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”