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Kansas Historical Quarterly - Historical Literature of the Range Cattle Industry

Notes on the Historical Literature of the Range Cattle Industry

by James C. Malin

November 1931 (Vol. 1, No. 1), pages 74 to 76
Transcribed by lhn; HTML editing by Tod Roberts
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

THE traveler who views the wheat fields of western Kansas in 1931 can see little sign that this region, within the span of a generation, was once dominated as completely by cattle as it now is by wheat. The plains region is a large country and its industries seem to partake naturally of the magnitude of their geographical setting.

The contemporary Kansan, surfeited with wheat, may look back to the day of the cattlemen with. a sense of escape from an unpleasant situation into a romantic past. But the economic system of that day suffered also from depressions and surpluses accompanied by disastrous failures, and the social system was agitated by its liquor question and crime wave-even its equivalent of the Wickersham commission. While these economic and social accidents may have left some scars, time has a way of easing painful memories.

For the most part the cattlemen did not acquire a talent for writing that was in any way comparable with their skill in handling seers. The industry during the open range era was never stabilized. The period was less than twenty-five years in duration. Under the circumstances it was impossible to accumulate a relatively large store of standardized information. In consequence there are few contemporary accounts that are comprehensive in scope, or that possess a high quality of content or form. One classic work was produced, however, within the Kansas region-Joseph G. McCoy, Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and the Southwest (Kansas City, Mo., 1874). A second contemporary work of importance was printed as a United States government publication in 1885 -Joseph G. Nimmo, The Range and Ranch Cattle Traffic. These books are now long out of print and are difficult to obtain, outside of large libraries. Toward the close of the range period the appeal of the subject to eastern readers created a substantial demand for magazine articles dealing with the various phases of the cattle business. In this class of literature Kansas readers will be interested particularly in C. M. Harger's "Cattle Trails of the Prairies," in Scribner's magazine (June, 1892).

It is only in recent years, and more particularly since the World War, that historians have undertaken systematic collection of his-

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MALIN: NOTES ON THE RANGE CATTLE INDUSTRY 75

torical materials in this field, and on this foundation, promoted historical research and writing. In reviewing a few selected titles from the product of such investigations it is in keeping with the subject matter to begin at the south and work north as the cattle did.

In the brush country of south Texas the first scene is laid and the story is told by J. Frank Dobie, of the University of Texas, in A Vaquero of the Brush Country (Dallas, Texas, The Southwest Press, 1929). The book is based on the recollections of a prominent cattleman, but is supplemented by substantial research and is written in. a masterly style. Chronologically this book is among the more recent publications in the field, but historically it properly antedates all the others and is the first to deal with that region from which most of the cattle drives originated. It is true to the local color, even to the cover, which is in simulation of a section cutout of the back of a huge rattlesnake skin.

Contrasting with the brush country of south Texas and the period of beginnings, the next book. deals with the high-plains country of the Texas Panhandle where ranching was developed near the end of the open-range period. This story. is related by J. E. Haley in The XIT Ranch of Texas (Chicago, Trustees Capitol Reservation Lands, 1929). The story of this enterprise illustrates effectively how the range herds were built up into high-grade Hereford and Angus cattle, superior to much of the stock produced on the farms of the corn belt during the eighteen nineties. This angle of the cattle business recalls also one of the major reasons why the latter regions came to depend on the range for feeders instead of producing them as formerly on middle western farms.

A book which gives an overview of most of the industry is that of E. E. Dale, The Range Cattle Industry (Norman, Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, 1930). Professor Dale has spent many years studying cattle, especially in the Oklahoma area. The book is therefore a mature piece of work. It epitomizes the results of his own research, and reflects the contributions made by special studies of others. While there is little in it that is essentially new, nevertheless it possesses distinction in the concise but comprehensive quality of the presentation.

The northwest high plains region, which Dale omits, is treated in a remarkably able volume by E. S. Osgood, The Day of the Cattleman, a Study of the Northern Range, 1845-1890 (Minneapolis, The University of Minnesota Press, 1929). In this work

76 THE KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

the manuscript records of the cattlemen's associations are used extensively and, it might properly be said, for the first time in any extended study of the Northwest.

Closely related to the studies in the economic history of the industry come two recent and able works on that all but legendary person, the Cowboy. P. A. Rollins in a book, The Cowboy (New York, Scribner's, 1922), stripped him of most of the clap-trap of the wild-west story and movie, describing in more sober terms the men who handled range cattle. More recently the subject has been dealt with from a somewhat different angle in an uneven but brilliant volume by E. Douglas Branch called The Cowboy and His Interpreters (New York, Appleton, 1926).

Possibly the reader has already discerned a gap in the record of the cattle industry as it would be treated by the books mentioned. The omission is not intentional, but one of necessity. No inclusive story of cattle in the Kansas region proper has yet been written. Books of varied quality are available which deal with certain phases of Kansas live-stock history, but for the most part the basic research must yet be done. Such work on the subject as is known to be under way has made only what might be called substantial beginnings.