The Evolution of Cattle Ranching in 19th Century America

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

American Cowboys TAKE the Great Plains

We have all seen the cowboys in the movies and our favorite western TV shows. The classic western has been a staple in American cinematography for many decades. So where does this fascination with gun-toting, good vs. evil cowpoke stem from? Well, it would seem that the romanticized lifestyle of a cowboy has gripped Americans dating at least back to the mid 19th century. Ranching in the 1800’s was certainly not a new profession, but for Americans, there was new opportunity following the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

Mexico once spanned much of what is today’s western United States prior to the war. The United States, under the presidency of James K. Polk, was chasing manifest destiny, the idea that it was their duty and right, ordained by God, to expand the nation to the west coast. To achieve this goal, America was prepared to roll over whomever stood between them and the Pacific Coast. Following a controversial standoff and battle between Mexico and newly annexed Texas, war erupted. For full details on the war, check out’s article Mexican-American War. After two years of fighting, America was the victor. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed, and the Mexican people were forced out of a huge portion of what was once their territory (See map). America had achieved its manifest destiny, but at Mexico’s expense.

Mexican Cession – Via Wikemedia Commons

*FUN FACT – Hiram Clay Kellogg’s father, Benjamin Kellogg, “enlisted in John C. Fremont’s California Battalion. His company made a long hazardous march to the battlefront near Los Angeles, only to discover that the Mexican Army had surrendered the day before they arrived.” (See full article on the Kellogg family here).*

The history of America’s expansion is not pretty, in many more ways than just the Mexican-American War, and warrants a lot more attention than is given here. For the purposes of this blog, the focus moving forward will remain on the evolution of cattle ranching and the social and economic impact brought about in American culture as a result. So how does this war and expansion tie in to those classic American cowboys? Well, much of the land that was newly claimed from Mexico, was fertile ranching land. The Mexican people that lived on this land previously, had already been ranching the plains for many decades prior to their evacuation directly resulting from the Mexican-American War. As they moved off the land, they left their cattle, and their ranches behind, “The animals roamed the range unsupervised as the men who once raised them went off to fight; others simply gave up tending the creatures as hostilities cut off the market for their meat in southern cities like New Orleans” (Steinberg, 2013, p.129). It must have been as though gold itself was placed on a platter for the American people. Now, enter the American Cowboy, to ranges beyond that of the Southern United States regions.

There is debate whether the ranching techniques utilized by the American ranchers in their new land were more influenced by the Mexican ranchers there before them, or by the already established American ranches in the South. There is likely overlap between both ranching styles. Regardless, in the pursuit of profit, ranchers and those benefiting from ranches implemented technology to protect, organize, and transport their livestock. With this surge in the ranching lifestyle, life on the range was bustling, and with this breath of new life, came change. The cowboy that has been so prevalent in American media, has been an American dream and fantasy for well over a century. Of course, many of the cowboys depicted on the silver screen are likely to be much different than the real cowpoke of the 19th century. Simply consider the idealism that seems to have been sweeping the American mind long before any movie or TV show was ever created.


Largely due to the free grazing ranching technique utilized before fence legislation, thieves and questions of property ownership regarding cattle plagued the Great Plains. These issues brought about a need to protect the rancher’s stock, so they did not lose out on selling any of their cattle. Bitterness between neighboring ranch owners boiled as unclaimed cattle, or presumably unclaimed cattle roamed freely. Branding the cows with branding irons became common practice to protect ownership.

Brand Makeover – via Modern Farmer

Brands would be registered by ranch owners, much like a company today must register their logo and brand, and burnt onto the skin of cattle claimed by ranch owners. Greed and questions of property ownership plagued the Great Plains, which created tension between neighbors, and forced ranchers to figure the best ways to protect their future profiting from their cattle.

*If you are interested in blacksmithing, and the techniques behind blacksmithing that would have been used to shape metal into things such as branding irons, check out the Orange County Blacksmith Guild!*


Railroads began to penetrate the West and brought a new way to transport livestock to market that transformed the way in which cattle was delivered to potential buyers. The product could be delivered directly to the customers looking to buy, and in vast quantities. Rather than herding livestock over great distances, cattle could be taken to trains which were then loaded up and delivered in a relatively quick timetable compared to the amount of time it would take to walk the cattle to different markets with horses and wagons. New markets consequently opened up because ranchers could also travel much greater distances with relative ease, resulting in greater profit. The establishment and use of railroads across the United States marked a key economic upturn for ranchers across the country.

“Building Railroad”, via Wikimedia Commons


Now, going the opposite way on the tracks, people began moving themselves to these ranch-lands to chase opportunities for new life in the western regions of the United States. Here is where the romanticized idea of being a true cowboy comes up once again. People were wanting to live new lives with miles of country ahead of them. Theodore Roosevelt himself, observed the boom in “cow-towns” caused by railroads and a want for opportunity, in the late 19th century especially, “A true ‘cow town is worth seeing, […] the whole place is full to overflowing, […] drawing from the surrounding ranch country many hundreds of men of every degree” (Roosevelt, 1888, p. 500). People of all kinds were coming to the West to try their hand at this “cow-town” living. Thus, all the necessities found in a typical town began cropping up as people discovered their place and roles.

Women had new opportunities, flexibility, and a chance to thrive on their own volition, in many ways overcoming societal pressures and norms of the 19th century America, “A good horsewoman with courage and endurance can find a vast field for her out-of-door inclinations in managing a cattle ranch” (“Women as Ranch Owners,” 1887). For some great stories on women taking advantage of some of these opportunities that were now at hand, see the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s article: Not Just a Housewife: The Changing Roles of Women in the West. The railroad industry itself was providing new occupational opportunities for women as well, “women had made significant and lasting contributions to the historic operation. The female connection with railroading dates as far back as 1838, when women were hired as registered nurses/stewardesses in passenger cars. Those ladies attended to the medical needs of travelers and acted as hostesses of sorts, helping passengers have a comfortable journey” (Enss, 2017).

As new folks entered the towns from the trains, they had to be mindful of the cowboys who had already been there and running the surrounding areas. Roosevelt again describes, “for [cowboys] are, […] very good fellows, and the most determined and effective foes of real law-breakers, such as horse and cattle thieves, murderers, etc.” (Roosevelt, 1888, p. 503). As the towns grew, the cowboys who already called the West home, took it upon themselves to demonstrate their ideas of justice, which caused any newcomers to think twice before starting trouble. These unique ranching towns burst into life, resulting from the sudden clashing of many different peoples brought on by the establishment of railroad transportation.


As the Great Plains became more populous in the second half of the 19th century

with both people and cattle, fences began popping up which brought about an end to the open-range style of ranching, and the land started to get divided up, “By having fenced-in ranges the stock can be apportioned judiciously to the capacity of the pasturage; the cattle become tamed and more easily and safely handled; the cattle become more apt to breed and less liable to accidents” (Ingersoll, 1886, p. 558). Fence laws were put in place to help alleviate issues of wandering cattle, land ownership, and the death of cattle by the trains that were now cutting through the ranch lands. The laws put in place required cattle to be in an enclosure. If cattle from other ranches broke into an enclosed property, the responsible party for that cattle must compensate for the damages (Kawashima, 2010). These new fences consequently also brought about brand new challenges altogether.

The Problem with Railroads

Train companies were being required to fence off their tracks to prevent incidents of cattle wandering in front of a train. Legislation would also later pass that held train companies liable for any damages to livestock that may result from their passing through. Rail lines cut straight through previously established properties, but ranchers often had no fencing to be able to lay claim to a boundary. Thousands of cattle were killed by trains, and thus thousands in revenue was lost, “In 1876, […] the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway Company alone killed 1,948 animals in the three states where it operated, costing about $25,000” (Kawashima, 2010, p. 25). Therefore, while the trains brought opportunity in some ways, in other ways they brought great harm.


With this new way of dividing the land, people began buying property more frequently and fenced off their settlements, which strained the ranchers already present who had established claims to the land, who again, had no fencing built to prove their claims to those boundaries. There were too many people dividing the grazing land to be able to maintain a thriving ranching environment, simply too many people to all be ranchers (Elofson, 2004). The more fenced property that became present meant less room for cattle on individual ranch properties, and less room meant less grazing. Overgrazing became the cause for the death of thousands of cattle across the range lands (Steinberg, 2013, p. 130-131).


Storms in the Great Plains regions were a particularly nasty problem for ranchers. The fences that were being put up, served their purpose almost too well. Meaning that when disaster struck, the herds of cows had nowhere to go, and livestock was simply trapped against the fence lines until their eventual death brought about by whatever storm was rolling through, “It was found by [ranchers] that their cattle drifted before the terrific blizzards that sweep over the treeless plain

s and were driven against the south line of their fences, and not being able to go further, froze to death by the thousands” (Dorsey, 1886). With the incorporation of barbed wire, you can imagine that the problem of cattle being stuck against a fence line, probably heightened.

“1886 Blizzard”, via National Weather Service

Barbed Wire

Fencing up property proved difficult to those ranchers not fortunate to have a railroad company pay for their fence expenses. Resources for building fencing began to disappear. Therefore, many people started turning towards the presumably more efficient barbed wire fencing. Barbed wire fencing consisted of wires wrapped around posts and then stretched between two posts. Each strand of wire has two wires twisted together to reinforce the stability of the fence. The barbs themselves, sharp metal knots, were placed along the twisted wires (“Barbed Wire Fence,” 1875, p. 137). The prices to build these fences were ultimately more expensive, but the theory

was that they would save money in the future, “The cost was merely nominal and it answered all the purposes of a good fence; the cows were never hurt by it; they smelt of it when first turned out, and evidently concluded that it was best to leave it severely alone” (“Barbed Wire Fence,” 1883, p. 1). The barbed wire fence was effective at keeping cattle out of areas ranchers did not want them to go. The threat of injury kept livestock distanced from the fences and therefore made it easier to control where the cattle went. However, if one of those big storms rolled through the ranch lands and pushed the livestock against this new fencing, they would quite literally be stuck, and would almost assuredly die. It seems that every solution to a new problem, created its own new set of problems in the Great Plains. It was certainly an ever-evolving region.

Barbed Wire Advertisement, via Wikimedia Commons

Refrigerated Cars

The introduction of the refrigerated train car brought some prosperity for ranchers as it revolutionized how their product was being delivered to the market. The previous method of delivering livestock on trains was inhumane and could taint the meat, “The practice of packaging live cattle […] into cars, and keeping them exposed to the heat and bad air, without water or food for days, is one that should be reprobated” (“Refrigerated Cars,” 1867). Obviously, with this sort of malnutrition occurring on those longer journeys by the rail, cattle was not coming to market very fresh and ready for consumption. Thus, leading to a loss in profit for ranchers, if they could not sell their malnourished cows.

“Early Refrigerator Car Design circa 1870”, via Citizendium

The refrigerator car provided a solution, ranchers would slaughter and dress their meat before making the journey to market. Then they would store the meat in a refrigerated train car for travel to market. This process of slaughtering livestock before delivery to markets was not an immediate success, “For one, [sellers] needed to overcome consumer resistance to the very thought of purchasing beef that had been butchered a thousand miles away” (Cronon, 1991, p. 235). The solution to the problem came with the cost of the product, “Dressed beef was typically one-half to one cent cheaper per pound than fresh beef” (Cronon, 1991, p. 235). Thus, people began buying the more affordable meat. Railroads began embracing the refrigerated car more and more as the markets for dressed beef grew, and it stopped becoming cost effective for them to pay for water and feed (Cronon, 1991). The refrigerated car had a slow start, but the markets picked up and ranchers and consumers alike benefited. The ranchers found a more cost-efficient way to deliver their product while consumers embraced a new way of obtaining meats that they enjoyed for less money.

So How does this all connect to Southern California and Orange County?

It has to be remembered that Alta California, now just California, was one of the locations lost by Mexico to the United States following the Mexican-American War. The Californios that lived on the land prior, began to be pushed out of their homes. It was not just the war that brought this shift either, the Gold Rush was looming. If the Californios were slow to vacate their land, they would soon find themselves being displaced by the new American settlers in California. The cattle ranching in Alta California that took place prior to American settlement, was mostly aimed at selling the hides of their livestock rather than the meat. This shifted as the Americans started to take over. Similar to how people stormed into the Great Plains regions to raise livestock for the beef industry, so too did the new pioneers in Southern California. The ranges in Southern California were prime for raising beef to be fed to emigrants looking to strike it rich in the Gold Rush.

Much of what is now Orange County was very much utilized as cattle ranching land for most of the 19th century. For more information on the Rancho period, see our California Ranchos exhibit. While growth was happening on the ranges of the Plains, so too were the ranges right here in Southern California. These ranchlands that have been divided up over time, and the ranch owners, are in many ways the shapers of much of Orange County’s history.

It is amazing how much one commodity, such as cattle ranching, can drive change in a nation. The fascination with the ranching lifestyle as a means of making a living and the explosion of different meetings between very different peoples catalyzed drastic changes across the United States in the 19th century.


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