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A Gentleman Rancher

Through straight talking and fair play, Murdo Mackenzie built a cattle empire.
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Credit: Erwin E. Smith | Library of Congress The Matador outfit eating at the chuckwagon at the time Murdo Mackenzie (center, with black hat and beard) took over the management of the ranch.

Credit: Erwin E. Smith | Library of Congress The Matador outfit eating at the chuckwagon at the time Murdo Mackenzie (center, with black hat and beard) took over the management of the ranch.

Known for his hard work, dedication, and commitment to square dealing, American Stock Growers Association founder Murdo Mackenzie (1850–1939) was a member of what has always seemed like a dying breed.

Mackenzie was born in 1850 to tenant farmers in Edderton, Scotland. Eager to improve his fortunes, he studied law before settling down as a banker. He worked his first three years without pay, but Murdo was never one to complain. “The money a young man receives from his early work is, or should be, the very least of the benefits he gains from it,” he told the The American Magazine in 1922.

He eventually earned full employment, but the meager salary left him looking for extra work. He’d been moonlighting as assistant manager for a large sheep farm for several years when his dedication finally paid off. A lawyer who’d done businesses with Mackenzie and noted his strong moral character recommended him for a position as accounts manager at the Scottish-owned Prairie Land and Cattle Company in Trinidad, Colo. Now married with five children, the young Scot set sail for America.

The year 1885 was not an easy time in the Western American cattle market; in fact, it could be downright dangerous. Cattle thieves were common and even the smallest disputes were settled by gunfire. On top of that, many ranchers were strapped for cash as well as safety as they staked their fortunes in the frontier.

Mackenzie dealt with each struggle in turn. He realized that if he was going to succeed in the West, it wouldn’t be because of skill with a six-shooter. Instead, he stared down many a pistol barrel unarmed, without backing down. Within six years, that gunless grit earned him the position of mayor of Trinidad. 

Following his term as mayor, Mackenzie took on the directorship of Matador Land and Cattle Company. There, he revolutionized their stock of Texas Longhorns through a careful process of breeding upward. His largest contribution to cattle, however, came not from his time in the pens, but rather his time in the capital. He was selected by local cattlemen to travel to the White House and plead their case for the regulation of railway fees, which were crippling ranchers’ profits. 

Mackenzie was met by newly sworn-in President Theodore Roosevelt, who appeared ready to offer him nothing more than a quick dismissal. As always, Mackenzie stood his ground. After a terse moment, the straight-talking leaders became lifelong friends. Not long thereafter, rate regulations were put in place.

At age 61, after founding the American Stock Growers Association and serving terms as president for the American National Live Stock Association, Mackenzie left America for a new frontier in Brazil. There, he began again improving stock, cultivating industry, and stabilizing a young and rollicking market.

Mackenzie returned to the U.S. in 1919 to resume management of Matador. He worked up until the age of 87 when his son, John Mackenzie, took over. He died May 30, 1939, in Denver, Colorado.

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