The Great Die Up

Today I’d like to share information on The Great Cattle Die Up, an ironic take on the term ‘cattle round up’.

Cattle grazing on open range.

During the early 1880s, the summers on the plains of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas had been wonderfully cool and winters had proven to be unusually mild, making it easy to feed livestock year around, thus lulling ranchers and beef speculators into a sense of false security. Cattle prices were high, and to increase profits, the ranges were overstocked and soon overgrazed. Beef prices started to fall and the summer of 1867 was unusually hot and dry, making it difficult to put up enough foriage to feed the stock in case the weather took a nasty turn…which it did.

It began to snow on November 13 and snowed every day for a month. The sparse food was hidden beneath the deep snow and the cattle, already in poor condition due to the summer drought, began to die. In January, the temperatures plummeted, perhaps as low as -63°F. A chinook came then, melting the top of the snow, then temperatures fell again, creating a hard crus on top of the deep snow. Stories tell of horses and cattle cut and bleeding from the knees down as they attempted to navigate the crusted snow. Cattle roamed into towns, bawling for food and eating shrubbery. Since little forage had been put up, ranchers had no choice but to watch their herds, their very livelihoods, starve and die.

By spring over 500,000 cattle—90% of the open range animals—had died. The carcasses covered the fields and clogged rivers and streams. The smell of rotting beef permeated the air.

Both small ranches and huge cattle companies declared bankruptcy. Thousands of cowboys were put out of work. Some ranchers tried to steal unbranded calves, leading to range wars. Ultimately, it was the end of open range in the area. Barb wire cut the range into smaller sections, changing the face of Montana ranching forever.

Teddy Roosevelt, prior to the Great Die Up had proclaimed cattle ranching “the pleasantest, healthiest and most exciting phase of American existence.” After the winter of 1887, he wrote to a friend, “Well, we have had a perfect smashup all through the cattle country of the northwest. The losses are crippling. For the first time I have been utterly unable to enjoy a visit to my ranch. I shall be glad to get home.”

Not a very happy story, but a true one that forever changed the face of ranching.

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Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

14 thoughts on “The Great Die Up”

  1. We had our first baby calf born yesterday and another in the night. My Cowboy Husband saw the second cow calfing and went out to check on her around midnight. That’s routine this time of yest.
    So the calf was born and both babies and mamas were locked in the barn. He was especially watchful because of today’s forecast.
    Some weathermen/woman forecast up to 8 inches of snow.
    It’s coming down this morning with swirling wind. I haven’t seen My Cowboy yet this morning. He usually comes in for coffee about now, after morning chores.
    But I get just sick thinking of all those cattle starving to death. Especially since cattle are TOUGH. New babies are tough little things. We baby them compared to how they were treated out on open range.
    Awful, and those poor ranchers having to watch it happen. Just awful…beyond the financial disaster, cowboys care about their cows.

    • I hear you, Mary. It was a hard post to write. I had friends who calved in December one year and lost so many calves to cold due to an unexpected cold snap. Just broke my heart. Good luck with your calving! I hope the weather and the mamas cooperate!

  2. As sad a story as it is, I have never heard of it, so I really appreciate your sharing that story and how it affected bring barbed wire into the picture. Thank you.

  3. What an eye opening story. I’ve heard about this but your description was the best I ever read. Thank you for sharing.

  4. How horrible to think of it! I know this type of hardship was normal back in the day (well, except for this time0, but I still fee bad for all those ranchers who lost so much.

  5. Jeannie, love your blog. We had the same here in the Texas Panhandle in 1886-87. Some ranchers never recovered. Very sad that all those cattle died. Sometimes we have winters when they still do but nothing ever on that scale.

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