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  • Frontier Cattle Ranching in the Land and Times of Charlie Russell
  • Margaret E. Derry (bio)
Warren M. Elofson . Frontier Cattle Ranching in the Land and Times of Charlie RussellMcGill-Queen's University Press. xiv, 248. $34.95

In this book, Warren M. Elofson offers a new orientation to the subject of western ranching than has commonly been seen before: he undertakes a cross-border study. Because the industry was continental rather than national, in spite of the variations between the Canadian and American versions, his approach is sensible. He provides wonderful stories, which fascinate the reader (academic or otherwise), and undertakes his task objectively. Well written, the book is rich in details about individual settlers and their social dynamics, facts which bring the West and its people to life. Many illustrations enhance his stories as well. It might be noted that the title is somewhat misleading. The work and life of the well-known American painter Charles Russell is not highly relevant to the way the book unfolds.

Elofson believes that earlier studies on ranching overemphasize the Eastern/British influence on Canadian ranching as a differentiating factor between the American and Canadian versions. He argues that the Eastern/British influence was as strong on Montana ranching as on the occupation in Alberta. He does not suggest that the Canadian arm was an outgrowth of the American one. Rather he is convinced that the two shared patterns and likely influenced each other. He describes, for example, violence and guns as being evident on both sides, although noting as well that they were more common in Montana. Elofson found that the most dramatic difference with respect to crime rates was in Native/non-Native conflict. He thinks distinctly more of this problem existed in Montana than in Alberta, a fact he attributes to the presence of the North-West Mounted police, slower movement of white settlers into Alberta's Native lands, and the government surveying of reserves in order to keep whites out.

Elofson describes the impact of literature on European and Eastern continental attitudes to the West, and suggests that people were more interested in the romance and adventure the West offered than in its imperialistic potential. He also proposes that the large ranching systems [End Page 360] were not destroyed by the influx of small farmers. Elofson argues that the big ranches had died out before intensive settlement started. The practices of not laying in hay, year-round pasturing on native grasses, attempts to fatten without grain, and the shipping of cattle long distances under these conditions had proved unsustainable. Elofson provides a particularly good description of modern ranching with its mixed farming approach, and reveals the transitions by which it arose out of the old system. The ranches themselves, in other words, changed. They kept smaller herds, took in hay, practised mixed farming, timed calving, began feeding better, provided shelter, and built fences to control the movement of bulls - essential for planned breeding.

The cattle industry was global in its impact by 1870 and ranching can, therefore, be seen as a part of that broader story. In order to give his colourful stories larger historical significance and context, Elofson might have fitted Montana and Alberta ranching into their national, continental, and world framework in a more comprehensive fashion. Continental cattle issues, in fact, shaped the way ranching evolved in the West. The changing situation within the United States (both the eastern seaboard and the Midwest ' s corn-fattening areas) and within Canada (particularly Ontario) explains patterns in ranching. These developments in turn reflected a European environment which had made Britain the largest market for cattle in the world. The British demand for beef, and international quarantine structures that were designed to control the spread of rinderpest, pleuropneumonia, and foot-and-mouth, were major influences on how the entire cattle industry across North America developed. The way the breeder/feeder structure worked is also important to Elofson's story of ranching cattle production. More attention to the system would have given his arguments better dimension, if for no other reason than that the breeder/feeder structure was not the same in Canada as in the United States, a fact...


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pp. 360-361
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