On This Day

On this day in 1776, writer Thomas Paine publishes his pamphlet “Common Sense,” setting forth his arguments in favor of American independence. Although little used today, pamphlets were an important medium for the spread of ideas in the 16th through 19th centuries.

Originally published anonymously, “Common Sense” advocated independence for the American colonies from Britain and is considered one of the most influential pamphlets in American history. Credited with uniting average citizens and political leaders behind the idea of independence, “Common Sense” played a remarkable role in transforming a colonial squabble into the American Revolution.
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In 1887
On one of the worst days of the “worst winter in the West,” nearly an inch of snow falls every hour for 16 hours, impeding the ability of already starving cattle to find food.

The plains ranchers had seen hard winters before, but they had survived because their cattle had been well fed going into the winter. By the mid-1880s, though, the situation had changed. In the hopes of making quick money, greedy speculators had overstocked the northern ranges in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Deceived by a string of mild winters, many ranch managers were also no longer putting up any winter-feed for their stock. Disaster arrived in 1886.
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10 Responses to On This Day

  1. Exile1981 says:

    If written today ‘common sense’ would have snowflakes crying and old Thomas up on charges for a hate crime for upsetting the feelings of the ‘loyalists’.

  2. The Great Die Up? says:

    Although I obviously wasn’t there … alowing the herds to starve en masse seems so stupid and wasteful. If you KNOW your herds are slowly dying, and it’s that eff’n cold, then round up the weaker animals, harvest them, quick-freeze the roasts and the hides, and store them frozen while you work out marketing and transportation.

    Best case, they knew how to build an icehouse, and could have rigged train cars as giant freezers and shipped meat to the larger cities through the winter and spring. Even if they had to sell at a discount, it still beats a total loss of half the herd. Worst case, everyone throughout the region eats really well for at least 6 months and the hides get shipped to the tannery.

    These folks were WAY the fuck more entrepreneurial than I am (had to be to survive), and they already had markets for their animals (or they wouldn’t be raising them), so what am I missing?

    • Wirecutter says:

      Well, those ranches were several thousand acres in size with just enough cowhands to keep it running during normal times. They also didn’t have the facilities to harvest the weaker animals and their market was back east, not local.

      • The Great Die Up? says:

        Sure, that makes sense.

        But weren’t the cowhands pretty much unable to do their normal jobs anyway due to the deep crusted snow, and thus available to help with harvesting the weak? With the snow that deep, I figure their mobility must have been pretty limited.

        Also, didn’t they access their market back east by train? Meaning that marketing and transportation shouldn’t have been a problem.

        (OTOH, I remember another recent post talked about shooting cattle under a hundredweight in TX/NM to avoid paying shipping costs. That seemed pretty wasteful to me as well.)

        • Wirecutter says:

          You’re talking maybe a half dozen hands for a ranch of several thousand acres, that’s why ranchers banded together for cattle drives and you have to remember the rail lines back then were many hundreds of miles away – which is why they had cattle drives.
          Not only that but in December and January, cattle are too lean to sell and there’s no market for tough stringy beef.

          As far as the other post goes, beef and dairy prices are waaaay down right now. Why sell at a loss and pay shipping besides? You also have to realize that the poster was talking about dairy bull calves. Beef cattle and dairy cattle are two different critters as far as human consumption goes.
          And I’ll let you in on a little secret – most dairy bull calves are killed at birth anyways – bulls don’t give milk and dairy cattle are not good to eat. At least that’s the way it was in the area of California where I was from.
          I have heard of some dairymen selling their bull calves for veal but I don’t know how true that is.

          • The Great Die Up? says:

            Thanks for clarifying those points. I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly that night.

    • Also, take into consideration weather conditions, ice on the ground, how deep the snow is, how many hands to do the rounding up. By the time realization set in it was probably too late to round them up. How far could cattle walk if they were that weak?

  3. mbob says:

    Life on the Great Plains wasn’t easy. 1887 may have been hard on the cattle but check out January 1888: (can’t get the link to work, google “The Children’s Blizzard”)

  4. fjord says:

    I was just going to recommend the book The Children’s Blizzard which tells in detail what a Plains
    blizzard is really like. People dying 5 yards from their house because they got lost and disoriented. 9 foot drifts because there is nothing to keep that snow from blowing and accumulating.

    It takes us how long in modern time to clean up from a 3′ snowfall? Imagine it with no plows, no trucks, no skid steers, and no electricity, so you are busy the entire time feeding your fire at home so that your family doesn’t freeze to death. Hours and hours clearing a path to your barn to take care of your animals that your life now depends on to keep you alive.

    Maybe your ranch hands mutinied because they weren’t getting paid. Are they going to risk their lives for your cattle anyway? And where are you going to put 5,000 cattle if you can even find them over thousands of acres and manage to drive them home? In the snow with no location markers, and nothing to feed them when you get them there.

  5. The Great Die Up? says:

    Thanks to the folks who addressed my questions.

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