Plains Folk

Sheep Trails


Odds are, most people on the plains think about shepherds once a year: on Christmas Eve. Cowboys, not shepherds, are the stuff of popular imagination. Log of a Cowboy, by Andy Adams, heads every list of great western books. Sheep, by Archer Gilfillan, although something of a cult classic, is obscure.

I can think of only one historic site on the plains that originated with sheep culture: Cottonwood Ranch, near Studley, Kansas, a property of the Kansas State Historical Society. The interpretation of the site, however, focuses on the Pratt family of English immigrants who founded the ranch and on the cozy stone buildings they built. Cottonwood Ranch was a sheep ranch, but we learn nothing about sheep.

The university research extension center in Hettinger, North Dakota, bills itself as the largest state-owned sheep research center in the U.S. It is the keystone to sheep research on the plains, but did you ever hear of it? Well, there you go.

We have a certain way of telling the story of ranching on the Great Plains, and it goes like this.

Following the Civil War, the long drives started, whereby Texas longhorn cattle were brought to the cattle towns of Kansas and Nebraska for shipping to eastern markets. Next, cattle were driven on north from the central plains to stock the northern ranges of Wyoming, Montana, and Dakota.

There ensued a great cattle boom, a time known as the cattle kingdom, during the 1880s, but it ended with the hard winter of 1886-87. That caused the failure of the big outfits and the establishment of smaller, family operations that took care of their cattle and bred up their herds, laying the foundation for modern ranching.

There are lots of things wrong with this story, but one of the glaring omissions has to do with sheep. There was a time, beginning in the late 1880s and continuing into the early 1900s, when sheep eclipsed cattle in the ranching areas of the plains. The story, otherwise untold, is provided by a big, fat book hardly anyone has read: America’s Sheep Trails, by Edward Norris Wentworth, published in 1948.

In the way that the plains were stocked with cattle from the south, the prairies were filled with sheep from the west. Wentworth provides a wonderful map of sheep trails originating in California, Oregon, and New Mexico and used during the period 1870-1900. After crossing the Rockies, the trails consolidated along three lines leading to centers of feedlot finishing: Kansas (mainly west of the Flint Hills), the Platte Valley of Nebraska, and eastern North Dakota.

Incidentally, along the way, the same trails served to stock the western ranges with sheep. Look at the numbers, and you find that in the late 1800s, Wyoming, the Cowboy State, was in fact a shepherd state. The same goes for Montana and western North and South Dakota.

Some sample numbers from Wentworth: in 1880 alone, almost 104,000 sheep were driven from Colorado into Kansas. The same year more than 148,000 sheep were driven into Montana, mainly from California and Oregon. More than 110,000 were driven into Wyoming, mainly from California and New Mexico. And this was a decade before the big boom in sheep on the plains.

It is not likely that shepherds will get their due in television and cinema, or that any college or high school will rename its athletic teams the Merinos. There is, however, a big, woolly story yet to tell about the settlement of the Great Plains.

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