Abstract: Hard Winters, International Capital, and the Rise and Fall of the Land and Cattle Company in the United States

Joshua Specht


In the 1870s and 1880s, boosters across the United States approached prospective investors with a simple pitch: American land was cheap and there was an insatiable consumer hunger for fresh beef. Eager investors soon funneled tens of thousands of pounds of capital into American cattle ranches. However, the enthusiasm for land and cattle companies was short lived. In the late 1880s, several disastrous winters caused a collapse in cattle herd sizes and prices. Big ranches went bankrupt and sold off their herds, piecemeal, to smaller ranchers. My paper seeks to understand the Land and Cattle boom through the ecology of the cattle ranch. I argue that a ranch in the 1880s had a dual existence, as a space actively managed for profit and as an ecosystem dependent on cattle foraging and reproducing far from the ranch house. I agree with dominant accounts that the bust was a consequence of businesses' inability to rationalize the Plains ecosystem, but go a step further and suggest that in the 1880s, profitability was possible only under conditions that made rationalization partial and incomplete.