1889, Indian Territory, which later became Oklahoma, the last major area banned to settlement, was opened, and thousands of settlers invaded in a two-day land rush. People who sneaked onto the land early were called Sooners and gave the future state its nickname.
When Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, people thought he was crazy. They thought he had bought useless land that would never fill with people, yet in less than 90 years the West was settled and the natives were displaced. A land that was wild and free had been fenced.
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