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The Great Plains winter of 1886-87
Moments that Made America
Lincoln Lang remembered the hardest winter of his life by the spring that followed it. “In the latter part of March came the Chinook wind, harbinger of spring, releasing for the first time the iron grip that had been upon us,” Lang wrote. “At last, it seemed, the wrath of Nature had been appeased.” The frozen Little Missouri River, the principal stream in the cattle country of western Dakota Territory, began to thaw, and the current carried great chunks of ice down past the ranch houses where Lang and his neighbors had sheltered from the brutal low temperatures.
So cold had been the winter and so deep the snow that the cattle men hadn’t been able to visit their herds. In most winters the animals managed to find enough grass beneath the snow to keep their inner fires burning, but the men didn’t know about this winter. With the warming they would learn how the cattle had fared.
What they learned, they never forgot. “For days on end, tearing down with the grinding ice cakes, went Death’s cattle roundup of the upper Little Missouri country,” Lang said. “In countless valleys, gulches, washouts, and coulees, the animals had vainly sought shelter from the relentless ‘Northern Furies’ on their trail. Now their carcasses were being spewed forth in untold thousands by the rushing waters, to be carried away on the crest of the foaming, turgid flood rushing down the valley.”
As the frozen carcasses disappeared downstream, Lang and others saw their vision for a cattle empire on the northern Great Plains disappear as well. One of those others was Theodore Roosevelt, who had first come to Dakota in the summer of 1883, during a break from his duties as a member of the New York state legislature.
At that time, buffalo still roamed the region, albeit in dwindling numbers. Roosevelt required a week to find one of the last survivors of a herd that had numbered in the millions barely a decade earlier. Its rarity didn’t prevent Roosevelt from killing it, and dancing a victory jig around the dead animal.
Roosevelt fell in love with Dakota, and before he left he handed a check for fourteen thousand dollars to Lang’s father, his guide on the buffalo hunt, for Lang senior to use to purchase a cattle ranch in Roosevelt’s name. Roosevelt, a silk-stocking son of New York City, fancied himself becoming a cattle baron.
For three years he played the part. He joined the cattle men on the roundup—gathering, driving, roping, branding. He faced down bullies, including some who mocked his dudish appearance and questioned his courage. He defended the claim his ranch ownership informally conveyed to a share of the public range on which his cattle grazed. He built a house and otherwise improved his property, sinking a sizable part of his inheritance into the venture.
The summer of 1886 put his fancy to a test. The summer rains failed almost completely, leaving the prairies dusty and the grass withered and sparse. The cattle, which normally fattened on the nutritious summer growth, entered the fall alarmingly thin.
Winter arrived early, with unusually heavy snow. The drifts prevented the already weakened cattle from pawing down to what little grass the snow hid. Then the temperatures plummeted and the north winds howled. The cattle were at grave risk, and the cattlemen too. The men couldn’t venture out of their cabins without danger of getting lost in the blinding snow. Men froze to death within yards of shelter they couldn’t see through the storm. Finally came the thaw, and the gruesome sight of the winter’s toll.
The experience cured Roosevelt of his illusions of bovine barony. He returned to New York politics, and sold his ranch. He left to the Langs and other residents of Dakota the reconceiving of ranching practices on the northern Plains. From their painful experience they concluded that the ranching-on-the-cheap model they had employed until then was unsustainable. Their cattle, descended from feral Texas longhorns acquired at low cost, had grazed on public land and fended for themselves during the winter. Lang and the others now realized that while most Plains winters might be mild enough that the animals could survive the cold, a bad one like this last would then come along, and large portions of the herds would perish.
The cattlemen realized they’d have to feed their cattle during the winter. This meant they’d have to grow hay during the summer, which required fencing land to keep the cattle off while the hay was growing. The fencing couldn’t well be done on public land—although some of the ranchmen tried—and so the land had to be purchased. Acquiring the land, purchasing the barbed wire, and stringing the fences required cash outlays the cattlemen weren’t used to. The lean, rangy longhorns didn’t produce enough meat to warrant the expenditure, so the cattlemen imported breeds that fattened up better and faster, which required further cash outlays. The end result was a new model of ranching, more capital intensive and more like a regular business than the old cattlemen were used to.
The shift in the cattle business marked the beginning of a shift in the entire conception of land use in the West. Agriculture was possible in the West, but on western terms rather than those familiar from the East. Freezing cold was part of challenge; more broadly felt was the lack of precipitation. In the East, farmers relied on rain, which generally fell in sufficient quantities and at the right times to bring the crops to maturity. In the West—on the Plains and beyond—consistent results required irrigation. Windmills furnished enough water for cattle to drink, but for growing crops on a large scale, dams and reservoirs were often required. Building this infrastructure took time, and lasted well into the twentieth century.
As the new model of capital-intensive agriculture took hold, the West blossomed like a rose. Generally-arid California became the garden spot of the nation, with an agricultural output that exceeded that of most countries. Cotton flourished on the high plains of West Texas. Citrus fruit from Arizona graced the breakfast tables of the nation. And pedigreed cattle in Dakota fed on hay formulated to keep them fit during the winter, and sheltered from storms behind specially planted windbreaks or in corrals built with wind fences and bedding to protect them from the frozen ground.
The new model persisted into the twenty-first century. Then it too ran into problems. Farmers and ranchers had to share water with urban populations unthinkable before the damming of the rivers, and with petroleum drillers who fractured oil and gas formations with high-pressure water to release the fossil fuels. Underground aquifers dating from the last ice age diminished under decades of unsustainable use.
This time the signal that change was needed didn’t come from frozen cattle carcasses pouring down the rivers of the West. Rather it appeared in the bath-tub ring around Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Built in the golden age of western dam-building, Hoover Dam became less and less useful as the level of Lake Mead fell following decades of drought. In the summer of 2021 the authority in charge of apportioning water from the Colorado declared a shortfall beyond anything seen before.
The hydraulic model of the twentieth-century West would take longer to change than the natural model of the mid-nineteenth century. Cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix don’t disappear overnight. But as water ran short, and climate change caused summers to get hotter and longer, the growth of the desert cities would slow and perhaps even reverse. Decline had been the fate of large cities in America’s once-proud eastern rustbelt; a western dustbelt might be its twenty-first century counterpart.
Nothing lasts forever. Except maybe the fact that the American West is a challenging place to live.