So Far and Yet So Close: Frontier Cattle Ranching in Western Prairie Canada and the Northern Territory of Australia by Warren M. Elofson (review)
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Reviewed by
Warren M. Elofson. So Far and Yet So Close: Frontier Cattle Ranching in Western Prairie Canada and the Northern Territory of Australia. University of Calgary Press. x, 320. $34.95

The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw commercial cattle ranching spread into many of the world's open grasslands. Professor Elofson introduces us to the northern Australian cattle frontier as it developed at roughly the same time as ranching in western Canada. He characterizes the early pastoral practices of both regions as the "Texas system": large-scale open grazing on public land. The Australian example, however, is said to differ significantly from its Canadian counterpart by having been left to evolve on its own, with little government intervention.

The history of cattle ranching in Canada has been the subject of a bloom of new works since David Breen's The Canadian Prairie West and the Ranching Frontier, 1874–1924 appeared in 1983. Warren Elofson's new book is his third on this topic, in addition to several important articles. However, his description of the northern Australian experience will be new territory for many Canadian readers, both those who are new to ranching history as well as old veterans. Instead of blizzards, wolves, [End Page 268] and other hazards of the Alberta foothills, Australians faced catastrophic drought, tropical diseases, and crocodiles.

The difference between ranching and mixed farming (raising and selling livestock as well as field crops) is often understood to be a matter of scale. As the vast closed grazing leases in western Canada were terminated, much of the land was taken up by homesteaders. By 1914 changes in settlement regulations allowed homestead entrants in drier and hillier parts of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta to satisfy their homestead duties by raising stock. By this time some ranches were planting and harvesting forage crops in addition to cutting and stacking wild hay. The distinction between farms and ranches became blurred, particularly in the southern Alberta foothills.

The author's ninth chapter is titled "Diversification in Western Canada: The Triumph of the Family Ranch/Farm," and it reads like his main message, the core of the book. It describes the decline of the big ranches, in contrast with the story in northern Australia. His own personal experience in raising livestock on a "ranch/farm" is reinforced by accounts from other family operations, with descriptions of shared hard work and financial sacrifice. This chapter begins with a summary of the conditions which undermined the profitability of the "corporate" ranches. Sheer size and cost factors, aggravated by substandard "carcass yield" and low market prices, are said to have forced the liquidation of many big outfits.

In northern Australia few if any expected to see the land taken up by farmers, while in Canada settlement of the lands acquired in 1870 became the primary aim of policy. In 1872 the Dominion Lands Act laid the foundation for federal administration of lands and resources in Manitoba, and what became Saskatchewan and Alberta, until 1930. Regulatory changes allowed for closed leases in semi-arid or more remote areas, but as settlement advanced these leases were terminated in favour of open ones which allowed for homestead entry in grazing lands. Railway construction was subsidized through land grants. The line built from Calgary to Fort Macleod in 1893 provided close facilities for shipping of cattle, but it also brought in settlers.

The main body of the text is followed by two appendices, an extensive bibliography, the index and sixty-one pages of notes. In addition to careful identification of sources, the notes frequently contain supporting argument and critical comment by the author. Those with a deep interest in and knowledge of the topic should take time to read them. In the text the American term "Homestead Act" appears twice in place of Dominion Lands Act. It is surprising how in a book of this quality the publisher's editor and readers, and indeed the author himself, could have overlooked this error. [End Page 269]

W.B. Yeo
Historical Society of Alberta
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