The rearing of sheep was not an important enterprise in Texas at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The sheep themselves were mostly of a breed called ‘chaurros’, a lean, gaunt kind of sheep that looked almost like a goat. They were acceptable for mutton, but their wool was coarse and sparse and had limited uses such as for weaving coarse blankets.
However in the 1830s and 1840s, some pioneers in sheep farming brought about significant changes. They introduced breeds like the Merino and the Rambouillet which needed more attention than just to wander the hills in the company of a shepherd like the ‘chaurros’ but which, conversely, gave good quality wool. Some operators bred the newly arrived breeds with the ‘chaurros’ for greater hardiness. However the emphasis from now on was on the production of wool rather than mutton and the wool was sent to mills in New England where a new market had emerged.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for the sheep farmers. They naturally came into competition with cattle ranchers who, as the far better established group, regarded them as interloping nuisances. Cattle ranchers had the ear of local government so it was almost a foregone conclusion that any dispute would be decided in favour of the cattleman rather than the sheep herder.
Sheep farmers argued for grazing on public land while cattle ranchers tended to fence off territory regardless of whether it was public or private. Cattlemen were trying to mark out boundaries and prevent rustling, as well as keeping others off their preferred grazing grounds, but they also had a justifiable fear of sheep scab which is caused by mites and can affect cattle as well. Nonetheless the sheep herders were joined by open range cattlemen in their opposition to cattle ranchers putting fences across the range, and their joint response was to cut and roll fences out of the way – the Fence Cutting War. In the case of the shepherds, there was also racism at work because many of them were Hispanic or Native American, plus it was easy for a cowboy on horseback to look down upon and antagonise a shepherd on foot or on the back of a donkey.
One of the earliest Texas Sheep Wars took place in 1875 along the Mexican border in the Charles Goodnight range. This was followed by a number of other wars in different parts of Texas. However the conflicts were a great deal more violent elsewhere. They occurred in 8 states or territories and caused the deaths of 54 men and the slaughter of possibly over 100,000 sheep.
The response to the Sheep Wars in Texas was to make some attempts to control the sheep herders. Sheep inspectors were appointed, whose job was to quarantine sheep affected with scab. This had the result of driving the sheep herders under cover. Then laws totally forbidding sheep herders from grazing their flock on public land proved impossible to enforce. After that sheep herders were required to have a certificate declaring their flock had been inspected and was without scab before they could cross a county border. Then fence cutting was made a felony, but sheep herders were in some cases effectively forced to cut them owing to a land rush which meant they were often unable to secure adjoining pastures. In the end, a code was developed whereby shepherds had to drive their flock a certain distance per day over private land and therefore not overgraze. Peace was finally made.