“Cattle Kingdom is the best all-around study of the American Cowboy ever written. Every page crackles with keen analysis and vivid prose about the Old West. A must read!”– Douglas Brinkley, author of Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Texas cowboys drove more than five million feral Longhorn cattle from their southern grazing grounds northward onto the unclaimed open prairies and former Indian lands of the American West. In what became the most famous land grab in American history and the country’s most dramatic period of agricultural expansion, Longhorns displaced the vast herds of buffalo, which were slaughtered during these years to the point of extinction. The feverish speculation in cattle herds that soon followed led to the strangest financial bubble of the Gilded Age, a bubble that would briefly make Cheyenne, Wyoming, the city with the highest per capita income in the world. Inspired by phony reports of exorbitant financial returns, wealthy Scottish, English, and American investors—a group that included Rockefellers, Whitneys and Vanderbilts—poured so much money into beef that aggregate investment in the Western cattle trade exceeded the market capitalization of the entire American banking sector of the day. When the bubble finally burst in the Big Die-Up, the losses erased twenty years of gains and destroyed countless fortunes. Worse, it engendered a deep discord between ranchers and settlers that would culminate in the range wars of the 1890s and ultimately bring the celebrated cowboy era to a tragic and ignominious end.
Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2017)tells this remarkable story of greed, excess, and comeuppance. Christopher Knowlton, a former staff writer for Fortune magazine, digs deep into the personal lives of the young men, rich and poor, who were daring enough to enter the cattle profession, whether they were recent graduates of Harvard College or farm boys like Teddy Blue Abbott. Among the careers tracked are those of three representative aristocratic twenty-five-year-olds, enthralled by cattle fever, who sought their fortune in the trade with results that would profoundly alter their futures: the Englishman Moreton Frewen, the Frenchman Marquis de Morès, and the New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt. Of course we can’t forget the era’s cattle towns, shootouts, and vigilante slayings. The Cattle Kingdom would have a lasting impact on American identity, myths and values. It led to profound medical and technological advances and gave birth to the conservation movement, thanks to the direct role played by Theodore Roosevelt, who, after speculating and losing a fortune in cattle ranching, was responsible for designating five new national parks and protecting well over 200 million acres of Western land. The boom was also responsible for the celebration of the cowboy as a paragon of virtue, nobility, and rugged individualism—a largely false myth that popular novelists, Hollywood, and finally a succession of American presidents would profitably exploit. Thanks to the Cattle Kingdom, its rapid-fire efforts to codify the raising, slaughtering, and transportation of cattle, as well as the groundbreaking managerial insights of its meat packers, the nation took a giant step closer to becoming a predominantly industrial society and a corporate superpower. And thanks to the multicultural natureof the cattle trade—its diverse group of cowboys and cattlemen—the industry not only helped to heal the regional differences created by the Civil War but also laid the foundations for the multicultural nation that the U.S. is today. Far more than the Gold Rush, the cattle era gave birth to a romantic notion of entrepreneurism: the same pursuit of individual freedom and economic opportunity that these days sends young college graduates to Silicon Valley to try their hand at start-ups. The legacy of the Cattle Kingdom is far greater than good TV material (looking at you Westworld fans!). We are called upon today to negotiate compromises between conflicting economic ambitions and uses for our public lands. We are compelled to balance the free-market exploitation of our natural resources with sound stewardship of the environment. And it all began in the late 1860s on the open range.
About the Author:
Christopher Knowlton is a former staff writer and London bureau chief for Fortune magazine. He spent fifteen years on Wall Street as president of Knowlton Brothers, Inc., an investment management firm. He is a trustee of the Teton Raptor Center and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. He lives in Jackson, Wyoming.