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Cattle Ranching in Indian Territory

Cattle ranching quickly became one of the leading economic activities in Indian Territory following the removal of the Five Tribes from their lands in the Southeast. Even before the Civil War, Indian Territory was a central part of the national agricultural market, and tribal nations would sell their surplus to the growing cities. However, once the Reconstruction Treaties of 1866 were signed, the Five Tribes lost much of their land, which was then used for the relocation and concentration of Plains tribes.

Many tribes and individuals joined the cattle ranching industry. They faced incredible obstacles but were able to establish a foundation of cattle ranching as a central economic industry in Oklahoma. The cattle industry survived through the territorial period into the modern-day. Many Indian agents, working with different tribes, believed establishing successful ranching operations would assist in the long-range goal of assimilation. The Five Tribes established large and profitable operations, while many of the Plains tribes had a troubling introduction into cattle raising and ranching.

Cherokee Farming and Animal Husbandry by Olga Mohr, US Post Office, Stilwell, Oklahoma (image courtesy Smithsonian National Postal Museum).

The Five Tribes raised livestock on a large scale in their ancestral homes in the Southeast. The Choctaw in particular were quite successful. None of the Five Tribes originally had individual land ownership, but individuals could own the resources that were developed from the land. Among those resources were foodstuffs or livestock. One Seminole rancher owned up to 20,000 cattle before the Civil War.

The Civil War greatly disturbed all economic activity in Indian Territory. Tribal conflicts worsened by the Confederacy's secession, constant violence, general lawlessness, and a refugee crisis did nothing but disrupt economic growth and material wealth. By 1869, the Seminole only had around 4,000 head of cattle remaining. The Civil War devastated Indian Territory in terms of direct destruction, land seizure, and further restrictions.

At the same time, the cattle industry grew steadily. Cattle drives nearly always crossed into Indian Territory to get to the markets and railroads. In some ways, tribal nations were able to benefit from the increased traffic through the territory. Tribal nations would often charge fees when the drives came into Indian Territory. Cattle moved very slowly and consumed a significant amount of natural resources like grass and water. These grazing fees and even leasing fees quickly became a relatively reliable source of income. However, it was not always without conflict. There were many reasons why conflict might arise. Mostly commonly, belligerent trail bosses refused to pay grazing fees, or small groups of Native people might harass and attempt to make off with cattle.

Various tribes attempted to establish cattle ranching as an economic activity. Particularly, the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho all had difficulties in fully expanding their operations. Government rations were often infrequent and far below the caloric needs of the individuals they were intended to feed. One method of solving the food shortage was hunting, but even then the bison populations were dropping drastically due to commercial bison hunts. Because of these circumstances, many of the tribal members culled too many cattle to develop large herds. Cattle could not be grown quickly enough to both immediately feed people and establish a strong foundation for the future.

With the number of cattle ranches in Indian Territory increasing slowly but steadily, many associations began to organize and work towards common goals. Native cowboys also made up a large portion of the workforce on the open range as well as on ranches. Instructors at Indian boarding schools offered riding and roping classes that trained Native attendees in the skills needed to become a cowboy. The Dawes Act marked an end to communal land ownership and introduced private and individual land ownership. This disrupted life in Indian Territory once more, forcing many tribal members to seek wage work after being dispossessed.

Today many Native nations still participate in cattle ranching as an economic activity. The Choctaw Nation has a cattle ranch in Daisy, Oklahoma, and the Quapaw Cattle Company is part of the Quapaw Nation. Both are successful and continue many riding and ranching traditions.

Quapaw Cattle Company, Quapaw, Oklahoma (image courtesy Quapaw Cattle Company).