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Cattle Culture Comes to the Americas

Before him lies a boundless continent,

And he urges forward as if time pressed

And he was afraid of finding

no room for his exertions.

—Alexis de Toqueville,

Democracy in America.



hen we think of North American cattle ranching, we think of the era of open-range cat-

tle grazing on the Great Plains, which holds a mythlike place in our national memory. But

that era of the huge herds, wide-open spaces, and trail drives lasted a mere twenty years, from

the end of the Civil War to the mid-1880s, when weather and overstocking resulted in the col-

lapse of the cattle market.We are romantically tied to that short-livedWestern vision, yet where

did it come from? How did Western cattle ranching erupt seemingly out of nowhere to capture

our hearts and imagination?

Cattle ranching has thrived in a wide variety of environments: tropics, pine barrens, prairies,

lowland plains, mountain ranges, and meadow wetlands. Cattle are adaptable creatures, which

do well in nearly all conditions in temperate climates. Cattle ranching was never a business that

originated in harsh environments, rather it was pushed out of more favorable locations and al-

lowed to exist beyond the fringes, in a refuge of its own. Cattle herding worked best at the fringes

of settlement; where new pastures could be easily moved onto, and where land was cheap. Cat-

tle ranching was a mobile business, one that moved to a fresh habitat whenever overgrazing

wreaked havoc with grazing lands and commercial markets pushed herding to the far corners.

Land close to the market commands higher prices because it costs less to transport products to

market.Thus intensive agriculture, such as tilled field crops, dairying, and feedlot operations, lo-

cate closer in to profit from market proximity. The hinterlands become cattle ranching districts

because grazing is the least intensive form of commercial agriculture. As population grows and

disperses, grazing gets pushed farther out onto the least productive lands.


While Americans have viewed cattle ranching as uniquely Western, University of Texas

professor Terry Jordan calls that image “largely illusion and myth.”“Ranching was not a prod-

uct of the frontier or the semi-aridWest,” he argues.


Ranching as we know it did not originate

in the American West, Latin America, or even the East. It was a cultural activity that immi-

grants carried out of the eastern Mediterranean and the Nile as they swept out across Europe

and Asia. As settlements grew they were pushed farther out, eventually relegated to the iso-

lated fringes of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Brittany, and the edges of the Iberian Peninsula. By

1500 A.D. the cattle-culture belt extended from Scandinavia along the Atlantic coast of Eu-

rope and into Africa. Even then the cattle folk had been pushed to the periphery of civiliza-

tion’s centers. The discovery of the New World provided their next move—the ideal solution

to their situation. The cattle cultures of the Old World had been pushed nearly to oblivion

when a whole new hemisphere beckoned. “At almost the last moment, a retrieve had come,”

Jordan explains.


* This essay initially appeared as chapter five of LaurieWinn Carlson's

Cattle: An Informal Social History


Ivan R. Dee, 2001). Copyright.