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The History of Montana's Cattle Industry

Updated: September 14, 2020


In 1850 Captain Richard Grant, his Indian wife and their two sons, Johnny and James Grant, were living at the junction of the "stinking water." This is the Ruby River and the Beaverhead River, near present day Twin Bridges. Captain Grant was a former agent for Hudson's Bay Company and maintained a trading post for exchanging trade goods, trinkets and whiskey with the Indians. In turn they gave him horses, furs and skins.

Occasionally gold-seekers or trappers wandered through the area. Quite by chance, some trail-weary, worn-out oxen were unyoked and left to perish in the Beaverhead Valley. The Grant brothers found the oxen in the spring, fully recovered and fat. The oxen had wintered well on basin wildrye, rough fescue and bluebunch wheatgrass, which grew abundantly in the mountain valleys of Montana.

That same year the Grant brothers journeyed south to old Fort Hall on the Oregon Trail near the present site of Pocatello, Idaho. They traded dressed skins, furs, moccasins and other Indian-made apparel for worn-out oxen. They trailed the weary oxen back to Beaverhead Valley and turned the cattle out on grass to recuperate. They returned to the Oregon Trail again in the spring with fresh, rested oxen. These were traded for more played-out cattle. The going rate soon became one strong, fat work animal for two thin, trail-weary critters. This was probably the earliest cattle operation in what was to become Montana.

Father DeSmet, a Jesuit priest, had come to the Bitterroot Valley, west of the Continental Divide, in 1841 to establish a mission with the Flathead Indians. He moved to the Mission Valley in 1850. Four years later Father DeSmet had built a herd of 1000 cattle, most of which had been trailed in from Oregon. The herd was to feed the Indians and keep them from traveling east of the mountains each year to hunt buffalo and make war with enemy tribes. Father DeSmet's cattle did not stop the Indians from engaging in their favorite pasttimes of hunting and fighting, but they probably did eat better!

Between 1862 and 1864, gold was discovered in several places in southwest Montana. Prospectors came in droves and mining camps sprung up everywhere. Soon, there were thousands of miners to feed. Cattle ranches sprouted up all over western Montana to supply mining camps with meat. Most of the cattle were trailed from Oregon, and many were descendants of the early Spanish cattle that had come from Mexico and California. Conrad Kohrs started as a butcher boy in a camp called Grasshopper Creek. When the rush to Alder Gulch began, he followed and established a beef market there. Kohrs eventually controlled and supplied the beef for nearly every gold camp. In 1866 he purchased the Grant ranch near Deer Lodge. He became the largest cattle owner in Montana and the entire Northwest.

By 1880 the census recorded a population of 39,159. The population was growing and a new era of settlement was beginning. The lush prairie grass was inviting to cattlemen. Free government land made possible the great expansion of the cattle business. There were few Indians left now to challenge the trailing of cattle. The railroad, completed in the early 1880s made it possible to market cattle. Roundups were planned to gather the cattle into groups for branding. Similarly, roundups were made to choose animals to go to market.

The cowboy lived on the prairie with his horse. It was a special kind of life, lived by special people. However, the lifestyle and business wasn't all pleasure and profit. Because of the challenges, Stockgrowers Associations were formed, the first in 1881. They discussed the Indians, predators, diseases, legislation and outlaws. The Indians were starving and often stole cattle; the white man had killed all their bison. Wolves were destructive predators, hunting in packs and killing cows, calves and many sheep and lambs.

Updated: September 14, 2020

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