The relocation of the Oglala and Brule Sioux tribes to reservation land, and the near extinction of the bison herds as a result of the fur trade, opened the front range of the Black Hills to cattle. The range cattle industry began in Texas, where huge herds roamed the plains. As rail lines made their way into the Midwest, the cattle were driven north to the rail yards where they were shipped east. Demand for the cattle as provisions in the Black Hills region increased as well, both for the rations provided to the reservation tribes and for the growing communities.
In 1880, the Black Hills Live Stock Association was founded and by the end of 1882, it was estimated that over 250,000 head of cattle were grazing along the front range of the hills. Farther north, there were still enough bison to halt cattle grazing. Between 1880 and 1886, professional hunters engaged in the slaughter of most of the remaining bison on the plains allowing the cattle companies to expand into the northern plains. By 1884, the number of cattle grazing the plains that surrounded the Black Hills was estimated at over 700,000 head.
The fortunes of the great cattle companies changed dramatically during the winter of 1886–1887, when early winter storms struck the region. Heavy snows were followed by days of sub-zero weather. The storm caused huge losses, driving many of the cattle companies out of business. Northern companies lost as much as 90 percent of their herds. Custer County and Fall River County, protected by the hills, saw negligible losses.
Another problem facing cattle companies was created by the introduction of homesteaders to South Dakota. While the Homestead Act of 1862 started migration into South Dakota, most homesteaders were initially limited to the eastern corners of the state, and most were coming from neighboring states. With the completion of the railroad to Rapid City from the east in 1883 and from Nebraska in 1886, homesteaders trickled into the Black Hills region, claiming what had previously been public domain lands and putting up fences.
Cattlemen frequently found their herds fenced out of watering holes and the land available for open range grazing was diminishing rapidly. At first the cattle companies leased lands from the reservations, but soon, with the Crook Commission, more lands were open to white settlement and the available range diminished even further. The population of “West River” increased from about 45,000 in 1900 to over 135,000 by 1910. By 1911, the herd law, which held owners of livestock responsible for damages to crops, was applicable everywhere and the open range period in South Dakota history was over.
While the huge cattle ranches of the past are no longer with us, ranching remains an important industry in western South Dakota. The state’s gross domestic product for animal and crop production is over $3.5 billion dollars.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition