Central to Ernest Staples Osgood’s 1929 scholarship is how cattlemen in Wyoming and Montana ignored previous perceptions of the Great Plains as an uninhabitable desert, and instead recalibrated their perspective to make a life on the North American steppe. Once the cowboy got to the Great Plains, Osgood said,
The solitude of the desert passed, and men began to realize that this, our last frontier, was not a barrier between the river settlements and the mining communities in the mountains but an area valuable in itself, where men might live and prosper. (Osgood, 1929: 9)
The chapters that follow elaborate on how the nineteenth-century Euro-American pushed west of the Mississippi River to initially make their way across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast. By the time enough overland wagon trains arrived to the mountain basin, though, frontier fur traders and trappers had come down out of the Rockies to form encampments, and these settlements became stopping points and places of trade. The fur trader and trapper sold supplies to the wagon trains, swapping out locally-grazed cattle with emaciated wagon train cattle, the latter worn out from walking the hundreds of miles west. Once traded, the emaciated livestock revived themselves on the lush grasslands of the Great Plains, and they would fatten themselves up to be traded, sold or slaughtered.
The increased arrival of the railroad supplanted the need for overland wagon trains, but the railroad itself brought laborers hungry for beef and protein. By this time, rumors about frontiersmen J.R. (Jim Bridger), Captain Richard Grant, and the firm Russell, Majors and Wadell making $15,000-to-$75,000 as cattlemen had landed in the ears of investors back east. (Osgood, 1929: 12-16) The response was profound in the post-Civil War world of the Great Plains. Texas ranchers utilized the warmer climes of the southern Great Plains as a place to breed cattle. After growing the herd, they then drove the cattle north to the lush grasslands of Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. After fattening up the cattle, the cowboy would drive them to railroad loading points and ship the livestock to markets in Chicago and beyond. Osgood explains a local Wyoming example of this, as in 1873 approximately 286 railcars of cattle were shipped from Wyoming to eastern markets. By 1877, only four years later, the number of rail cars shipping cattle east had increased to 1,649. (Osgood, 1929: 51)
Between 1879 and 1885, the Federal government did not care to impose legislation to manage the chaos intrinsic to the ranching industry on the Great Plains. This gave rise to local cattle and stockmen associations that sought, at least in ideal, to preserve an individual’s ownership of the herd, protect the herd, and regulate public grazing to prevent overcrowding. (Osgood, 1929: 114-115) In this vein, Osgood’s scholarship sets a stage for later works that might consider what the industrialization of the Great Plains meant for a growing world population, and this also speaks to World and Public historians. Today, non-American restaurants can be seen advertising “American” beef, and ruins of yesterday’s mining towns — Bannack, Montana included — still dot the landscape.
The ruins of the mining town of Bannack, Montana. Photo by archaeological comrade Brian Herbel of Missoula, Montana.
The big idea in Osgood’s book is that the large-scale Euro-American perception of the Great Plains had altered, once thought of in the first decade of the nineteenth century as a desert and by mid-century as an oasis for cattle and cowboy. Published in 1929, this book also reflects the language of the times, as Chapter 4 is titled “The Indian Barrier.” Whether the Euro-American understood it or not, they appropriated the positive perception of the Great Plains that the Native American already had. This is something Osgood could have drawn out quite a bit more in his work, but 1929 is far enough removed from 2013 that it makes a bit more sense to understand this piece of scholarship as history as much as it is understood as central to Great Plains historiography.