Colorado Cattle Ranching

Colorado cattle ranching began with cattle drives into the Pikes Peak region mining districts.  Miners and those living in tent cities needed food, and so drives from Texas to the Rockies were frequent, weather permitting.


The Colorado plains had once been called the "great American desert", but cattlemen in the know decided to put down stakes and start raising cattle.

Having ranches in the state was a better idea and closer than Texas to feed the newly arrived "residents" of Colorado.




cowboys at chuck wagon and decked out cowboy photos courtesy of Time Life Books


Open range on the plains was a great asset to the ranchers.  The grass had nutrients for the cattle and the animals would roam wherever they wanted.

However, the open range era only lasted about 20 years.  Cattlemen had to wait for the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians to be removed from the area and placed on reservations before the cattle business could prosper.

Ranching was a difficult life.  Out on the Colorado plains there were droughts, fires, temperatures in the triple digits and blizzards in the winter.

Many herds of cattle died off in these harsh conditions.  But by the 1870's, cattle ranching took off on a scale equal to Texas.


Cowboys moved with herds from Texas into the new Colorado territory.  Many decided to stay in the state and were hired on at numerous cattle ranches.

The traveling cowboy's possessions consisted of his saddle, maybe a bridle, his hat and the clothes on his back.

Occasionally, the cowboy owned his horse, but more likely, he was given a horse to use by the hiring rancher.


old west saddle and cowboy hat photo courtesy of Time Life Books



old west boots, spurs and chaps courtesy of Time Life Books



old west horse bits and bridles photo courtesy Time Life Books



Denver was growing into the center of the livestock industry.  The railroad connection made the town the perfect place for stockyards.

The most famous cattleman of the time was John Wesley Iliff.  He ran his empire on over 600,000 acres.

Iliff's ranch was near the town of Julesburg and northeastern Colorado was his domain.


Being an intelligent man, Iliff knew that the time of open range wouldn't last forever.

Farmers had been moving into the area, slowly at first in the mid 1800's and then progressively became more numerous as the years went by.

With his renewed ideas to keep cattle safe from harsh conditions and disease, Iliff realized that by building barns or shelters for the cattle, fencing land to rotate grazing, and buying a hardier breed of animal, ranching could continue and flourish on the plains.


The open range era did end just as Iliff predicted, but his ideas were heard by the other ranchers and they, as well, started using the proven practices of Iliff.

The era disappeared but left behind the legends of the cattle frontier.  In the end, cattle became one of Colorado's most important industries.



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