A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Early in 1902, the Federal Government ordered that all cattle not currently grazing on their home range be returned to where they legally belonged.  Some were as far as several hundred miles or more from where they should be grazing.

Foraging on the home range of their owner or reservation land which was properly leased was appropriate.  However, it was illegal if they were grazing elsewhere.

At the beginning of the “open range” era, the large and international cattle companies ran roughshod over the small rancher and homesteader.  They paid no attention to the Indian reservations and when they did, the number of cattle for which they agreed to pay a fee were never equal to those actually pasturing on Indian land.

Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt buffalo.  Inspired and captivated by the western lifestyle, and the cattle business flourishing in the territory, he invested $14,000 and hoped to become a successful cattle rancher.  For the next several years he traveled back and forth between his home in New York and his ranch near Medora in what is now North Dakota.

He learned to ride western style, rope, and became knowledgeable in the cattle industry on the Little Missouri River.  He did earn the respect of the local and long time cowboys; however, they were not easily “carried away” by him.

Roosevelt, did however identify with the cowboy of that time who he wrote “does possess, to a very high degree, the many stern qualities that are invaluable to a nation.”  He embarked on a writing career about frontier life for national magazines and he also published three books.

He wrote about and addressed the common interests of the average citizen in the West.  He organized ranchers to deal with the problems of overgrazing.  His efforts and activities resulted in the formation of the Little Missouri Stockmen’s Association and he was instrumental in numerous conservation activities.

After the disastrous and severe winter of 1886 – 87 wiped out his herd of cattle and those of his competitors, he returned to the East.  Although he suffered financially from the ranching experience, he could not be called an “ineffectual intellectual.”  This was later to be an asset to him in his political career.

After Roosevelt was elected President in 1901, the large ranchers and cattle operators realized that overgrazing and where their cattle foraged would be one of his first concerns which would affect them.  This resulted in the 1902 roundup in South Dakota and other states west of the Missouri River.

In South Dakota, those involved in the 1902 roundup were organized into fifteen different sections covering the entire state and parts of northern Nebraska, western Wyoming, southeastern Montana, and southwestern North Dakota.  In each section, the cattle not on their home range were to be driven back to their home territory.

The roundup in South Dakota was organized by the South Dakota Stock Growers Association.  They ordered that those working the roundup were to meet at the mouth of the Little White River for a final check of the cattle before being returned to their home range.  It was here that they were met by the northern and western wagons who had covered the range all the way into Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota.

From the mouth of the Little White River, the final sorting area extended for about fifteen to twenty miles west, east, and south.  There were riders everywhere and each cowboy had a special function, yet he was always watching and alert for whatever was required of him at the moment.

For these cowboys, the work was hard and sleep was limited.  One South Dakota citizen commenting on fighting the elements and the struggle to survive in 1902 said:  “It sure don’t take long to sleep here.”


The program at the meeting of the Gregory County Historical Society meeting tonight (August 10th) in Burke is on the “1902 Roundup” in the area west of the Missouri River.  With the arrival of the homesteader and barb wire, this was the end of the large roundups organized by the South Dakota Stock Growers Association.

At the 1911 meeting of the SDSGA in Rapid City, officials pleaded for the continuation of the state organization.  The secretary of the American National Livestock Association said: “There will be no more round-ups, but if I read the sign right there will be more cattle in South Dakota in the future than ever before.  Conditions are changing everywhere — in the Texas Panhandle, in Wyoming and in Montana.”

In 1892 there were a number of stockmen’s organizations in South Dakota; however, by 1911 there was only one.  The Northwestern Stock Growers Association at Belle Fourche was the last rival to the SDSGA to disband.  Until the end, it felt very strongly that the SDSGA favored the large rancher over the small, independent rancher.

Those coming to the Historical Society meeting this evening at 7:00 p.m. in the Burke Civic Center should bring a pen.  A 20-page outline with maps of the 1902 roundup will be distributed to those in attendance tonight.



Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on August 10, 2022

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