Those hard Montana winters of 1885-1887
by Lenore McKelvey Puhek
Much is written about the winter of 1886, thanks to a picture drawn by Charles M. Russell, but the grasses of 1885 actually caused the problems for the cattle disaster of 1886-87.
Bunchgrass grew exceptionally full and the cattle gained weight. However, the accommodating weather changed, and the summer sun burned relentlessly. Fall brought lightning storms, and fires spread uncontrolled across the plains devouring the dried grasses.
Cattlemen rounded up their animals and herded them into Alberta,Canada, for winter feeding. Some moved northwest to where the grasses still danced in the wind. Overcrowding on these ranges led to overgrazing.
Cattle prices dropped from $4.75 per hundredweight to $3.90 and below by the fall of 1885. Winter arrived with such ferocity that temperatures plunged to 40 degrees below zero. Winds pounded the plains and snow drifted high and crusty.
In the spring, ranchers counted 86 percent of their herds dead. Ranchers returned their Canadian herds to the grasses of Montana. Nannie T. Alderson, a cattleman’s wife in eastern Montana wrote in her memoirs, titled “A Bride Goes West”: “We are going to get rich from the herds and live far away from the unpredictable weather of Montana.”
The cattlemen still believed that the herds would survive on the open ranges. However, Conrad Kohrs, a Deer Lodge Valley rancher, recorded that his horses had thicker, longer coats and that the weather pattern throughout spring, summer and fall repeated what had happened in 1885. He took some precautions by cutting grass and storing it for winter feed, but he put up nowhere near enough to feed his entire herd.
Rumors abounded that the rare white owl from the Arctic had been sighted. Even the cattlemen took the bird sighting as a strong omen, remembering that the white owl fled from the north, staying ahead of unusually cold winter weather storms.
On the night of Nov. 16, 1886, an ice storm hit, crusting the grasses that lay trapped beneath the thick, icy glaze. A week passed before the storm finally spent itself.
Two more blizzards hit the Montana-Dakota plains during December. Snow swirled into 15-foot drifts. January brought intense, 40-below-zero cold. Then it started snowing hard ” 1-inch of snow an hour for 16 hours. As terrible as this storm was, it was only a precursor of things to come.
Between Jan. 28 and Feb. 3, 1887, the temperature dropped to minus 63 degrees. The storm continued to rage. Cattle bunched up in coulees and died standing up, frozen together, hidden by the drifted snow covering. In the Great Falls area, cattle rushed into the town, eating trees, bushes, and garbage.
Helpless cowboys, working for a dollar a day, bundled up in two of everything. One precaution they took was to plunge their boots into water and then stand outside until the water froze, providing a kind of insulation for their boots. Some made sheepskin packs.
They covered their faces with black coal dust and black rags to keep from going blind in the whiteout. Many cowboys froze to death in their saddles. Their bodies were stacked in snow banks or sheds until spring when the frozen ground finally thawed and the bodies could be properly buried.
The long awaited Chinook winds did not blow warm over the Montana plains until late March. Beneath the melting snows the carcasses of dead cattle stretched from Great Falls to Miles City.
There was a young cowboy from Missouri working a herd in the Judith Basin. His bosses, Kaufman and Stadler, lived in Helena, and they wanted to know the fate of their cattle. The young cowboy, Charlie Russell, sketched a picture of a starving steer, titled it “The Last of the 5,000,” and mailed it to his bosses.
Russell journaled this account as follows:
“The winter of ’86 and ’87, all men will remember. It was the hardest winter the open range ever saw. An awful lot of cattle died. The cattle would go in the brush and hump up and die there. They wasn’t rustlers. A horse will paw and get grass, but a cow won’t. Then the wolves fattened on the cattle.
“Now I was living at the OH Ranch that winter. There were several men there, and among them was Jesse Phelps, the owner of the OH. One night, Jesse Phelps had got a letter from Louie Kaufman, one of the biggest cattlemen in the country, who lived in Helena, and Louie wanted to know how the cattle was doing, and Jesse says to me, ‘I must write a letter to Louie and tell him how tough it is.’ I was sitting at the table with him and I said, ‘I’ll make a sketch to go with it.’ So I made one, a small watercolor about the size of a postal card, and I said to Jesse, ‘Put that in your letter.’ He looked at it and said, ‘Hell, he don’t need a letter; this will be enough.’ “
Large cattle companies, such as Conrad Kohrs’, recorded a 50 percent loss of his herd. Granville Stuart had a 72 percent loss and Nelson Story lost 75 percent of his animals. Theodore Roosevelt, who was speculating on a herd near the Montana-North Dakota border, surveyed his loss and left the cattle business behind forever. By the end of March 1887, the tally was a loss of well over $20 million.
This second winter loss forced cattlemen to make changes in their industry. They went to smaller herds, winter shelters, and fencing. Some areas were sectioned off for hay crops. Conservation of grass became a new practice.
Hay mowers and rakes became necessary standard equipment for the cattleman. Cowboys now did additional jobs ” fixing fence, stacking hay, building shelters, and enclosing water sources. And Montana continued to endure cruel,harsh winters.
One remarkable statistic that followed the new ranching style occurred at the Deer Lodge range. The new efforts paid off. Conrad Kohrs was able to load 365 railroad cars full of cattle headed to the stockyards in Chicago.