History Blazer, November 1995
When Preston Nutter died in January 1936 at the age of 86, the Salt Lake Telegram described him as “Utah’s last great cattle king” and “one of the last links between the old west and the new.” As “king” of the range, Nutter was one of the best known cattle barons in Utah, with herds of cattle numbering in the thousands roaming over vast areas of Utah, Colorado, and Arizona. Nutter was able to carve out such a successful cattle enterprise due to his business and marketing savvy and determination.
Born in Virginia in 1850, he was orphaned at the age of nine. After spending a miserable two years with relatives whom he disliked, he ran away, only to end up floating down the Mississippi River working as a cabin boy. He soon tired of this adventure and caught the next wagon train headed for San Francisco. After attending business college there, Nutter again decided it was time for a change and journeyed to Provo, Utah, where he joined Alfred Packer and his group of gold prospectors. Nutter traveled east with the prospectors into Colorado, but he soon realized that their searching was fruitless and that Alfred was a “whining fraud.” So, Nutter decided to spend the winter with Chief Ouray of the Utes while Packer and some of the other men continued on into the ominous snow-packed mountains. The following spring Packer returned alone, looking fat and contented. Nutter, suspecting that something was amiss, soon discovered that Packer had eaten his five companions while trapped in a bad snowstorm. In 1883 Nutter was the prosecution’s chief witness during the trial of “Alfred Packer the Man-Eater” whose notoriety spread throughout the West.
Having had enough of prospecting adventures, Nutter turned his attention to the cattle industry. After purchasing a small herd in Colorado, he looked for a sizable piece of good rangeland. Remembering the lush mountain pastures of Utah, he drove his cattle westward into their new Utah range between Thompson Springs and Moab. Soon after arriving he struck a deal with the Cleveland Cattle Company to exchange 1,000 head of his mixed breed cattle for the Cleveland’s Herefords. At the time, Herefords were not very popular with ranchers, but Nutter, with uncanny foresight, could see that in time Hereford cattle would dominate the West.
By 1888 Nutter had formed the Grand Cattle Company with his partners Ed Sands and Tom Wheeler. During the next few years the size of their herd increased dramatically, and Nutter was able to buy out most of the cattlemen around the Utah-Arizona border. Although many ranchers were wiped out by the summer droughts and severe winters of 1886 and 1887, Nutter was able to stay on top by wintering his cattle at Thompson Springs, located near a railhead, making it possible to ship in feed for the hungry herd. On the business side of the cattle industry he gained advantages by negotiating special deals in Washington and maintaining business contacts with friends in New York. Through them he was able to acquire some of the best grazing land in the Uinta Basin and access to valuable springs in the deserts of southern Utah. Arguments over who “owned” the springs were common, and Nutter met with a lot of resistance from cattle ranchers and sheepherders alike who all wanted sole access to the water. However, rather than duking it out in a “range war” Nutter preferred to settle water-rights disputes in a legal manner and as a result spent many hours of his life in the courtroom.
To keep his cattle business running smoothly he spent days on end in the saddle and when riding across the state on a horse or a mule, he was occupied with selling and buying cattle, checking out new grazing land, hassling with the sheepherders who were invading his land, or dealing with rustlers. As a result, Nutter was 58 years old before he got married and started to settle down. His wife, Katherine Fenton, often joked that the only way she was able to catch him was “to agree that the honeymoon be incorporated into an eastern cattle buying trip.” Katherine and Preston settled in at Nine Mile Canyon, the ranch headquarters for the Nutter Corporation which stretched across 300,000 acres. The ranch in Nine Mile Canyon is still an important historical landmark and was operated by the Nutter family until 1986 after which it was sold to the owners of the Sabine Corporation who to this day use Nine Mile Canyon as their ranching headquarters.
Preston Nutter was a man who looked to the future; he was always trying to find ways to improve his herds and to preserve the wild, rugged land that he loved so much. Right before his death he had started to negotiate with J. N. Darling, head of the U. S. Biological Survey, about turning some of his rangeland into a big game preserve. During his lifetime Nutter had built up a herd so vast that many old-timers reckoned that even Preston didn’t know exactly how many cattle he owned, for he truly was the great cattle king of Utah.
Sources: Virginia N. Price and John T. Darby, “Preston Nutter: Utah Cattleman, 1886–1936,” Utah Historical Quarterly 32 (1964); James H. Beckstead, Cowboying: A Tough Job in a Hard Land (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991).