Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West, by Christopher Knowlton, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2017, $29
The open-range era helped define what most Americans—not to mention people from around the globe—think of the Old West. Yet it was also big business. New York native turned Wyoming resident Christopher Knowlton uses his business and financial background (in stints on Wall Street and working for Fortune magazine) to provide true insight in the first major history of the cattle era published in more than four decades.
But don’t expect Cattle Kingdom to read like a business journal. Knowlton’s narrative style should appeal to scholars, history buffs and casual readers alike—and his take is utterly fascinating. Of course he covers the basics and staples, from cowboy Teddy Blue Abbott to rancher Theodore Roosevelt and cow towns such as Abilene, Kan., and Cheyenne, Wyo. But he also discusses how Gilded Age innovations and technological improvements touched the cattle industry, and how European influences drove the market.
Knowlton chronicles more than business. He vividly describes the terrible back-to-back winters in the mid-1880s—aka the Big Die-Up—that wiped out many ranches and changed the industry. He then moves on to the violence in Wyoming of the late 1880s and early ’90s. Not every historian is likely to buy into his interpretation of the source of rustling during that time, but there’s no denying his original thinking makes for an intriguing idea. As is his assessment of the Johnson County War, which, he writes, “illustrates how easily, even in a democracy, those in power can doctor the truth.” In short, Cattle Kingdom offers a fresh take on an old subject.
—Johnny D. Boggs