The Colorado Range Wars - the Fight for Grazing Rights

Updated: Jul 22



Between 1870 and 1920, across eight different states and territories, the Colorado Range Wars were a series of armed conflicts in the Western United States primarily fought between sheep and cattle owners over grazing rights. While many states saw action based on this conflict, it primarily occurred in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado. Approximately 120 of these conflicts occurred, with 54 men killed and 50,000 to 100,000 sheep slaughtered in the process.


The Cause of Conflict

Easily put, the cattlemen of these lands saw the sheepherders as invaders in their land. Although they were to share the public lands on a first-come-first-served basis, the cattlemen felt that the sheep were destroying the public grazing areas. The conflict came when the cattlemen began trying to run out the sheepherders and the herds that they brought onto the land.


Texas

By 1870, cattle ranching was an established trade across Texas, which is about the time that sheepherding became more prevalent across the country. Most Texas cattlemen would block their land (private or public) using fencing, and when matters ended up in court, the law would side with the cattlemen, which whom they had already established rapport. Most sheepherders were considered weaker in terms of trade and were often ruled against before the trials would start. Many of the cattlemen were concerned about the potential of sheep scabs (scabies) that would infest their cow herds, and it soon became regulation that these sheepherders get an inspection of their flock before entering any public lands. Those who didn’t abide and crossed over a border were charged with a felony. Texas involvement in the Range Wars was relatively minimal compared to other states, using legal ramifications as deterrents.


Arizona

Of all the Range Wars, the most costly one belongs to an Arizona conflict. The war was between the families of John D. Tewksbury and Tom Graham, both cattlemen, but the former was a supporter of moving sheep onto public lands for grazing when the trade entered the area in 1885. The appearance of these flocks unnerved many of the cowboys in the area, creating a united front in defending their ranges. The Tewksbury and Graham families had been feuding since 1882, but it wasn’t until 1885 when the first bloodshed occurred. Tewksbury had contracted a herd of sheep, but they were ambushed on their route, and the sheepherder was murdered by Andy Cooper, a member of the Graham faction and associate of the Hashknife cowboys who were in conflict with the sheepherders. The feud between these families was not the only conflict that took place. By the end of the Range Wars, more than 25,000 sheep in Arizona had been killed. By 1886, it was illegal for sheepherders to move their flocks within two miles of herd grazing land.


Wyoming and Colorado

The Range Wars in the Wyoming and Colorado region were the most violent and longest-lasting of the conflict. The cattlemen of Colorado were unwilling to share their grazing land with the sheepherders crossing the border. At the turn of the century, the squabbles turned into full-on violence and reached their peak. Massacres broke out across the region, with one flock owner recording damages of over $40,000. Raiders in masks shot and killed a flock owner, 25 sheep, and two sheep dogs and burned the wagons with kerosene. Sheep raiders had not been prosecuted prior to this, but the subjects were apprehended, and this brought about the beginning of peace across the region.


For more on Colorado’s infamous Range Wars, watch this video.

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