Most often, when that phrase is used to describe the Old West, we think of Texas. And while cattle were important to Texas, we find it was just one of many factors that fed that state. Not so with Wyoming, according to Cattle Barons vs. Ink Slingers: the Decline and Fall of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (1887-1894), a paper by Ross F. Collins of North Dakota State University in Fargo. He writes, “Wyoming, more than any other state in the Old West era, was built and dominated by a single industry, cattle. Its association more than any other reserved power to enforce the law as it pertained to their business. And their business was Wyoming’s business.” He notes that the heyday of Wyoming’s cattle mania was 1885, when members of the association owned two million head worth $100 million. And then came the horrible winter of 1886-87, historically known as “The Great Die-Up” or sometimes, “The Great Die-Off.” Eighty percent of the herds in Wyoming territory—all fending for themselves as usual on the open range–froze to death in the never-ending winter storms. A prophetic poem written by a cowboy about that disaster goes:
I may not see a hundred
Before I cross the Styx,
But coal of embers, I’ll remembered
The stiff heaps in the coulee
The dead eyes in the camp,
And the wind about, blowing fortunes out,
As a woman blows out a lamp.