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Sunday, March 4, 2018


The Colorado Cowboy could easily have been the Colorado Sheepherder. Sheep were the first 'commercial' animal in Colorado.

Santa Fe Trail near Ft. Union, New Mexico
In the book "Historic Ranching Complexes on the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site" the authors state that ranching, specifically sheep ranching was brought to the southwest with the settlers from Mexico in the 1500s. It was sheep that formed the basis of ranching as the early settlers knew it. Other livestock were for personal use. It was the Churro Sheep that became the breed of choice due to its hardiness, meat and wool.

These ranchers would move the sheep across the open range seasonally, usually penning the livestock at night for protection. In winter they would settle them near the rivers and/or close to the settlements. Where the high country range was used on a more permanent basis, rock walls and shelters were built to create wind rain blocks.

Even as late as 1879, sheep and its wool, which is a twice a year crop, were still popular. In Colorado Springs, one of the principal money earners was wool growing. The city directory shows a list of twenty-five stock growers vs thirty-five wool growers. What is most interesting about this list is the number of people who were doing both.

So where does the Cowboy fit into this picture? Columbus and other early explorers may have introduced cattle to the new world, but Colorado really didn’t see them until people started their journey on the Santa Fe Trail, which passed through the southeast section of Colorado. The Bent brothers, of Bent’s Fort fame, would trade one oxen for two worn out ones. Thus they built a herd of ‘beeves’. In the 1840s the Army order 500 ‘beeves’ from the Bents to supply Kearney and his Army of the West on their trip from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Comanche National Grasslands near Bent's Fort, Colorado
In the central Colorado plains, there is a mention of one man who had cattle as early as the 1830s, but not much more is known about he and his herd.

It was during the cattle drives from Texas through Colorado that the cowboy took his place in this state’s history.  The 1866 Goodnight/Loving Trail through Pueblo, then Denver, Colorado, was one of the early ones to enter the state. In 1867 Goodnight established a ranch near Pueblo, Colorado. The barn his ‘cowboys’ built in 1869-70 in the Pueblo region, still stands today.  Goodnight Barn  Goodnight-Loving Trail

A second trail, called the Potter/Blocker (Bacon) trail came through the eastern part of Colorado on their trip to Montana sometime around 1883. Not as well known and harsher than most, it traversed a drier and more unforgiving area for such drives. Potter-Blocker(Bacon) Trail

Today, Colorado still has cowboys and cattle grazing on the land. This legacy is traced back to the early settlers who braved this new country and left their mark. I will leave you with this quote from the book Century in the Saddle: The 100 Year Story of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, 1867-1967:

“The cattlemen who built the Colorado range industry in the later 1860’s and 1870’s were not all heroes, not were they all villains. However, there were both heroes and villains among them.     Essentially they were pioneers, with the foresight to see a future in the cattle business...”

Doris Gardner-McCraw -
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women's History
Member of National League of American Pen Women,
Women Writing the West,
Pikes Peak Posse of the Westerners

Angela Raines - author: Where Love & History Meet
For a list of Angela Raines Books: Here 
Photo and Poem: Click Here 
Angela Raines FaceBook: Click Here


  1. Interesting history, Doris. The animosity of the Texas cattle rancher and the sheep herders/"Wool growers" is well known. It's interesting to find they coexisted in Colorado. Thanks

    1. Tracy, it was true they coexisted in the early days. It did get a bit dicey as time and land ran short. It does make for a unique picture in time. Thanks for stopping by. I do love my Colorado history. (Grin)

  2. Doris,

    What an interesting article. Thank you for sharing it. I am reminded of the years I taught the history of Colorado and the West. One of the projects the students worked on was to create a map/mural of the lands west of the Mississippi that included rivers, major towns, railroads, mining camps, etc. during the rough time frame of 1849 to 1900. One of the students chose to plot the sites of Indian/Army battles, range wars, and so on. She was quite clever. She labeled the sites of trouble between the cattlemen and the sheepmen "Moo-Baa Wars".

    1. Oh how clever. I'm glad you found it interesting. I've always found the sheep/cattle story so complex and interesting. I would love to see that 'map'. Doris

  3. Well Doris, this article truly surprised me. I would have never guessed that sheep ranching came first in Colorado. I never thought of mutton as much of an American, especially western, fare for the dinner table.
    I have seen movies and read articles about the conflicts between sheep and cattle ranchers, but I never would have thought sheep ranchers had the first foothold on that market.

    I would make a lousy sheep rancher. First of all, I would name them which leads to the inability to kill them. And then there's the part where the very thought of eating those fuzzy sheep just doesn't sit well with me. Herding those sheep to market and leading them to slaughter would be emotionally too hard. I would parish the first year out. LOL I would be able to raise sheep for wool, but they would have to drop over due to old age out there in the field--an economically unwise idea.

    Thank you for this bit of unexpected historical news, Doris.

    1. Sarah, this subject has fascinated me since I first came across the information. When time allows I usually try to dig into the subject. For Colorado Springs, the fact that wool was a major player in the growth of wealth those early days is so interesting to me.
      Like you, I don't think I would be able to eat a pet. Still, I'm glad you found the post interesting and surprising. There is so much more, but time and space allowed only hightlights. Doris

  4. Doris,
    A wonderful post. I, too, had no idea that raising sheep was so prevalent in Colorado.

    1. It was in the early years. It was a natural fit, given the climate. Plus is was a twice a year 'crop'.

      I do enjoy sharing these pieces of information and I'm glad you liked it. Doris

  5. I knew there were sheep in the old West, but I didn't realize there were so many or that sheep were so profitable. Thank you for this interesting blog.

    1. You are welcome Keena. I happened to run across a piece in the early newspaper (1872 issue) that started me on the journey to find out about sheep in Colorado. It was pretty eye-opening. Doris