Monday, January 11, 2016

Just Take Them Sheep Right On Outta Here

By Kathleen Rice Adams

Sheep Raid in Colorado (Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 1877)
Texans are resilient. They defeated the Mexicans — twice — took a beating during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and then chased the Comanche clean out of the state and into Oklahoma. All of those events were watershed moments in Texas history.

And so was the day they came.

Sheep. Hundreds of thousands of them, munching their way across the land like woolly locusts. The sight of a single woollyback could boil a cattleman’s blood. The critters trampled the range, close-cropped the forage, and left behind an odor neither cattle nor man could abide. They also carried “sheep scab,” a type of mange to which cattle were susceptible.

As if all of that weren’t enough, pastores herded sheep on foot, not horseback. Horses were a status symbol in the Old West. Cowboys figuratively and literally “looked down on” mutton-punchers.

Sheep are not native to Texas, although they’ve been in the state since padres brought Spanish stock with them in the 1700s. The animals provided both food and clothing, so no mission was without a flock.

In 1800, 5,000 head of sheep lived along the Rio Grande in far south Texas. By 1870, 700,000 woollies had moved in, primarily with Germans and other Europeans who immigrated to central and western Texas. By 1890, the state was home to 3.5 million of the critters. Of the 30 million sheep in the U.S. in the middle of the twentieth century, one-third were in Texas. At that time, the state produced 95 percent of the country’s merino wool.

The Plains Herder, NC Wyeth, 1909
Due to market fluctuations, drought, and some disastrous government programs, in 2012 the entire ovine population of the U.S. stood at only 5.3 million; 650,000 of those, still the largest bunch by more than 100,000 animals, were in Texas. To this day, mutton, lamb, and wool make a significant contribution to Texas’s economy.

Ranchers in the mid- to late-1800s never would have believed such a thing possible. In fact, they went to great lengths to prevent the possibility. The notorious clashes between sheepmen and cattlemen that scarred the entire West began on Charles Goodnight’s ranch in Texas. Between 1875 and 1920, one hundred twenty serious confrontations occurred in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado. Across the four states, at least fifty-four men died and 100,000 sheep were slaughtered.

Real and imagined problems led to the sheep wars. Texas cattlemen already were becoming testy with one another over grazing and water rights. Add sheep — which, as a means of finding other flock members, spray the ground with a noxious scent excreted by a gland above their hooves — and the range got a little smaller. Add “sheep drifters” who grazed their flocks on other folks’ land or public property because they owned no territory of their own, and the situation became volatile. Add barbed-wire fence…and everything exploded.

The Texas legislature outlawed grazing sheep on cattle range without permission and on public land at all. Cattle and horses faced no such restrictions. Consequently, sheepmen were among the first to throw up fences in order to keep their flocks in and other animals out. Sheep fences lit one of the first matches in what became known as the Texas Fence-Cutter War, which blazed across more than half the state from the mid-1870s through 1884. The cattlemen erected their own fences, and soon everyone was at someone else’s throat. The fence war died down, for the most part, when the legislature criminalized fence-cutting in 1884.

Soon thereafter, cattlemen were shocked — and somewhat relieved — to discover good fences really do make good neighbors. They also discovered mutton and wool sold even when a mysterious disease known as Texas Fever made driving cattle to the railheads in other states well-nigh impossible.

Today, many Texas ranches run sheep right along with their cattle, and all the critters get along just fine on the same range.

Of course, had stubborn Texans on both sides of the fence paid attention to the native Indians who’d been running cattle and sheep together for a hundred years before the trouble started, they might have spared themselves considerable aggravation.

(In case anyone’s curious, my Peacemaker-nominated novel Prodigal Gun is loosely based on events that took place during the Texas Fence-Cutter War. There’s more information at the link, which goes to my website.)

A Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperadoes. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s stories, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the coveted 2015 Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun received a 2015 Peacemaker nomination for Best First Western Novel.

Visit her hideout on the web at


  1. Excellent work, Kathleen.

    Believe it or not, that's all I have to say. :D

    1. OMG. Did the earth just shift on its axis? I wondered about that jolt this morning. ;-)

  2. Kathleen,

    I have only one thing to say, "Baahhhh!"

    Very well done even if it is about sheep.

    1. Et tu with the baaaad puns, Charlie? ;-)

      Glad you like the post. (I'm not a fan of sheep, either.) :-)

  3. I've been fascinated by the whole sheep/cattle debate for years. In Colorado, 'wool growing' was a top producer of income in the late 1800's and we've always had sheep, thanks to a large Spanish population in part. Some ranches raised both on their properties. Such a fascinating subject. Thanks for adding more info one of my research addictions. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines=author

  4. I'm a goat fan, myself. Love their cheese. But I suppose sheep wool is best. Great article!