22 May 2008

From Bison to Beef: The Open Range Era

By Ken Robison

This continues the series of sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

During this summer the entrance to The Museum of the Northern Plains will feature a photographic exhibition in tribute to Montana’s Open Range Ranching Era [1870s-1900], when tens of thousands of cattle ranged freely across Central Montana. Through the pages of The River Press we will feature highlights of pioneer ranchers and cowboys from the open range days. This article sets the stage and presents insight into the Shonkin Round-Up and the life of the open range cowboy from the 19 June 1889 River Press.

From Bison to Beef – As the bison herds faded from Montana’s open spaces, cattle took their place. The open range cattle ranching era lasted for less than thirty years from the late 1870s to the early 1900s. Wide open ranges with vast herds in the thousands established Montana as one of the leading beef sources of the nation. Overgrazing as well as the tough late winter of 1886-87 with huge cattle losses led to changes in the 1890s. These changes accelerated in the early 1900s from the pressures of large numbers of homesteaders. The grand era of open range ranching came to an end. Today’s ranches, with fences and extensive haying operations, still provide the nation with Montana beef. This exhibition is a tribute to the hearty Montana open range pioneers, Milner, Kingsbury, Coburn, Baker, Lepley, Flowerree, Kohr, Conrad, Harris, and all the others.

“A Cattle Round-Up How the Shonkin Stock Grower’s Association Does the Work, and How the Cowboys Live.

A cattle round-up is a whole circus to a pilgrim, and sometimes two, with a half dozen clowns in the ring. He sees sights and scenes never witnessed in the east, and learns pointers in horsemanship, rope throwing and handling the wild rovers of the range not taught in the quiet pastures of his native land. His sensitive nature may be a little shocked at first, but if he possesses a grain of common sense he will soon see that every move is in harmony with the surroundings and that every operation is conducted according to the eternal fitness of things.
It is Business
with the cowboy, and while no unnecessary cruelty is practiced upon animals, sentiment is not indulged in when it interferes with the work on hand. They know what they have to do and they go in to do it in the quickest time and the best possible manner, and they generally ‘get there’ in good shape.

A day or two ago quite a party set out to Spring coulee, where the Shonkin Stock Growers’ association was holding a cattle round-up. Through the courtesy of Col. J. H. Rice, of this city, a River Press reporter found a seat behind his span of 2:40 steppers and in less than an hour and a half the twelve miles of separating distance were covered. A half dozen tents and as many wagons were ranged near the ever-flowing springs of the coulee and composed the temporary home of the twenty-five riders and other employes of the several stock firms which form the association. A number of the owners of the 30,000 head of stock running upon the range were present. Among them was Mr. J. M. Boardman, of the Milner Livestock company, who received the party with
True Western Hospitality
and a present day round-up dinner. The man who says these round-up outfits don’t live on the fat of the land doesn’t know what he is talking about. There are three messes in this outfit and each mess has an excellent cook. Boardman’s is a daisy. We have forgotten his name but not the excellent dinner he prepared for the party. To show that the cowboy lives like
A Fighting Cock,
while on the range at least, we will give the ordinary every day bill of fare as served upon the range: Ox tail soup, roast beef, veal pot-pie, tenderloin steak, scrambled brains, string beans, peas, corn, tomatoes, saratoga chips, hot rolls, wheat and corn bread, fresh ranch butter, cheese, blackberry, plum and apple pie, two or three different kinds of cake, tea and coffee, and the usual relishes, including pickles and chow-chow. No intoxicating liquors enter the larder of a well regulated round-up outfit, and none were found here. In fact, contrary to the generally accepted opinion of eastern people, the average cowboy is not bibulously inclined. As a rule they are an honest, hard-working, industrious class of young men of a free, frank, generous disposition, always ready for a little fun and not afraid of hard work. No class of young men has been more persistently misrepresented than
The Range Riders
of the west. Many of them have grown to man’s estate upon the ranges whose fathers are owners of herds or who are themselves working into the possession of a starter for one. The cowboy with the fierce curling moustache, brace of pistols in his belt, murderous looking knife in his ‘chaps,’ mounted upon a wild-eyed cavorting charger, whose bleeding flanks show the marks of heavy jingling spurs, and who announces himself as
A Bad Man
from ‘Ground Hog Glory’ or Hell’s Delight’ whenever he enters a town, exists only in dime novels and in the imagination of the sensational writers. He is not found upon the ranges of the west. There he is a peaceably disposed gentleman appearing to good advantage in society, but entertaining a deadly hatred of cattle thieves and who would leave his ‘best girl’ at any time to join a gang in pursuit of one. That’s about the size of our northern Montana cow boy.” [p. 1]

(Sources: FBRPW 19 Jun 1889, p. 1)


(1) Partners M. E. Milner (right) and J. M. Boardman (left) came west in 1879 to Montana and began ranching in the Shonkin-Square Butte country [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(2) This sandstone bench was erected after his death in 1913 at the Old Fort Benton Park in tribute to open range rancher M. E. Milner [Overholser Historical Research Center]

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