|Western sheep herding. Library of Congress.|
The dispute centered largely on the use of the public lands in Idaho, as it did in other Western states. Sheep came early to Idaho, arriving in 1860 with the first Mormon colonies along the southeastern border. These small flocks generally produced meat and wool only for local consumption, as did the cattle operations that followed the gold discoveries of 1861-1863.
However, with vast amounts of open range, cattlemen soon looked further afield. By the early- to mid-1870s, Idaho stockmen were trailing many thousands of cattle to railway terminals in Nevada and Wyoming. Sheep bands had also expanded, although not nearly so much as cattle herds. Even so, sheep holdings had become large enough to gain the attention, and ire, of resident cattlemen.
Thus, in 1875, the state passed the first regional “Two Mile Limit” laws, prohibiting the grazing of sheep on range "traditionally" used for cattle [blog, Dec 13.] By 1887, the law had expanded from an initial three counties to the entire state.
Challenges all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the law, as long as the restriction followed a "first-come, first served" rule for cattle or sheep or, oddly enough, horses. Equitable in theory, the law favored cattle in practice. Until the railroad arrived, large-scale sheep raising was impractical. Long-distance wagon shipment of wool cost too much, and sheep cannot "walk to market" as easily as cattle.
Then the railroad arrived, and sheep flocks grew (as did cattle herds), and crowded the range. Stockmen even pushed into forested lands. Idaho had no widespread range wars, but isolated shootings of sheepmen, and of cowboys, did happen. Back-and-forth slaughters of cattle and sheep were much more common.
|Sheep in the forest. U. S. Forest Service.|
The Fleming brothers had brought sheep to the American Falls range before 1884, and by then they had five thousand head. Despite death threats and harassment of their stock, they had hung on … and now, ten years later, one brother was dead. With plenty of known suspects, the Idaho Statesman confidently reported (April 3, 1894), “It is only a question of a short time when they will be placed under arrest.”
Law officers promised quick results, and soon had four cattlemen in jail. However, in those days before scientific criminology, officials had no way – other than some muddled tracks and, apparently, vague rumors – to connect the suspects to the crime. A week later, the newspaper reported that the men had been released for lack of evidence.
Although the Governor offered a $500 reward for information on the murder (Idaho Statesman, April 21, 1894), nothing further was learned until an unrelated court appearance took a bizarre twist. During a trial for cattle rustling, the defendant claimed (Statesman, January 31, 1895) that he had witnessed the murder. He testified that three of the four men arrested and released earlier had indeed done the shooting. However, later investigation proved that the claimant was in McCammon, fifty miles away, on the actual day of the murder.
No one was ever convicted for the murder of Hugh Fleming.
|Byron DeLos Lusk, Golden Cattle Kingdoms of Idaho, Masters thesis, Utah State University, Logan (1978).|
|"Omaechevarria vs. State of Idaho, 246 U.S. 343 (1918), Omaechevarria vs. State of Idaho No. 102" U. S. Supreme Court case (March 18, 1918).|