Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Idaho Cattle Baron and Nevada Governor John Sparks [otd 08/30]

Idaho-Nevada cattleman and later Nevada Governor John Sparks was born August 30, 1843 in Winston County, Mississippi, 60-80 miles northeast of Jackson. The Sparks family became moderately wealthy by developing raw land into successful farm-ranch operations, selling at a good profit, and then moving on to a new location. In the late 1850s, they established a ranch in Texas. John thus grew to manhood in the early Texas ranch/cowboy culture.
Early cattle drive. Library of Congress.

He reportedly served as a Texas Ranger on patrols against Comanche Indians during the Civil War. After the war, Sparks worked cattle on several big drives. In 1872, he served as trail boss on a drive that delivered a herd to where the Utah-Nevada border meets southern Idaho.

John and his brothers then moved a large herd into Wyoming. A develop-sell-move strategy worked well for awhile, but played out toward the end of the decade as the amount of undeveloped land in Wyoming dwindled. Thus, in 1881, John and his brother Tom brought another herd from Texas into Idaho to stock range near American Falls.

Tom stayed on to run a ranch there for around forty years while John formed a partnership with established cattleman John Tinnin. They put together a spread that straddled the Idaho-Nevada border. By 1886, Sparks-Tinnin range stretched from the Snake River, centered around today’s Twin Falls, south into the mountains of northern Nevada. On perhaps 3,000 square miles of land, they, according to the Albion Times, ran “in the neighborhood of 100,000 head of cattle.”

The herd count may have been somewhat of an exaggeration, but no one could really say. On the open range, it was virtually impossible to get anything like an exact number. It’s also important to note that the size of the range used, approaching 2 million acres, was vastly in excess of what the company actually owned. They only bothered to hold title to the small portions that had reliable water supplies.

During the warmer months of the year, most of the stock grazed in Idaho. Then cowboys pushed them south for the cold months of winter. Thus, Sparks lived at one of his Idaho ranch headquarters for the good weather, but built a family home in Nevada, near the main railroad line.

Governor Sparks.
Nevada Historical Society.
Over the next few years, Sparks expanded his acreage and also invested in other holdings. These saved his business when the severe winter of 1889-1890 devastated the company’s herds. In a reorganization that followed, Sparks bought out his original partner – saving Tinnin from having to declare bankruptcy. He then acquired a new partner, long-time cattleman Jasper Harrell. Thereafter, the ranch operated as the Sparks-Harrell company

During the 1890s, the range became more and more crowded. This heightened friction between neighboring outfits, whether cattle or sheep. Then, in 1896, a cowboy shot two sheepherders who had encroached onto what Sparks-Harrell considered its range [blog, February 4 and others].

Although Sparks soon learned who had done the shooting, he remained silent to protect against retaliation by sheepmen. He also paid liberally for the defense of “Diamondfield” Jack Davis, the man falsely accused of the killings. Eventually, Davis was freed, while the actual shooter made a successful self-defense plea (also financed by Sparks-Harrell).

In 1902, Sparks was elected Governor of Nevada. He was re-elected in 1906, but did not complete the second term, passing away in 1908.
References: Byron DeLos Lusk, Golden Cattle Kingdoms of Idaho, Master’s thesis, Utah State University, Logan (1978).
J. Orin Oliphant, On the Cattle Ranges of the Oregon Country, University of Washington Press, Seattle (1968).
“John Sparks,” Sunset Magazine, 1903.
Alexander Toponce, Reminiscences of Alexander Toponce, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (1971).
James A. Young, B. Abbott Sparks, Cattle in the Cold Desert, University of Nevada Press, Reno (2002).

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