Whenever you hear someone mention the “1902 Roundup,” you automatically think about the rounding up of all cattle west of the Missouri River which had strayed from their home range. Most had traveled to the southeast during the winter months because of the blizzards, deep snow covering the grass, and the bitter winds. Some were even moved along by their owners to save the forage on their own range and also save their cattle from starvation.
This roundup involved at least fifteen different outfits that started at different locations west of the river. Their location to assemble and begin locating all strays had been determined earlier by the Western South Dakota Stock Growers Association. They began their task on May 25.
A foreman had been selected for each team who had considerable experience and knowledge of earlier roundups in Dakota. He was responsible for giving instructions and making assignments, shaping important decisions, and settling disagreements regarding unbranded and unattended livestock. Whatever decisions he made were final. It should be pointed out that all fifteen of these fellas were gentlemen who had the highest standards and their word was their “contract.”
Each outfit had a specific area to search and all eventually arrived south of Westover in what is now Mellette County. It was here that they worked the cattle and separated them by brand. They were then driven across the White River and eventually handed off to their owners who had a chuck wagon and crew of cowboys to take their cattle home. This was believed by most to be the largest roundup conducted in South Dakota.
Perhaps you are not aware that this was not the only roundup of stray livestock conducted in South Dakota that summer. The Dakota Farmers’ Leader at Canton contained this headline on March 28: “ROUNDUP OF HORSES — Meeting Will Be Held at Fort Pierre to Arrange for It.”
A meeting had been organized for April 1 at Fort Pierre.
The intent was: “. . . . to work the entire range. During the meeting a foremen of the roundup will be selected and levies made to cover the roundup expenses. There are hundreds of stray horses distributed over the great ranges west of the Missouri River. For several years no one except a few men have paid any attention to horses, the cattle business occupying the attention of nearly every stockman. It is proposed to place in a convenient pasture all stray horses found by the roundup parties, where the owners can identify them.”
The Mitchell Capital of April 18 reported that the spring roundup for BOTH cattle and horses would begin on May 25th. A program and schedule was distributed to those involved in the roundup and ranchers between the Missouri River and the Black Hills.
Perhaps it might seem inappropriate to refer to men who worked on a horse roundup as a cowboy. However, there is no more appropriate term for those men who formed and conducted the horse roundups. These were fellows who searched for the horses on the open range and rounded them up. They selected the ones which were fit for shipment to market and released the remainder back on their home range.
The horse roundups were conducted in the same manner as the cattle roundups. A prescribed number of riders with first-class mounts assembled at appointed places – usually at or near a well-established ranch with adequate corals. A chuck wagon and bed wagon to carry the bedding and other supplies was a part of each outfit.
A foreman, the best horseman and someone who knew every foot of the range to be covered was selected. Throughout the open range, every stockman had a good corral at his home ranch. The routes were so arranged that the corralling of the horses could be done at these sites.
Those who raised large numbers of horses pooled their resources so as to get their colts located, branded, and returned to their home range. NOTE: There were some who opposed the branding of horses. They felt that the brand altered their appearance and reduced their value.
In August of 1902, the following story with a dateline of Sioux Falls appeared in a number of newspapers across South Dakota: “After strenuous efforts lasting two months or more, all stray horses in the vast region, embracing the ceded Sioux lands, between the Missouri River and the Black Hills in Western South Dakota, have been rounded up. This was the first thorough horse round-up for several years and required the services of a small army of men. The round-up at this time was due to the good prices brought by range horses. A few years ago they were valueless and the owners turned them adrift by the thousands to roam at will over an area as large as many Eastern states. Horses whose present market value is between $80,000 and $100,000 were rounded up and again placed upon the ranges of their owners, preparatory to being shipped to the Eastern markets. All the animals were found to be in good condition, showing they had not been injured by their several years’ abandonment on the great plain of the state.”
Today, “Ghost Riders in the Sky” are still chasing phantom cattle. “Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel. Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel. A bolt of fear shot through him as they thundered through the sky. He saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry.”
That was the life of the cowboy on the open range west of the Missouri. Only they could understand and appreciate that experience and feeling.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on March 16, 2022