|Branding on the range. Library of Congress.|
That reward amounted to about three months pay for a typical cowhand back then, so the stockmen were deadly serious. Horse theft had started hand-in-hand with the discovery of Idaho gold in 1861-62. Cattle herds entered the country within a year or two, and so did rustling.
Ranching in southern Idaho and the Great Basin* offers crucial advantages for stock thieves. First, ranchers must scatter their animals over considerable rangeland because of the rather sparse forage. Ranch headquarters are usually located near the few streams that trickle through the region.
Worse yet, ranching practices of the time almost invited rustlers to help themselves. Early cattlemen basically turned their animals out on the range to fend for themselves. They only saw the whole herd during spring round-up, for castrating young bulls and branding. They might see them again in the fall when they culled out market-ready animals.
The rest of the year, cowboys had little to do except “line-riding” – casually patrolling the vague and generally unfenced boundary of whatever range “the boss” considered his. Thus, barring accidental meetings, rustlers could operate largely undisturbed. By gathering small numbers from several ranches, they could make off with a considerable “take” and leave each rancher unsure that he’d been raided. Finally, because of the rugged terrain, rustlers are seldom far from rough country to hide in.
Rustler struck everywhere. A major incentive for the formation of the Idaho County Stock Growers’ Association, in 1885, was “to prevent the stealing, taking or driving away of horned cattle, sheep or other stock.”
Unfortunately, they and other similar organizations only partially succeeded. Nor has the problem gone away: Ranchers in our region have lost millions of dollars in stock to rustlers over recent years.
|Rancher discusses his losses with a deputy sheriff.|
Richard Cockle photo, The Oregonian.
Thieves still work many of the same advantages, although the range is now fenced and cattle are gathered for a winter feeding regime. Yet for most of the year, the animals scatter over vast areas and stockmen lack the manpower to patrol extensively. Thieves even foil aircraft surveillance by operating during bad weather.
Riding horses, they steal a couple dozen head and drive them into rough country, eventually loading them onto a stock truck … perhaps fifty miles away. Lawmen know the real problem: “They may end up four states away from us.”
The rustlers obviously have experience handling cattle, and they’ve carefully scouted the country. And they don’t care that their depredations can put a small rancher out of business. Sadly, rustling is probably almost “an inside job.” Law officers and rancher-victims agree: “It’s people who know cows, who know the country.” Or, as one sheriff said, “The people who are the victims of the cattle thefts are going to know [the thieves].”
* Great Basin: Western Utah, a major portion of Nevada, and southeast Oregon.
|References: [B&W], [Illust-North]|
|Jeff Barnard, “Cattle rustling amounts to $1 million loss in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada ” The Associated Press (January 4, 2010).|
|Richard Cockle, “Modern-day cattle rustlers hit ranches in southeast Oregon,” The Oregonian, Portland (November 23, 2009).|
|M. Alfreda Elsensohn, Eugene F. Hoy (Ed.), Pioneer Days in Idaho County, Caxton Printers, Caldwell Idaho (1951).|