Hell Without Heat
By 1886, the cattle business was in trouble. Overgrazing had depleted the grasslands, herds of sheep were competing for what remained, and farmers were beginning to stake off parts of the open range. Beef prices were falling, and during the hot, dry months of summer, the herds grew thin and weak.
Then came the worst winter anyone had ever seen.
The first snow came on November 13 and fell continuously for a month. Then, in January 1887, the temperature dropped even farther, and blizzards came howling over the prairie, blasting the unsheltered herds. Some cattle, too weak to stand, were actually blown over. Others died frozen to the ground.
was all so slow, plunging after them through the deep snow that way.....
The horses' feet were cut and bleeding from the heavy crust, and the cattle
had the hair and hide wore off their legs to the knees and hocks. It was
surely hell to see big four-year-old steers just able to stagger along.
Spring revealed the scope of the disaster. Dead cattle littered the countryside and bobbed in the freshening rivers.
[I saw] countless carcasses of cattle going down with the ice, rolling over and over as they went, sometimes with all four stiffened legs pointed skyward. For days on end . . . went Death's cattle roundup.
Cattlemen called the winter of 1886-87 the "Great Die-Up." It marked the end of open range ranching, that supposedly sure way to riches which Theodore Roosevelt called "the pleasantest, healthiest and most exciting phase of American existence." And it proved again that, in the West, nature could at any moment shatter all sense of human control.
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