During the last half of the 1800’s, the land that is now Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas was for the most part miles and miles of open country, interrupted by the settlements of a few courageous settlers. They were willing to brave the isolation and bitter conditions of the prairie in hopes of finding adventure and a decent living.
Many of those who came from the east (including the eminent adventurer himself, Theodore Roosevelt) came for the cattle business. The open range with no fences meant that grazing land was easy to come by and ranchers could own enormous herds of cattle. The Modern Farmer reported that between 1866 and 1885, about 5.7 million cattle were driven to market or northern ranges.
During the last half of the 1870’s and the early part of the 1880’s, the cool summers and mild winters meant that feeding cattle was relatively easy. Grass and feed were plentiful.
But everything changed in the disastrous winter of 1886 – 87. That winter was especially hard on the upper Great Plains.
The prairie was scorched by the blazing hot summer of 1886, so when the snow started falling in early November much of the livestock on the frontier were already starving and inadequately equipped for a hard winter. This problem became a catastrophe when, on January 9, 1887, a blizzard hit the area, covering parts of the Great Plains in more than 16 inches of snow. The wind whipped the snow into huge drifts and the temperatures dropped to more than fifty below zero.
Very few of the ranchers had any hay stored for their cattle. Many of the cows that were not killed by the cold weather soon died from starvation.
When spring finally arrived, millions of the cattle were dead from Montana to Texas with about 90 percent of the open range’s cattle rotting where they fell. Those cowboys and ranchers who survived that bitter winter reported carcasses as far as the eye could see. Dead cattle were everywhere — piled against fence lines, stacked in the coulees, and clogging the rivers and streams. Suitable drinking water was difficult to find.
Many of these ranchers went bankrupt. Others, including young Theodore Roosevelt simply called it quits and moved back east where conditions appeared to be less demanding. They referred to the winter of 1886 – 87 as “The Great Die-Up.” It was called that in mock recognition of the annual “round-up.” That winter, only the wolves and coyotes prospered.
One Montana rancher in the summer of 1886 noticed that his horses had thicker and longer coats than usual. He also recorded that the weather pattern throughout the spring, summer, and fall repeated what had happened in 1885. He took some precautions by cutting grass and storing it for winter feed, but nowhere enough to feed his entire herd.
The rare white owl from the Arctic was found on the northern plains. Even the cattlemen took the sighting of the bird as a strong omen. They remembered that the white owl fled from the north, staying ahead of unusually cold winter weather storms.
Vulnerable cowboys, working for a dollar a day, bundled up in two of everything. Some would cover the outside of their boots with water and stand them outside until they froze before stepping into them. This was to act as insulation against the outside cold air. Some made sheepskin packs to wrap around their feet and lower legs.
They covered their faces with black coal dust and black rags to keep from going blind in the whiteout. Many of them froze to death in their saddles. Their bodies were stacked in snow banks or sheds until spring when the frozen ground finally thawed and the bodies could be properly buried. This resulted in countless unmarked graves at unknown sites all across the prairie.
Although it was not known or recognized at the time, this memorable blizzard altered the development of the west. It also transformed the direction that America’s agriculture would take in the future. The image of western cattle ranching changed forever.
Cattlemen were forced to make changes in their industry. They went to smaller herds, winter shelters, and they began to fence their range. They began farming operations in order to grow food for the animals that they owned. Conservation of grass became a new practice.
Mowers, rakes, hayracks, and pitch forks became necessary standard equipment for the cattleman. Cowboys now had additional jobs — fixing fence, stacking hay, building shelters, enclosing water sources, and feeding hay to cattle in the winter.
Before he left Dakota Territory (Medora, D. T.) and returned to New York, Theodore Roosevelt in a letter to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge wrote: “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.”
For the roving cowboys, the winter of 1886 – 87 marked the end of an era. The farmers and ranchers of the territory remembered that winter as one of abundant snow and unusually severe cold. The breakup of the Missouri in the spring was marked by massive flooding and countless bodies of cattle floating downstream.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on March 10, 2021