The Cattle Business in the Gilded Age

Area 7: Industrialization and Progressivism (1880s-1920s)
Question: How did economic growth affect the quality of life within the U.S.?

Grass was free and profits were enormous in the cattle business in Wyoming Territory—for a while. The business dates to the 1850s, when a few entrepreneurs paid westbound emigrants for worn-out cattle, and then fattened them for resale. But the boom came in the decades after the Union Pacific Railroad connected Wyoming ranges to eastern markets. Cattle poured in from Texas and Oregon, and capital poured in from Britain and the American Northeast. For a short time it seemed as if every investor got rich. Soon, however, a weakening market and the overstocked range could not withstand two years of drought followed by a terrible winter. The big boom busted, following a pattern that would become familiar in the coming century in an economy based heavily on natural resources.

The article linked below, “The Wyoming Cattle Boom, 1868-1886,” offers substantial background on the topic for teachers and for students 8th grade and up. The article may be demanding for 6th and 7th graders.

Read “The Wyoming Cattle Boom 1868-1886”


1. The last of 5,000

During the disastrous winter of 1886-87, owners of a herd of 5,000 cattle on the plains of eastern Montana Territory sent cowboy Charlie Russell out to check on the animals’ condition. Instead of writing a report, he sent back a version of this picture. He titled it “Waiting for a Chinook: The Last of 5,000.” (A chinook is a warm wind that will melt the snow and ice.)

Look at the picture for at least 90 seconds. What do you see?

Together with its title, the picture tells a story. What has happened up to this point? What do you think is about to happen?

The winter of 1886-1887 was extremely severe in Montana and Wyoming territories. People often say that it put an end to the cattle boom on the northern Plains. After reading Samuel Western’s article, do you think that winter alone is the reason the boom went bust in Wyoming Territory? Write a few sentences explaining why or why not. Use examples from the article to defend or explain your answer.

2. Supply and Demand

When goods or services become more plentiful, prices for them generally fall. When goods or services are scarce, prices rise. That is, people are willing to pay more for things that are rare or hard to get. These are the forces—sometimes called “laws”—of supply and demand.

Look through the article again and see if you can locate a few facts. What was the lowest price paid for cattle from Wyoming between 1870 and 1910? When was that? What was the highest price? When was that? (Hint: Search the article for the word “hundredweight.”)

How many longhorn cattle may there have been in Texas after the Civil War? How many cattle may there have been on Wyoming ranges within 100 miles of Cheyenne in 1871? How many in all of Wyoming Territory in 1886?

Once you’ve found the facts, do the thinking. See if you can explain in a few sentences why cattle prices rose and fell as much as they did—and when they did. Explain in a few sentences. What is a bubble? Use examples from the article to defend or explain your answer.


3. Technology

In the decades after the Civil War, the United States was fast becoming an industrial nation, and Wyoming Territory was very much a part of it. Steam power and the telegraph speeded up transportation, communication and the flow of money—enormously.

Search the Samuel Western article for four more terms: “railroad;” “tinned beef” (Hint: “tinned” means “canned”); “refrigerated;” “capital.”

Once you’ve found the facts, do the thinking. Did the Industrial Revolution have anything to do with the cattle business in Wyoming Territory? Explain in a few sentences. Use examples from the article to defend or explain your answer.