Death’s Cattle Round-up 

1886: The year the cattle froze. . .

Cattlemen in the Texas panhandle faced a big problem in the early 1880s. While the lack of fences on the open range meant their cattle had an almost solid sea of grass, this blessing also meant that cattle from the ranches outside the state to the north drifted south to escape colder winters, moving onto the land used by the Texas panhandle ranches. This mass migration of cattle looking for wintertime food and shelter meant the pastures of the local Texas cattlemen were seriously overgrazed.

Frustrated by the situation, members of the local panhandle stock association came together and voted to build a barbed wire “drift fence” stretching 200 miles across the panhandle to try to block the drift of cattle from the north. In 1881, construction of the fence started with fence posts made from trees lining the Canadian River and wire and staples ordered from Kansas City. By 1885, a 200-mile line of four-strand barbed-wire “drift fences” had been completed and the northern cattle were blocked.

The following year,1886—the summer was what Texans call a “scorcher”—hot and dry. By fall, grass was burned to a frazzle by the sun, and then the winter of 1886 blew in early. The previous winter had been unusually cold and snowy and thousands of cattle had died, piling up against the fence. The winter of 1886 was worse. It’s the record-setting winter you may have read about in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel, The Long Winter, from her Little House on the Prairie series.

The snow began in November and kept falling. During the first week of January, two blizzards blew in with high winds and heavy snow fall. Temperatures plummeted to below zero and stayed there.  Wicked northwest winds exceeding 45 miles per hour created a blinding storm and greatly increased the snow pack. The second huge storm raged across the plains, continued northeast, and reached as far as New England. Trains were halted by snowdrifts as high as 12 feet on the tracks. Homes were buried to their rooftops. People died.

The combined storms were also a catastrophe for livestock. Fierce winds sweeping up through the panhandle drove the cattle until they reached the drift fence. When they could go no further, they piled up—cattle on top of cattle. They were crushed, some smothered, others froze. It was May before things had fully thawed and the overall death and devastation was clear. According to the American Quarter Horse Association, one rancher reported that he could have walked four miles on dead beeves without stepping on the ground. Cowboys on the LX Ranch reportedly skinned 250 carcasses each mile for 35 miles. That’s 8,750 dead cattle from just one ranch.

The Panhandle Stockman’s Association asked that ranchers skin the dead cattle and ship the hides to Kansas City so the losses could be counted. By June 1, of 1887, they had received 400,000 hides—representing just some of the stock deaths. 

The losses were devastating for ranchers who called the event the “Big Die-up” (as opposed to round-up) or “Death’s Cattle Round-up.”  Scores of ranchers were ruined and left the business. Others realized the days of the open range were most likely over. Beeves on the open range could not be controlled. The ranches that restarted generally bought land, fenced it and began again. The drift fencing was torn down or used in building new pasture fences. The Big Blizzard of 1886 had drastically altered the cattle business on the plains. 

In an interesting side note, if you have listened to my podcast entitled The Bone Business, You’ll remember that themass killing of the buffalo resulted in piles and piles of bones on the Texas prairie. Bones which bone pickers gathered for shipping East by rail for processing into a variety of products from buttons to bone china.  By the time of the great blizzard of 1887, the buffalo bones were gone but the bone business blossomed again with the huge number of cattle bones littering the Texas panhandle and beyond. Collecting bones became profitable again and the prairie was cleared by bone pickers. The Big Blizzard of 1887 was an historic, record-setting weather event. and while some suffered from the loss of their cattle, others prospered gathering bovine bones.

This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with the Texas Brave and Strong Podcast. Tune in every other week for a new episode. It’s tidbits of Texas history you didn’t learn in school.

Also, pick up a copy of my historical novel, GONE TO DALLAS, The Storekeeper, 1856-1861. You’ll find it—along with super reviews—on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords and other sites where books are sold.

Thanks for listening.  Ya’ll come back!


American Quarter Horse Association Journal, “The Big Die-up: End of the Open Range,” by Jim Jennings, August 11, 2020

Newspaper article: “Losses on the Range,” The Colorado Daily Chieftain, January 24, 1886 Colorado Encyclopedia: “The Great Die-Up”

Early Texans Sing

Shhh. . .listen . . .can you hear it?  The singing?  It’s faint, but if you really concentrate you can hear it.  It’s getting louder now. I think . . .Yes, I think I can make out the tune. dada da dada. . .

Texas our Texas…It’s the state song!

That’s strange. . . I even recognize some of the voices. You hear them too, don’t you?  The Spanish voice?  That’s Cabeza de Vaca. Apart from the native Americans, I suppose we might call him one of the very first Texans. In 1527, he was shipwrecked on the coast of Texas and spent six years in servitude to the Indians and two years wandering. When he finally made his way back to Spain, it was to ask the king of Spain to let him lead a royal expedition to explore and claim Texas for the Spanish crown. Unfortunately for de Vaca, the king had already granted the commission to Hernando de Soto.

Hear the singing Frenchman?  That must be La Salle, a daring and aggressive explorer who in the 1600s claimed the territory drained by the Mississippi River and all its tributaries for French King Louis XIV. He then returned to France and gained permission to found a colony at or near the mouth of the Mississippi. In July of 1684, La Salle left Rochelle, France with four ships and 280 people. Missing the mouth of the Mississippi, the ships landed in Matagorda Bay in Texas.

It was an ill fated expedition. Quarrels developed and LaSalle was murdered in 1687 by jealous rivals among his men and the early colony ultimately vanished. A year after La Salle’s death, six of La Salle’s faithful men, having fled Texas, finally reached the French outpost in Montreal, Canada.

Hear the wavering older voice singing now?  That’s the voice of a visionary—Moses Austin. His dream was to fill the vast and beautiful wilderness called Texas with American colonists. After years of negotiation, he convinced Mexico to let him bring Americans to settle the Mexican state. Mexico agreed largely because they believed a Texas settled with Anglos would serve as a buffer between the dangerous marauding Comanche and Apache and the settled population of Mexico bordering Texas to the south. But, before Moses Austin could see his dream come to pass, he became ill and died. His son, Stephen F. Austin shared his father’s dream and brought 300 American families into Texas between 1824 and 1828.

That loud and confident deep voice? You know it has to be Sam Houston. Houston was the governor of Tennessee. He fell in love with  a sweet young thing. No  knows exactly what happened on the honeymoon, but the tearful girl refused to see him any more and Sam Houston was quickly among those G.T.T.—or “Gone To Texas.” He arrived in time to lead the Texas army in its battle against Mexican leader Santa Anna. The Texans won quickly, overcoming a substantially larger Mexican force. But legend has it that Houston had the help of a patriotic young woman whose voice you hear so sweetly in the background.  The yellow rose of Texas is what we call her—a mulatto slave girl from a nearby plantation. The story goes that she kept Santa Anna occupied during the siesta hour so that Texans could make their surprise attack. Houston went on to become President of the Republic of Texas and the first governor when Texas became a state. in 1860 and 1861, he was a warning voice against secession and against joining the confederacy. Ultimately, his refusal to sign an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy cost him his governorship.

But back to the 1830s, there was another battle before San Jacinto, a battle the Texans did not win—The battle of the Alamo. Fewer than 200 courageous men tried to hold the Alamo against thousands of Santa Anna’s Mexican forces. It was a hopeless cause, but it was not a fight in vain. “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry for Texas independence. The voices of William Barrett Travis and Jim Bowie were last heard at the Alamo, yet I imagine that I hear them now echoing in our state song chorus.  The fiddler? That has to be Davie Crockett.  Fiddling was not his only talent. The Mexicans came to fear his deadly shot. He too was silenced at the Alamo.

Ah, there’s another charming soprano voice. That’s Cynthia Ann Parker. What a sad story she could tell. In 1836, her family was killed in a Comanche attack. She was captured and spent 25 years with the Comanche, marrying a brave who became a chief and bearing three children. In 1860, against her wishes, she and her baby daughter (Prairie Flower) were taken and returned to her white relatives. Her daughter died of pneumonia. Legend says Cynthia Ann Parker died of a broken heart. Her son Quannah took his mother’s name and, as Quannah Parker, became a famous Comanche chief.

Listen to the two strong voices leading now. Charles Goodnight and Captain Kleburg. Each one carved a vast cattle empire out of what had been the Texas Prairie. 

The song goes on, but there are more voices than I can name, yet everyone is important in the historic tapestry of this great state.  Listen, the refrain is ending now. . .

“God bless you Texas and keep you brave and strong

that you you might grow in power and worth

throughout the ages long”

Ladies! Let’s get dressed for the city in the 1850’s.

Imagine waking up, doing a quick sponge bath using the water pitcher and basin in your bedroom and beginning to dress…

Step one: Pull your knee-length cotton chemise over your head.

Step two: Step into your drawers or pantalettes—after checking the name in the waistband to be sure your laundress returned the correct pair. Straighten your drawers to be sure the large opening is aligned as necessary. Need I say more?

Step three: Pull on your knee length cotton stockings (perhaps silk stockings if you are well-to-do).

Step four: Secure your stockings with your garters so the stockings don’t slip down.

Step five: Put on your shoes or short boots, tying the laces. You learned early on that you need to put on your shoes before your constricting corset or you won’t be able to bend down to tie your shoes. If you are very fashion conscious, you may have a pair of short boots with a rubber gusset on the side of each shoe. This makes it easier to pull on your boots. If so, you send a silent thank you to the man who invented rubber.

Step six: Now you can put on your split front corset over your chemise and tighten the lacing in hopes of reducing your waist by two inches…but be sure you can still breathe! You don’t want to faint during the day.

Step seven: Add an under-petticoat…or more than one.

Step eight: Put on your cage crinoline—a device consisting of concentric steel hoops attached with string to create a dome shape. You might forgo this if you are dressing casually today and instead add multiple (perhaps as many as seven) petticoats including a crinoline petticoat stiffened with horsehair.

Step nine: Since you’ve chosen to wear the cage crinoline today, you’ll need to add petticoats to hide the look of the cage crinoline frame under your skirt. One of these petticoats might be the horsehair-stiffened crinoline.

Step ten: Tie a small pocket around your waist. You’ll reach your pocket through a hidden slit in your skirt, so you’ll want to align the pocket so you can reach your handkerchief. Add a clean hanky.

Step eleven: Following the fashion of the day, your dress is two pieces, a full skirt and a high necked bodice with bow trimmed, wide pagoda sleeves expanding from the shoulder. The bows on your sleeves match the bows on the skirt. If you haven’t already done so, you’ll need to prepare your bodice by quickly stitching on a freshly laundered white collar and puffy under sleeves which are tight at the wrist. Your dress does not need laundering as often when collar and under sleeves are kept fresh and clean.

Step twelve: The skirt goes on first, remember to align it for pocket access. Then add the jacket-like bodice that extends over your hips

Step thirteen: Fix your hair, by parting it in the center and brushing it down and arranging it to cover the ears. Then, tie your hat under your chin. Straighten the piece of fabric attached to the back of your hat to hide your neck.

Step fourteen: You’re also almost ready. Pin on a brooch, perhaps the mourning brooch made from your late grandmother’s hair. A sweet remembrance.

Step fifteen: Put your pocket watch on its decorative chain into a watch pocket on your bodice.

Step sixteen: Toss a lovely shawl across your shoulders, leaving one side to drape across your skirt.

Step seventeen: Gloves in hand, you are ready for your day.

It is important to note however, that women in small towns and the country (that would be most everyone in Texas in the 1850s) dressed a bit more simply.

Is it any wonder that bloomers made their appearance at this point in history?

In 1851, in Seneca Falls New York, three feminist leaders, including Amelia Jenks Bloomer dared to wear their new reform costume: a short skirt worn over Turkish trousers— a protest over the increasingly restrictive and elaborate women’s clothing. Although many women probably looked longingly at the simpler, more comfortable bloomers, the garment never became mainstream dress. Alas, the world was not ready for women in trousers.

Ladies Podcast photo

Interview: BJ Mayo, author of Alfie Carter

BJ Mayo lives in West Texas on a working farm. He talks with Laurie about his new book, Alfie Carter. A story of contrasts, the novel’s two main characters live on two different continents. One is a young girl who has been caught up in the horrific tribal wars in Angola, Africa, but has maintained her sweet spirit. The other is a man whose grief has made him angry and mean. Mayo’s story brings them together and the result is both surprising and inspiring. This interview is the first in an occasional chat with a Texan who is making Texas history today.

BJ Mayo