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Cattle In The Cold Desert, Expanded Edition

James Young, Abbott Sparks

Publication Year: 2002

Published by: University of Nevada Press

Contents and Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I greatly appreciate the many hours Glenda Eskstrom and Jamie Peer spent typing the many drafts of this manuscript. Appreciation is also expressed to Guy Rocha, Nevada State Archivist, and Phil Earl, Nevada Historical Society, who were always ready to help track down details and sources. The interlibrary...

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Introduction: On Cattle and Cold Deserts

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pp. xi-xv

Thus, around the people and land of the Great Basin there is a hint, a flavor, of events that have greater significance when taken as a whole rather than as individual occurrences or circumstances. Against the backdrop of the cold desert’s sagebrush/grasslands is the pageant of...

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Prologue: Five Days in August

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pp. 1-15

At 10 A.M. on the Saturday morning of August 15, 1964, Elko, Nevada, was enjoying a pleasant summer morning with a few cumulus clouds drifting lazily east toward the towering bulk of the Ruby Mountains. The Ruby Mountains still supported patches of snow in sheltered, north-facing glacial...

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Part I. The Open Land

There was not a single gate to open or fence to obstruct the movement of man and his herds between Salt Lake City at the foot of the Wasatch Range and Genoa at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada. In the valleys of the central Great Basin, a person could ride for one hundred miles and...

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1. Gray Ocean of Sagebrush

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pp. 19-36

The relentless silver gray reflection of the cold desert’s sagebrush landscape could not help but impress those first few travelers who ventured West. Oregon-bound travelers got their first taste of sagebrush near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and the gray ocean of sagebrush increased as they proceeded...

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2. The Exploitation Pageant

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pp. 37-56

The time period 1860–1900 encompasses both the classical range operation period, in which cattle were allowed to roam freely on unfenced native ranges with minimal husbandry, and the period of ranch enterprise, in which livestock production was stressed and some fences and conserved...

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3. Left-Hand Trail to Hell

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pp. 57-69

The cowboys from Texas who delivered cattle to Nevada must have thought they were riding down the left-hand trail to hell when they dropped the herds of Longhorns down into the arid basins left when Lakes Lahontan and Bonneville dried up. It would be difficult to find a more forbidding...

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4. Texas Cattle & Cattlemen

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pp. 70-84

To many, “cowboy” equals Texas. Millions of words in story, song, and history have been written about this connection. Although this book deals with the Intermountain area, the history of Texas cattle and cattlemen must be explored to trace the roots of and give perspective to cattle in the cold...

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Part II. The Land Acquired

Thermal winds swept through the spreading alluvial fans, rippling the endless strands of wheatgrass, Indian ricegrass, and needlegrass. Meandering stream channels supported sod-covered meadows in the canyon bottoms. The silver gray ocean of sagebrush contained islands rich in potential for...

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5. Buy, Beg, Borrow, or Steal a Ranch

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pp. 89-100

When John Sparks and John Tinnin bought an empire from Jasper Harrell, in essence they bought Harrell’s claim to specific meadowlands along streams. No law specified the right to use the rangeland; that was partially dependent on Sparks’s and Tinnin’s ability to defend its exclusive...

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6. John Sparks: Capital, Credit, and Courage

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pp. 101-118

John Sparks had a good thing going in Wyoming. Unfortunately, there was a limit to the rangeland available east of the Rocky Mountains, and by the end of the 1870s the ranges were almost fully stocked. Sparks did not come empty-handed to the Intermountain area to exploit the virgin range. He came...

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7. White Winter: White Hills of Bones

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pp. 119-136

Rarely does a single climatological event alter the plant and animal ecology or change the social and economic structure of a wide geographical area. However, such a far-reaching and dynamic event was the devastating winter of 1889–90 in the sagebrush/grasslands of western North America...

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8. Water: The Finite Resource

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pp. 137-151

The winter of 1889–90 drove home the lesson that forage had to be conserved for wintering cattle on most of the sagebrush ranges of the Intermountain area. But where was the necessary hay to be produced? Most of the native plant communities were not suited for harvesting hay. The density...

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Part III. The Land in Transition

The cold deserts are lands of extremes. Bitter cold and snow are followed by burning heat and drought. The environment of the Great Basin had to be modified to permit the raising of cattle on a sustained basis. Such modifications included the painfully slow digging of irrigation ditches to bring the...

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9. Making Hay in the Great Basin

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pp. 155-179

A cowboy in the 1890s lamented, “Cowboys don’t have as soft a time as they did. I remember when we sat around the fire the winter through and didn’t do a lick of work for five or six months of the year except to chop wood to keep us warm.”1 With the advent of hay production, it was irrigation and...

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10. From Dugouts to Cattle Empires

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pp. 180-193

When Texas ranchers first moved up the plains to the Northwest, ranch headquarters often consisted of a sidehill dugout. But as the cattle industry flourished, ranch headquarters evolved into an elaborate collection of buildings. In the 1890s, a major ranch headquarters had to be self-contained...

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11. Herefords in the Sagebrush

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pp. 194-211

The bulk of American cattle during the mid-nineteenth century, especially those that belonged to the farmers of the frontier districts, were poor-quality animals. The Longhorns of Texas were virtually a freebreeding population; herdsmen made no conscious effort to improve their quality...

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12. Horses, Tame & Wild in the Sagebrush

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pp. 212-232

The horse was a necessary part of livestock management on the range. Without the horse, the culture of cattle on the sagebrush/grasslands would have been impossible. Of all the domestic livestock introduced to the sagebrush/grasslands, only horses and burros became successful feral animals...

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Part IV. The Land Answers

The turn of the century brought sweeping changes for both land and man in the Great Basin. The cold desert’s sagebrush/grasslands had only a limited potential to support life, and it was often exceeded in the grand experiment to establish ranching. This fragile ecosystem did not bend to accommodate...

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13. The Passing of the Old Guard

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pp. 237-256

The 1890s were strange years in Nevada. Silver mining was in a terrible slump, and the decade began with a major depression. The economy and population of Nevada declined until the question of revoking statehood was considered. The winter of 1889–90 had crippled the livestock industry and...

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pp. 257-270

The last summer of the twentieth century proved to be one of those crossroads in history when time and space align to create an environmental disaster. In parts of northern Nevada the winter and spring of 1997 and 1998 provided excellent growing seasons for the exotic cheatgrass. Many...


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pp. 271-301

Equivalency Name Table

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pp. 303-305


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pp. 307-317

E-ISBN-13: 9780874175875
Print-ISBN-13: 9780874175035

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 6 b/w illustrations
Publication Year: 2002

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Grazing -- Environmental aspects -- Great Basin -- History -- 19th century.
  • Great Basin -- History -- 19th century.
  • Beef cattle -- Great Basin -- History -- 19th century.
  • Ranch life -- Great Basin -- History -- 19th century.
  • Range ecology -- Great Basin -- History -- 19th century.
  • Sparks, John, 1843-1908.
  • Ranchers -- Great Basin -- Biography.
  • Harrell, Jasper, 1830-1901.
  • Ranchers -- Great Basin -- History -- 19th century.
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