Catalogue Ten, Part Four, Vol. III, The Ranching Catalogue, H-L
rail fences were adopted to protect kitchen gardens and the small tilled fields. Houses were log
cabins, similar to ancestral homes in Appalachia and, much earlier, in Celtic Britain.
But the Southern plain folk and their Celtic husbandry practices faltered when they reached
the Great Plains. Their stockman-farmer-hunter economy no longer worked there. Woodlands
farmers settled along streams and thought the prairies less fertile than the woodlands.They were
suspicious of treeless lands as their ancestors had been, and preferred to locate fields in forests,
where the tree cover signaled fertility to them.
They needed woodlands to use for houses and rail
fences, as fuel, and for pasture. Long a symbol in common with cattle cultures, the double-bladed
ax was a mainstay of their lifeways too. They easily adapted to the vast woodlands of Texas and
the Southern frontier but held back from settling the Midwestern prairies. They avoided the
best soils, locating where the soil was marginal for cropland but where woodland pastures pro-
vided grazing and forage for cattle. While land was cheap and abundant, labor was not. Most
backcountry folk owned no (or few) slaves, and they were hard pressed to clear, fence, and ma-
nure fields in order to put them under profitable cultivation. It was cheaper and easier simply
to pasture the edges of the forest, clearing it enough for new grazing, or move on to fresh lands.
Because much of the backcountry land was unclaimed and unfenced (it belonged to the U.S.
government), it was easy to continue Celtic pastoral customs.
The abundance of land made the practice work. New fields had to be cleared to replace old
in a ceaseless procession into ungrazed Western lands. A single range cow needed about fifteen
acres of pine forest pasture in order to forage one winter. As more settlers came into the back-
country, the amount of grazing land diminished, causing a continual push westward. Fami-
lies could sell their lands at a profit and move on as long as there was some place to go. By the
1830s, backcountry and plain-folk descendants had settled the lower Old Northwest and the Old
Southwest, and had begun grazing the New Southwest. Indian depredations were few because
government had pressured the Eastern tribes into ceding their lands and had moved them west
on the Trail of Tears, across the Mississippi River to Indian Territory. In the years before the Civil
War, thousands of plain-folk families moved into Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Texas, where
large tracts of unclaimed lands promised opportunity. By the 1860s the grazing lands of Illinois,
Iowa, Missouri, and northern Texas were filled with range cattle. They were driven to market by
the thousands, marching eastward to slaughterhouses. Cotton meanwhile had become the Old
South’s most valuable crop and the cotton plantation the popular image of Southern life. But log
cabins, corn patches, and free-grazing cattle made up the larger, more accurate picture.
At the same time a new type of intensive agriculture was emerging in Maryland and northern
Virginia, stimulated by English innovations. Called “alternate husbandry,” it involved rotating
crops with grasses and legumes that would restore vitality to the soil. Livestock were contained
in fenced paddocks and fed stored fodder. This allowed selective breeding and the possibility
of improved meat and milk yields, in contrast to the random breeding of scrubby open-range
livestock. This sort of agriculture required a sizable investment, though—cash for buying land
and for constructing fences, outbuildings, and storage facilities. Seeds, equipment, blooded live-
stock—these essentials were not within reach of backcountry farmers.
While the Celtic influence on American cattle ranching is significant, the Celts in America
were not the only cattle herders, and certainly not the first. Erik the Red was actually the first to
land cattle in the NewWorld, when in 986 he brought a herd to Greenland along with 450 new
colonists from Norway. Cattle grazed easily on the thin green carpet of arctic heath, and the col-
ony thrived. Archaeologists estimate that at one point there may have been 3,000 Vikings liv-
ing there. The houses were built of driftwood, logs, and sod, with walls several feet thick. The
climate was too harsh for grain crops, so the settlers probably ate animal products such as milk
and cheese, and the fruits of fishing and hunting. They subsisted for two centuries, but life was
difficult in an environment alien to Scandinavia. The climate grew colder in the fourteenth
century, and an epidemic of Black Death wiped out a third of the people. The colonists’ diet
changed to 80 percent fish, revealing that their cattle had not flourished. By 1500 the settlements
in Greenland had vanished.