From the Author
Cattle in Montana relied onthe open range. There were no fences and there wasn't any private property tospeak of either. After all, the legislature didn't get a survey of the statestarted until the late 1860s, so there was no way to record and then taxprivate property.
Not that the cattlemen wouldhave cared anyway; there was little to differentiate one area of land fromanother without fences, and the grasses grew plentiful nearly everywhere. Summerswould usually spent grazing along the higher elevations while winters werespent on the valley floors. Hay wasn't used much for feed; ranchers could lettheir cows wander about feeding on their own, the rivers, mountains, andforests serving as natural checks on their movement.
That's not to say therewasn't some regulation of the growing industry. The very first territoriallegislature passed a law in 1865 that required all stockmen to use unique anddistinctive brands on all of their cows. As more and more cattlemen made theirhomes in the territory the legislature expanded the laws further, regulatingwhere animals were allowed to pasture and during which times of year, as wellas how strays were dealt with.
The cattle were fattening upin the territory, and by the end of the 1860s there were more than enoughanimals for large-scale drives to take place. One of the first happened in 1868when drovers herded their animals down to southern Wyoming and then sold themoff to the hungry Union Pacific Railroad crews. When the rail line wascompleted the following year a whole new realm of possibilities opened up formoving cattle about.
Cattle drives were thepredominant way of getting the animals from one area to another in the 1860sand the trend lasted until the open range was effectively closed-off by fencingin the 1890s. Cattle movements during the time were large, usually in the rangeof 2,500 head or more. Large teams of men, numbering as high as twenty orgreater, were needed to keep the cattle moving and to ensure that none ran off.Distances of around 400 to 600 miles would be covered over a period of abouttwo months, with teams making about ten miles each day. Operations of thisextent were large, requiring a team for months, several wagons to support themand their provisions, as well as several dozen horses to keep things moving.
One such operation occurredin 1866 when Nelson Story drove a heard of 600 Texas longhorns into theGallatin Valley around Bozeman. Other herds quickly followed, often using hisTexas Trail, which was really just a continuation of the Bozeman Trail.
Cattle had been in the statesince the early 1830's, although only a few head. The numbers grew in thelatter-half of the fur trading days, and St. Mary's Mission in the Bitterroothad a small herd. Things really began picking up in the late 1850s and early1860s, however, especially when the gold rush occurred in 1863. Some kept atmining, others went into business. One such man was Nelson Story.
A Start in the Mining Camps
Nelson Story was born inBurlingham, Ohio, on April 4, 1838. He grew up on his parents' corn farm untilhis father died when Nelson was twenty years old. Until that point he'dattended college and even taught school for a time. After that he was on his ownand found work hauling freight wagons. It was during one such job, in Missouriin 1862 that he met and then married his wife, Ellen Trent, whose father he'dbeen hauling timber for.
Story had first come toMontana from Colorado, where he'd headed with some ox teams and pack mules. ByJune, 1863, he and his wife arrived and settled into Bannack, eager to trytheir hand at prospecting. Unfortunately there was no one in the town but womenand children, the men having recently took off for the most recent discoveriesof gold in Alder Gulch.
Story made most of hisinitial profits moving goods for the miners with his oxen and pack mules, whilehis wife contributed by making bread and pies which she sold to the miners. Storystill tried to find gold, however, and even ran into some trouble. One night aclaim jumper named Bill Carter was on Story's claim so he grabbed his shotgun,and when Carter pulled another man in front of him to block the shot, Nelsonblew Carter's hand off. Story felt so bad that for the rest of his life he gaveCarter $5 each month.
And protecting those claimspaid off. It took him a few months, but Story managed to find $30,000 worth ofgold, which he quickly traded in for $40,000 in cash. He put $30,000 in the bankand sewed the other $10,000 into the lining of his coat. His big plan was toget into the cattle business.
Story had had plenty ofexperience with cattle by that time, having worked as a bullwhacker in Kansasbefore moving up to operate freight drives from Denver. He could see what washappening in the mining camps around him, how the men were eating beef eachday, even if they weren't finding gold. Either he had his fill of muckingaround in the earth or he knew an opportunity when he saw it. With his $10,000sewed into his coat he headed down to Fort Worth, Texas, and bought his cattle,which could have been as few as 600 or as many as 3,000, although it's usuallyfigured at an even 1,000 head. He paid $10,000, or $10 per head.
The Drive Begins
Story set his eyes on themining camps of Virginia City and sought out the Bozeman Trail to get himthere, the first cattle driver to ever do so. It was a long way from Texas, butthe party of men and cattle made it up past Nebraska to Fort Laramie without anyproblems. There, however, they were told that the Indians to the north had beenacting up. Colonel Henry Carrington had been sent up to the Bozeman Trail toestablish three forts, and the Indians were giving him a hard go of it. The menat the fort warned Story about taking his cattle through the area, but Storyknew his best chances at making a profit lay with the route over the BozemanTrail to Alder Gulch.
The party left Fort Laramieand soon ran into problems not of an Indian nature, but with water. TheCheyenne River was the last source of water for the next eighty miles. Thatmeant that the party would have to pick up their pace substantially, going fromfifteen miles each day to twenty-five. They'd ride at night, often untilmidnight, and aided by the full moon.
They kept up the pace forthree days and watched the herd dwindle. The animals became strung out formiles and even the men were out of water. Any animals that collapsed wereimmediately shot in the head. It was clear that if the drive stopped at thatpoint, failure was a certainty.