Officially called the Great Cattle Extinction, it would come down in Western history as the Big Die-Up. When it ended, most of the large ranching operations on the Northern Range died up, as well. The old-time cattle industry, the trail drives that fed it, and the Old West itself, never recovered.
By the early 1880s, the large stock growers of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas were certain of one thing: an unlimited and fenceless expanse of grazing land for their burgeoning herds. With an estimated 5.7 million head of cattle driven to market or the Northern grasslands in the two decades leading up to 1886, the proverbial golden goose was alive and honking on the Northern Range. The dangers of overgrazing and the need for supplementary feeding were as yet unappreciated concepts, but that was about to change.
After several seasons of mild winters, gentle spring rain, tall grass, and flowing streams, a sudden combination of a rainless spring and a scorching hot summer dried up the water sources, burnt much of the grass to the roots, and left the entire region in a severe drought. By winter, millions of head were suffering badly, and in no condition to weather a harsh winter.
In November 1886, it started to snow, and kept snowing, with a blizzard ringing in the new year. It dropped over 1.5 feet of snow across the entire region, and carried with it gale-force winds and temperatures that plummeted to 50 degrees below zero. Then, things got worse. Rain fell, followed by a freeze, virtually sealing the little grass there was beneath a thick layer of snow and impenetrable ice. Cattle died of exposure and starvation, their frozen carcasses littering the plains and filling the draws.
Hardly any of the cattlemen—many who were absentee owners, living as far away as Scotland and England—had possessed the foresight to put in a store of hay against such a disaster. It has been estimated that at least 90 percent of the cattle on the Northern Ranges perished. When spring brought the thaw, it revealed millions of dead cows, dotting the plains to the horizon, damming the rivers and streams, and raising a stench that wafted over thousands of square miles, with an unimaginable throat-closing intensity.
The winter of 1886–87 finished the majority of the stock growers outright, and forever changed the role of the cowboy. Most were driven out of work, and took to “riding the chuck-line” for meals and shelter. But a number of the large ranches that had previously opened their doors to out-of-work cowboys no longer existed, or simply couldn’t—or wouldn’t—offer the traditional hospitality. Driven from the only work they knew, some cowboys took to making their way with a long rope and a running iron, rustling the cattle they had once been paid to herd.
Those who managed to continue raising cattle did so with smaller herds. Of necessity, they became farmers, as well, growing their own fodder and erecting miles of barbed wire fences to keep their cattle from ranging too far from their food supply. The cowboy’s Old West would always live on in myth, but the reality lay buried along with millions of head of cattle, beneath one brutal winter’s snow and ice. It ended many men’s dreams of a cattle empire, and marked paid forever to the days of the Open Range.