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The Trans-Mississippi West, Miners and Ranchers

cattle boom, Sierra Nevada mountains, gold prospects, California Gold Rush, cattle industry

Starting with the California Gold Rush of 1849, a series of mining booms spurred settlement in the West. When gold prospects in California dimmed, thousands of prospectors moved eastward into the Rocky Mountains, seeking gold, silver, copper, and other minerals. Spectacular gold rushes of the late 19th century drew prospectors to mining camps in Boise, Idaho; Helena, Montana; and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Some mining towns became cities, such as Denver. Others, such as Virginia City in the Sierra Nevada mountains, boomed while prospectors worked the mines, only to become ghost towns when the prospectors left. The era of individual prospectors was limited; by the end of the century, they had been replaced by large mining companies in the Western states.

In the 1860s and 1870s the railroads transformed the cattle industry, just as they had transformed farmingóby transporting cattle to urban markets in the East. When a rail line reached Abilene, Kansas, in 1867, Texas ranchers began to drive their cattle north to Abilene. The cattle then traveled east, destined for packing houses. The cattle industry began to grow rapidly as railroads made the business more profitable.

Large-scale ranchers profited, although the cowboys who drove the herds contended with dull lives and difficult jobs. By the 1880s, the open-range cattle industry extended from Texas to the Dakotas. Then the cattle boom peaked. The disastrous winter of 1886-1887, which followed an unusually dry summer, wiped out herds and forced ranchers into bankruptcy. Those ranchers who remained in business raised smaller herds of high-grade cattle, grew crops to feed them, and, to conserve this food supply, fenced in their livestock with barbed wire. The open range, in which cattle grazed freely, ended. Some ranchers moved farther west, to Wyoming and Montana.

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