Cowboys and the Cattle Industry

Allan Kent Powell

Cattle Range

Cowboys and cattlemen are a fundamental part of Utah’s economic and social heritage. They were in Utah before the first Mormon pioneers arrived and endure today as part of a western legacy that strongly influences contemporary attitudes and lifestyles of many Utahns. Cowboys and cattle influenced Mormon settlements and culture, rode side by side with the state’s developing mining and transportation industries, and followed patterns that were at times unique to Utah and at other times part of the national and international developments in cattle and investment.

All of Utah fell under the domain of the cowboy. Cattle ranches were located in all parts of the state–from the rugged Canyonlands, Blue and LaSal Mountains of southeastern Utah to the Grouse Creek and Raft River Mountain Ranges of northwestern Utah; from the Arizona strip and Pine Valley Mountains of southwestern Utah to Flaming Gorge and Brown’s Hole in northeastern Utah; from the Uintah Basin, Book Cliffs, and San Rafael of eastern Utah to the Deep Creek Mountains and West Desert near the Utah-Nevada border; and a hundred other mountain ranges and valleys in between. Cowboys trailed animals to winter or summer pastures and searched the vast deserts and rugged canyons for strays. They drove cattle to railheads at Nephi, Marysvale, Thompson, Price, Colton, Milford, Ogden, and Salt Lake City. They also built and mended fences, cut hay and grass for the animals, and developed riding and roping skills that were exhibited in rodeos and wild west shows. Most cowboys hoped to own herds and ranches of their own, and some took advantage of the isolation and wide-open spaces to “liberate” or “rustle” animals for their own use.

The term “cowboy” did not become commonplace in America’s vocabulary until after the Civil War when former soldiers, ex-slaves, fugitives, and others in search of jobs found work on Texas cattle ranches.1 The name cowboy was applied to those who worked with cattle and horses and the name was popularized during the 1870s by the pulp fiction writers of the day who made the cowboy a national hero. Before that time, those who worked with cattle were called by the Spanish term “vaqueros,” or more commonly drovers or herders.

Often the noun cowboy is preceded by an adjective that indicates the person’s nationality, ethnicity, place of origin, religion, sex, occupation or other distinguishing status. In Utah there are or have been Mexican cowboys, African-American cowboys, Indian cowboys, Texas cowboys, Colorado cowboys, Wyoming cowboys, Nevada cowboys, Mormon cowboys, Outlaw cowboys, Full-time cowboys, Part-time cowboys, Modern cowboys, Rodeo cowboys, Urban cowboys, Hollywood cowboys, and feminine individuals usually called cowgirls.

Cowboys could easily be distinguished by their clothing and equipment. James H. Beckstead writes:

The clothing worn by the Utah drovers was derived from the attire of Spanish vaqueros who worked on the ranchos of California. Leather pants called chaps protected legs from brush and thorns and the horns of the cattle. A wide-brimmed, low-crowned hat protected them from the scorching sun and kept the rain off their heads. A colorful kerchief work around the neck could be placed over the mouth and nose as protection from dust raised by the cattle. Huge spurs with spiked rowels were work over the high-topped leather boots. The jingle of the rowel helped prompt the horse on without a real application of the rowel….The rawhide reata, or lariat, first introduced by the vaqueros, remained basically the same for many years. In time, hemp lariats became more popular. The length of the lariat varied from 60 to more than 100 feet. The saddle used by the drovers had a rawhide tree covered by a machila, two pieces of thick leather handsomely and fancifully worked or stamped joined by a running throng in the center, and open to admit the pommel and cantle. The pommel was high, which allowed the lariat to be attached to it….

The primary weapon used by cowboys was a single-action Colt revolver, usually a .44 .40 calibre or a .45 calibre. Remington revolvers were also common on the frontier. Winchester repeating rifles were by far the most common of the long guns used by cowboys. These weapons could be purchased throughout the territory in gun shops and dry goods stores….

Leather goods [harnesses, bridles, saddles, saddle scabbards, cartridge belts, holsters, leather cuffs, and chaps] could be purchased at saddle shops in many of the towns in the territory. Most of these saddleries were small businesses known in the trade as “buckeye shops.” 2

Utah’s first association with livestock came with the opening of the Old Spanish Trail between New Mexico and California in 1829. The trail swung north looping through the southern part of Utah. For two decades New Mexican woolen goods–primarily serapes, rugs, and blankets, were transported over the 1,120 mile long trail to California where they were exchanged for horses and mules. The traders returned to New Mexico driving herds with as many as a thousand animals.

James Bridger

The first livestock herds in the Utah territory were those of former fur trappers Jim Bridger and Miles Goodyear established in the 1840s. Bridger’s cattle operation was part of his Fort Bridger complex and took advantage of the excellent grasslands on the north slopes of the Uintah Mountains. Goodyear’s operation was centered along the Weber River and was part of his Fort Buenaventura which became part of the Mormon settlement of Ogden after it was purchased from Goodyear in November 1847 four months after the arrival of the vanguard Mormon pioneer group under Brigham Young in July 1847.

Cattle were a critical element of the fledgling Mormon economy and a crucial bartering item when thousands of California-bound gold seekers trekked through Utah beginning in 1849. The first Mormon settlers brought with them 2,100 head of cattle including 887 cows and 2213 working oxen. By 1850, the number of cattle in the Utah territory had increased to 12,000 head and by 1860 the number was 34,000 head.3 The number of horses also increased and a Mormon horse herd was kept on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. Mormon leader Heber C. Kimball described the round up of horses on Antelope Island in the early 1850s:

At 10 o’clock in the morning of the roundup, dust was seen toward the north end of the island. It had the appearance of a whirlwind moving south at the rate of 25 miles an hour. Nothing could be seen but dust, until it had reached to within two miles of the house. Everybody was on tiptoe and the excitement was running high. Here they came—the speediest animals on the island, all of them white with foam, panting like chargers. There were about seventy-five of them in all; some of them as fine animals as could be found anywhere….

Lot Smith and Judson Stoddard, with their partners, mounted four large and beautiful horses and entered the corral where the herd stood snorting like elk. Lot led the chase with his partner close behind him, followed by Judson Stoddard and his partner. While these wild animals were on the run around the large corral, Lot threw his lariat over the front foot of one of them, and at the same moment, his partner lassoed the same animal around the neck; and with their lariats around the horns of their saddles, and in less than a minute’s time, had thrown the horse and dragged it over the smooth surface of the corral, a distance of several rods, to a place where the fire and branding irons were, and in, another half-minute, the horse was branded and turned loose. They had no more than gotten out of the way before Judson Stoddard and his partner had another horse ready for the finishing touch. So it continued until the band had been disposed of and turned loose on the range to make room for the next one, which was expected at any moment.4

There were two primary sources of cattle during the first decade of Utah’s settlement. Mormon pioneers continued to bring animals with them as they crossed the plains to Utah. California-bound emigrants found the Salt Lake Valley a good place to trade their trail-worn animals for fresh ones—usually at a ratio of two for one thereby increasing the number of cattle and oxen in the Utah territory.

Another potential source of cattle was California. While more cattle were taken from Utah to California after the gold rush began, shortly after Salt Lake City was founded, a group of Mormons led by Jefferson Hunt journeyed to California where they purchased 200 cows and 40 bulls to help supplement the Utah herds. However, most of the animals died during a difficult crossing of the Mojave Desert.5

A fourth source of cattle was from Texas as Mormon converts from that state brought herds with them. James Whitmore brought 500 longhorns with him from Texas to Utah in the 1850s. Whitmore settled in St. George, but lost his life to Navajo Indians near Pipe Spring in 1866. His sons continued the livestock business and by 1880 they owned about 15,000 head of cattle. The McIntyre brothers, William and Samuel, were converts to the Mormon church in Texas who came to Utah in the late 1860s. When their father passed away in Texas they returned to settle his estate and purchased 7,000 head of longhorn cattle for $3.75 each with their inheritance. They drove the herd to Utah and wintered the animals on the west side of the Tintic Mountains south of Utah Lake. The next spring the cattle brought $24.00 a head.6

In early Utah the large herds of the Whitmores and the McIntyres were uncommon. Most cattle owners had only a few head of cattle which were usually placed in a community cooperative herd. Weather sometimes threatened the livestock, such as the winter of 1855 when an estimated half of all cattle in the Utah territory perished. Indians were another threat. During peaceful times a few head of cattle would be taken for food by local Indians, often as a replacement for the wildlife which had been displaced by the cattle. During times of conflict, such as the Black Hawk War of the 1860s, Indians stole cattle from Mormon settlements in the Great Basin and drove them hundreds of miles eastward to Colorado where the cattle was sold for consumption by the newly arrived miners and other residents of the area.7

The completion of the transcontinental railroad to Utah in 1869 marked a significant change in Utah’s cattle industry. In time, the railroad became the means for transporting cattle out of the state to eastern markets. Immediately the railroad brought an increasing number of non-Mormons to Utah, some of whom made their livelihoods in cattle. The railroad also stimulated economic investments in the West by eastern and foreign capitalists. Many of these investments were made in livestock and during the 1870s and 1880s the number of cattle increased dramatically in Utah. In 1870 there were 39,180 cattle in Utah. By 1880 there were 132,655 head and a decade later, in 1890, the number had jumped to 278,313.8 Some speculate that the number of cattle was much greater than these statistics suggest because they are based on tax information and cattlemen notoriously under counted the number of cattle for tax purposes.

The number of cattle not only increased, but the quality of livestock as well. Beginning in 1870 shorthorn cattle from Canada were imported to help improve the Utah cattle stock. During the 1880s Hereford cattle were imported and other breeds followed.

The expansion of Utah’s cattle industry during the 1870s and 1880s was built upon four cornerstones that included small operations throughout the state, the cattle barons–ranchers like Preston Nutter, B. F. Saunders, James W. Taylor, the Whitmores, and the McIntyres whose animals numbered in the thousands, Mormon cooperative enterprises some associated with United Orders and others such as the Bluff Pool in southeastern Utah which grew in response to outside threats by the Lacy Cattle Company to take over rangeland and control access to water and other resources, and corporate cattle companies who tapped resources in Great Britain, Pittsburgh and other eastern cities, and even Utah investors to found such companies as the Carlisle Cattle Company, the Pittsburgh Land and Livestock Company, the Webster City Cattle Company and the Ireland Cattle Company among others.

The corporate cattle companies usually brought in managers, foremen, and cowboys from outside Utah–especially Texas and Colorado.9 But often Mormon foremen and cowboys from the farms, ranches, and rural towns of Utah were employed as well. A few of them followed a trail that crossed from legitimate work as cowboys to illegal acts as outlaws. Matt Warner and George LeRoy Parker—alias Butch Cassidy—are two who gained national and international reputations for their exploits.

Cattle rustling was a persistent problem in Utah throughout most of the nineteenth century. In 1860 Territorial Governor Alfred Cumming in his report to the legislature noted that the “northern part of the territory is infested by bands of cattle thieves, who commit depredations upon the ranges and dispose of their plunder in the vicinity of the military reserves.” Eighteen years later, Territorial Governor George W. Emery informed the 1878 legislature that a serious problem for the Utah stock industry was “the men who drive out of Utah annually large numbers of stolen cattle and horses.”10 Utah cattlemen sought to deal with rustlers through various means. Livestock associations offered rewards for the capture of rustlers. Cattlemen supported the passage of the Branding and Herding Act of 1886 which made it illegal to sell or slaughter unbranded animals within the Utah territory. “Some of the larger cattlemen hired gunfighters to scare would-be rustlers away, and many hired known rustlers in the belief that they would not steal from the hand that was feeding them. None of these means was totally effective.”11

Rustling cattle was a complicated process. Cattle were usually taken from the open range—miles away from the owners. If the cattle had already been branded, the rustlers had to rebrand the cattle so as to alter the existing brand so it would not to be recognized. Usually cattle were branded during the open range roundups but those that were missed were to be branded by cowboys who carried a running iron with them. These “mavericks” as they were known were supposed to be branded with the owners brand, but on the isolated range far from the owner or foreman’s scrutiny some cowboys applied their own brand and began to build up their own herds at the expense of their employers or other cattle owners. More often, however, the stolen cattle were driven out of Utah to military camps or mining towns to be sold.

For some cowboys such as Butch Cassidy and Matt Warner, it was an easy step from cattle rustling to robbery. Rustling hideouts such as Robbers’ Roost in Wayne County were used by the outlaws including Butch Cassidy following the 1897 Castle Gate Payroll Robbery.

While rustlers were an irritation to Utah cattlemen, harsh winters, severe drought, and weak markets brought economic disaster for many especially during the hard winter of 1886–87 when some ranchers lost half or more of their herds and the mid 1890s when the market price for cattle was extremely low making it impossible for many to even clear expenses to say nothing of seeing a profit on years of hard work.

As the 21st century dawns, there are still cowboys throughout Utah. They have preserved much of the lore and culture of their nineteenth century predecessors while adapting to the modern day realities of pickup trucks, television and computers. The cowboy persona persists because cows still need to be herded and cared for but also because of the images that books, magazine articles, movies, television, and county and western musicians continue to foster.


1. James H. Beckstead, Cowboying: A Tough Job in a Hard Land (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991), 29.
2. Beckstead, Cowboying, 9, 123.
3. Donald D. Walker, “The Cattle Industry of Utah, 1850–1900: An Historical Profile,” Utah Historical Quarterly Summer 1964, 184.
4. Beckstead, Cowboying, 12-13.
5. Beckstead, Cowboying, 6-7.
6. Beckstead, Cowboying, 52, 56.
7. John Alton Peterson, The Black Hawk War, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999).
8. Walker, “The Cattle Industry of Utah,” 189.
9. For a discussion of these companies see Chapter 5 “The Corporate Cattle Companies,” in Beckstead, Cowboying, 71–103.
10. Beckstead, Cowboying, 133.
11. Beckstead, Cowboying, 133.

See: Jerry D. Spangler and James M. Aton, “The Crimson Cowboys: The Remarkable Odyssey of the 1931 Claflin-Emerson Expedition,” Utah Historical Quarterly 86, no. 2 (2018),