A Note from Cottonwood Corners

On March 4, 1797, George Washington attended the inauguration of his successor, John Adams.  By attending the inauguration, Washington created a precedent which has been followed for the past two-hundred and twenty-three years whenever a new president assumes the office.

After Adams was administered the oath of office and the ceremony was over, he was approached by Washington and he congratulated him and wished that his administration would be happy, successful, and honorable.  “Ay!  I am fairly out, and you fairly in.  See which of us will be the happiest.”

When Adams left the hall where he had been sworn in, Vice President Jefferson waited for the now former President Washington to precede him.  Washington was now a private citizen and was unwilling to hold on to any of the honors of his former office.  Even in this act, Washington was setting the standard for the government of a free and independent people.  Once again, the “greatest man in the world” was surrendering power and assuring the peaceful and orderly succession.

On July 4, 1803, then President Thomas Jefferson announced that the United States had secured the Louisiana Purchase from France for four cents an acre.  Immediately, the size of the country more than doubled in size.  Jefferson’s political opponents griped:  “We are to give money of which we have too little for land of which we already have too much.”

The New York Post, owned by Alexander Hamilton, condemned the treaty as “the greatest curse that ever befell this country.”  The President of Harvard University warned that:  “Thick skinned beasts will crowd Congress Hall, Buffaloes from the head of the Missouri and Alligators from the Red River.”

Jefferson had been planning an expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back for the past ten years.  Political leaders had been seeking a Northwest Passage to the Orient for centuries.

The son of President John Adams, John Quincy Adams, said that “The Louisiana Purchase would be ‘next in historical importance to the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution.’”

The Louisiana Purchase was the greatest land deal in history.  It added 828,000 square miles of rich, well-watered lands to the country and caused the most spectacular land rush in this country’s history.  Much of this land later became known as “the great plains.”  It was also often referred to as the “Great American Desert.”  Just recently it has been labeled as the “Buffalo Commons.”

In 1803, President Jefferson believed that the addition of the Louisiana Purchase to the public domain would satisfy the needs of land-hungry Americans for at least 500 years.  However; by 1890, eighty-seven years later, the “open-range” had ended.  Homesteaders, barb wire, the windmill, and overstocking the range were all reasons for the end of the open range.

The blizzard of 1886-87 was also the reason a number of the large ranchers failed.  It was an incredibly harsh winter killing many cattle and cowboys with the temperatures dropping to -55 degrees.

The first cold front hit in November.  More storms followed in December, with eighteen inches falling between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  What limited hay they had was mostly used to feed their horses.  In the meantime, the cattle drifted from the frozen high ranges to the bottom land and sheltered ravines.  In some areas the only food was willows.

The first Chinook came in January and melted only the snow on top.  Then there was an extreme drop in temperature.  On February 3 and 4 one of the worst blizzards that cowboys could remember set in.  The snow crusted.  The Chinook had sealed the ground with a layer of ice, which the cattle were unable to penetrate.  Cattle are not rustlers.  A horse will paw and get grass, but a cow won’t.

The deep snow prevented the cattle from reaching the grass and about 15% of the open range herds died.  It was then that the wolves and coyotes fattened themselves on the cattle that had frozen to death.  Those who survived the storm were in terrible condition and many would die later.

Without any doubt, the best painting which illustrates the plight of a starving cow is “The Last 5000 (Waiting for a Chinook)” by Charles M. Russell.  Russell, a Montana artist, simply painted the picture of a starving cow about to drop before ravenous wolves.  His painting conveys the impending disaster more eloquently than any written comment.

If you are not familiar with this painting, go to your computer and google either “Last of the Five Thousand” or “Waiting for a Chinook”.  Click on the image and you will get a screen size view of this remarkable, yet disturbing illustration.  It will have an impact on you and how you view the struggle that thousands and thousands of livestock faced on the open range without adequate feed and protection from the weather.

With the end of the open range, ranching and the work of the cowboy changed.  The definition of a “big rancher” changed from between 10,000 and 25,000 in the 1880s to between 50 and 1000 head by 1904.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on December 15, 2021

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