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The Weekly News Source for Wyoming's Ranchers, Farmers and AgriBusiness Community

The Word is Resilient

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Resilient is a good word to describe those in the agriculture business. This word does an even better job of describing sheep producers in the West. 

This past year has really pushed the gauge as the planets lined up against western sheep producers. But, that century old resiliency comes to the forefront to meet the better days ahead.

I recently read an address by Col. Edward N. Wentworth, who was the director of Armour’s Livestock Bureau of Chicago, Ill. This address was given before the Wyoming Wool Growers Association Convention in Worland on Aug. 2, 1940.

In this address, Wentworth spoke on the history of domestic sheep in Wyoming and the West. In his talk, he mentioned sheep most likely came into Wyoming between 1836 to 1839 on the Oregon Trail to Fort William, later called Fort Laramie. 

The first authentic reports on the movement of sheep came in with the Mormon expeditions of 1847. By 1850, sheep were coming into the region from California to Salt Lake City and most likely to the Ft. Bridger area as well. 

Wentworth said in his address, four Mormon companies brought nearly 358 head of sheep west on the Oregon Trail to Salt Lake City in 1847. The next summer they brought 1,065 head.

Both Mormons and gold seekers were using the Oregon Trail to bring small flocks of sheep west. Wentworth said immigrants trailed even more sheep from California, and by the spring of 1851, it was estimated at least 5,500 sheep were in Utah, the majority of which had crossed Wyoming via the Oregon and Overland routes. 

1853 saw the greatest sheep movement. That spring, the immortal Kit Carson started 6,500 head from New Mexico to the California gold miners by way of Fort Laramie and the Overland Trail.

I don’t understand why he came so far north to get to California, maybe because there was more Army protection from the Indians or the increased availability of water or maybe it was just a poor travel agent. It was estimated nearly a quarter million head of sheep traversed the state of Wyoming enroute to the West during the decade of 1847 to 1856.

Around 1858, sheep movement across the state began to decline, and it was well after the close of the Civil War before it was resumed to an important degree. During this time, Wentworth said small flocks of breeding sheep had settled around Ft. Bridger.

Wentworth went on to say, “The impulse to take sheep west was beyond control by the close of the Civil War. The Federal Commissioner of Agriculture in 1862 estimated throughout the two decades preceding the war, the cost of keeping sheep was twice as great in the East as in the West.

Land values were low, cost of range stock light, expense of handling small and grass and water free. Numbers of discharged veterans turned their attention to prairie and mountains, and the settlement of the West progressed in earnest.”

Then came the railroad and the West was more exposed. I read in Wentworth’s address about all the sheep moving into Cheyenne, but then blizzards and drought wiped out flocks from 1870 to the early 1800s.

However, sheep came back time and time again, as Wentworth spoke of in 1940. Today is no different. Sheep producers wonder if they can hold on until conditions improve. Why not? They always have before. 

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