Christopher Knowlton’s background might make you think him an unlikely candidate to write Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West (2017), the first major history of the open range cattle era in some four decades. A former staff writer and London bureau chief for Fortune, the Westchester County, N.Y., native spent 15 years on Wall Street, most of them as president of an investment management firm—big business experience that proved useful when researching the beef business. The avid fly fisherman, birder and pool player spoke to Wild West from Jackson, Wyo., where he lives with wife Pippa.
What led you to write about the Old West cattle industry?
Like most people, I have always been fascinated with cowboys and the tales of the Old West. Perhaps that comes from growing up with John Wayne Westerns and television shows like Rawhide. As a 16-year-old I leapt at the opportunity to spend a summer working on a cattle ranch in Colorado. I bucked bales, fixed barbed wire fences, herded cattle and even rode a bronco in a rodeo.
Many years later, after retiring from a job in New York City, I moved to Wyoming with my wife to write full time. While prospecting for a book idea (at the local library and on the Internet), I came across the story of the Johnson County War. From there I backed into the broader tale of the cattle boom. When I found the cattle ranch records in the American Heritage Center in Laramie, I knew I had hit pay dirt.
Your Wall Street background actually came in handy, yes?
I quickly realized this story had all the elements of a good business yarn, the sort of long-form journalism Fortune ran in its heyday. But the arc of the boom-bust was also very reminiscent of the financial debacles I had lived through as a money manager—the dot-com bubble and the more recent real estate and oil and gas booms and busts. I reasoned that if the story had resonance for me, it might have resonance for today’s reader. After all, our economy has become more prone to these traumas, and we need to learn from them. It also struck me that approaching the cowboy era from a business angle might offer a fresh perspective and new insights. I hope that’s true.
How did you go about researching the book?
A remarkable number of archives and library collections have been digitized. That helps. Still, I find there is no substitute for visiting the physical archives and snooping around. To see the actual receipts for every item a rancher bought while on a buying spree in 1884 in Cheyenne at the peak of the boom, or to hold the sheet music he used for playing the guitar and banjo, just gives you a more visceral, even tactile, sense of what life was like. The fun part of the research was visiting all the historical locales mentioned in the story and seeing firsthand, for example, the bullet holes in the barn at the TA Ranch where the Johnson County War shootout took place.
What did you uncover that surprised you?
The cattle boom was far more central to this country’s industrial development than I had realized. For example, the meat packers grew into the largest employers of their day and the first great American business enterprise. They also codified the managerial rules for corporations that would lead to American business preeminence in the century that followed. They even gave Henry Ford the idea for the assembly line.
How did European investment drive the cattle market?
We all know Great Britain sat astride the world throughout the 19th century, but readers may be surprised to discover what an active part the British played in the development of the American West. With centuries of experience raising cattle in Scotland and Ireland, they thought they knew something about the stock business. They also had the capital derived from the vast resources of their empire and were looking for better ways to invest it. Peers of the realm poured vast sums into Western cattle ranches and joint stock cattle companies, hoping to capitalize on the boom. It didn’t end well.
How did such innovations as refrigerated cars change the industry?
The late 19th century was, of course, the great era of American innovation. Both high-tech improvements like refrigeration and low-tech ones like barbed wire were formative developments for the cattle trade. I argue that barbed wire encouraged the range wars, contributed to the era’s demise and irrevocably shaped the American landscape. Refrigeration was equally important. Experimental refrigeration systems were erected in the holds of steamships, while ice was packed into the walls of railroad cars. Eventually, refrigeration allowed for the cattle to be slaughtered in Chicago, St. Louis or Kansas City and the cooled beef to be shipped in pieces, drastically lowering freight costs—a coup for the meat packers, who quickly came to dominate the business from the feedlots to steakhouses like Delmonico’s. Meanwhile, beef went from being a seasonal delicacy to a year-round staple, largely replacing pork, all thanks to refrigeration.
What did you learn about the role of range “executives”—ranchers, investors and the like?
Historian Lewis Atherton argued ranchers played a more important role than cowboys in shaping cultural events of the era. I agree. They were the entrepreneurs who took the risks, often betting their entire fortunes in efforts to convert the open prairie into profitable agricultural land. They created the jobs and the durable enterprises, even if their initial business model was soon proven wrong. By comparison, the cowboy was little more than an indentured servant on horseback, whose most important contribution may have been the creation of his own false myth, although admittedly it is a myth that has shaped American identity in important ways. The real success stories on the open range were those of men like Charles Goodnight, who arrived very early and formed his JA Ranch with his partner, John Adair, and the market timer Pierre Wibaux, the Frenchman who picked up the pieces after the Big Die-Up. Skilled Scottish managers, like John Clay, eventually brought the much-needed financial discipline. All were shrewd operators and survivors who knew how to game the system.
Which cattle towns resonated with you?
Today we’d call these pop-up towns. Who doesn’t love the story of how Joseph McCoy built Abilene from scratch but missed out on a fortune when he neglected to get his deal with the railroads in writing? Cheyenne was surely the most affluent of the towns, replete with cattle baron mansions and its world-famous Cheyenne Club, where a French chef served haute cuisine. The idea of British and American aristocrats gathering there after a game of polo, in white tie and tails, to swill champagne and smoke Cuban cigars in the middle of the American West in the 1880s, is certainly antithetical to our vision of the period, and yet it happened.
Could the ranchers have avoided the disastrous results of the hard winter of 1886?
Without the cash outlays for growing hay and building barns to store that hay, the ranchers had no way of avoiding the calamity. Ignorance of environmental sciences combined with economic illiteracy can be a toxic brew, as the cattlemen soon learned—and we will, too, if we are not careful. The ranchers fell prey to greed and the get-rich-quick lure of a frothy financial mania. And they failed to pay enough attention to Great Plains ecology and hedge against the possibility of a devastatingly cold winter. A few, like Theodore Roosevelt, saw tragedy coming but simply failed to act.
Just how violent was the open range era?
Not nearly as violent as we have come to believe. I looked at crime stats from the period and discovered the crime rate in cattle towns was about the same as in the big Eastern cities of the day. Homicides in the five major Kansas cattle towns totaled 45 between 1870 and 1885, and Dodge City accounted for 15 of those. Many cowboys couldn’t afford to own a handgun, let alone a pair—and didn’t want to. Revolvers were heavy, cumbersome and interfered with their work. Vice may have been prevalent in the towns, but violence was not, with a few obvious exceptions. The phony myth of constant gun violence was propagated by the dime novels of the day, and quickly spread to Hollywood and television Westerns, which require that heavy dose of drama.
Why do you refer to the Johnson County War as the “Watergate of Wyoming”?
Talk about cover-ups! Talk about fake news! The Cheyenne cattle barons used whatever power they had at their disposal to obscure and obfuscate what had happened during the Johnson County War. This wasn’t hard, as they wielded a great deal of power, from direct ownership of the local newspapers to complete control over the Wyoming Legislature, to say nothing of their topnotch legal talent on retainer. It took more than 100 years to uncover the truth, but we now know how and why it happened—and who really was to blame. They were, of cold-blooded, premeditated murder.
How does the period define who we are today?
Apart from its giant contribution to American business, the era gave birth to the conservation movement and one of the towering medical breakthroughs of the 19th century—how insects become disease vectors. The cowboy myth itself has informed our foreign policy in unexpected ways, encouraging episodes of vigilante-like conduct, to say nothing of shaping the public persona of numerous U.S. presidents. Look how many of them have styled themselves as cowboys: Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush. The myth is especially useful if you are trying to mask your patrician wealth or your urban roots. Like jazz, the iconic cowboy image remains quintessentially American and, happily, is here to stay.
What’s next for you?
I may do a book about an early and forgotten cattle drive that endured a disproportionate number of Wild West adventures—in the vein of Red River and Lonesome Dove. But I need to do more digging in the archives to see if there is enough original source material to back up the story. WW