Texans are resilient. They defeated the Mexicans—twice—took a beating during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and then chased the Comanche clean out of the state and into Oklahoma. All of those events were watershed moments in Texas history.
And so was the day they came.
Sheep. Hundreds of thousands of them, munching their way across the land like wooly locusts. The sight of a single woolyback could boil a cattleman’s blood. The critters trampled the range, close-cropped the forage, and left behind an odor neither cattle nor man could abide. They also carried a type of mange called “sheep scab” to which cattle were susceptible.
As if all of that weren’t enough, pastores herded on foot, not horseback. Horses were a status symbol in the Old West. Cowboys figuratively and literally “looked down on” mutton-punchers.
Sheep are not native to Texas, although they’ve been in the state since padres brought Spanish transplants with them in the 1700s. Since the animals provided both food and clothing, no mission was without a flock.
In 1800, 5,000 head of sheep lived in far south Texas, along the Rio Grande. By 1870, 700,000 woolies had moved in, primarily with Germans and other Europeans who immigrated to central and western Texas. By 1890, the state was home to 3.5 million of the critters. Of the 30 million sheep in the U.S. in the middle of the twentieth century, one-third were in Texas. At that time, the state produced 95 percent of the country’s Merino wool.
Due to market fluctuations, drought, and some disastrous government programs, in 2012 the entire ovine population of the U.S. stood at only 5.345 million; 650,000 of those, still the largest bunch by more than 100,000 animals, were in Texas. To this day, mutton, lamb, and wool make a significant contribution to Texas’s economy.
Ranchers in the mid- to late-1800s never would have believed such a thing possible. In fact, they went to great lengths to prevent the possibility. The notorious clashes between sheepmen and cattlemen that scarred the entire West began on the Charles Goodnight range in Texas. Between 1875 and 1920, one hundred twenty serious confrontations occurred in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado. Across the four states, at least fifty-four men died and 100,000 sheep were slaughtered.
Real and imagined problems led to the sheep wars. Texas cattlemen already were becoming testy with one another over grazing and water rights. Add sheep—which, as a means of finding other flock members, scent the ground with a noxious substance excreted by a gland above their hooves—and the range got a little smaller. Add sheep “drifters,” who grazed their flocks on other folks’ land or public property because they owned no territory of their own, and the situation became volatile. Add barbed-wire fence…and everything exploded.
The Texas legislature outlawed grazing sheep on private range without permission and on public land at all. Cattle and horses faced no such restrictions. Consequently, sheepmen were among the first to throw up fences in order to keep their flocks in and other animals out. Sheep fences lit one of the first matches in what became the Texas Fence-Cutter War, which erupted across more than half the state for about a decade starting in the 1870s. The cattlemen erected their own fences, and soon everyone was at someone else’s throat. The fence war died down, for the most part, when the state legislature criminalized fence-cutting in 1884.
Not long thereafter, most Texas cattlemen were shocked—and somewhat relieved—to discover good fences make good neighbors. They also discovered mutton and wool sold even when a mysterious disease known as Texas Fever made driving cattle to the railheads in other states well-nigh impossible.
Today, many Texas ranchers run sheep and goats right along with their cattle, and all the critters get along just fine on the same property.
Of course, had stubborn Texans on both sides of the fence paid attention to the native Indians who’d run cattle and sheep together for a hundred years before the trouble started, they might have spared themselves considerable aggravation.
In my debut novel Prodigal Gun, sheep and a barbed-wire fence touch off a war in the Texas Hill Country, bringing an infamous gunman home for the first time since he left to fight for the Confederacy. The book releases tomorrow in both paperback and digital versions, but it’s available for pre-order now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and .
There’s an autographed print copy up for grabs! I’ll let Random.org draw a winner from among those who are kind enough to comment today. Please leave me a way to get in touch.
Widowed rancher Jessie Caine buried her heart with the childhood sweetheart Yankees killed on a distant battlefield. Sixteen years later, as a Texas range war looms and hired guns arrive to pursue a wealthy carpetbagger’s agenda, Jessie discovers the only man she ever loved isn’t dead.
At least not yet.
Embittered by a brother’s betrayal, notorious gunman Calhoun is a dangerous man, come home to do an unsavory job. A bushwhacker’s bullet nearly takes his life on Jessie’s land, trapping him in a standoff between the past he tried to bury and the infamy he never will. One taste of the only woman he ever loved puts more than his life and her ranch in the crossfire.
With a price on his head, a debt to a wealthy employer around his neck, and a defiant woman tugging at his heart, Calhoun’s guns may not be enough to keep him from the grave. Caught between his enemies and hers, Jessie faces an agonizing choice: Which of her dreams will die?