The rancher’s era
At the time of Sitting Bulls surrender at Fort Buford in the summer of 1881 the Northern Pacific Railroad had already reached the Little Missouri River, which opened up new possibilities for better or worse. During the year of 1883 about 10 000 buffaloes was killed and skinned roundabout the Badlands area and before the winter came just about all buffaloes were gone. The hides were shipped out from Sully Springs and Dickson on the Northern Pacific Railroad. For years to come the bones were collected from the prairie and shipped east to fertilizer factories.
Some saw an opportunity to breed cattle in North Dakota and soon the longhorn cattle drives came up from Texas to the vast open northern prairies. The base for a new beef industry to feed the fast growing population of America was laid out.
Amédée Marie Vincent Manca de Vallombrosa Marquis de Morès et de Montemaggiore, a complicated name of a likewise complicated man, usually called Marquis de Mores, born in France 1858. At the age of 21 he graduated from St Cyr military academy, continued to Saumur cavalry school, and after that he was assigned to the French colony of Algeria in North Africa. At the age of 24 he resigned, married Medora von Hoffman the daughter of a New York banker, and they traveled to North Dakota, claimed 45 000 acres near the Little Missouri Badlands to begin a ranching venture.
Sitting Bulls horses that had been confiscated at Fort Buford had to be disposed of, so they were sold to whomever and whatever. “Indian ponies” were not popular to say the least, after all the horses were associated with the American Indians and many families had bad memories and sorrows from decades of Indian wars and disputes. As always misconceptions, preconceptions and generalizations follow in the footsteps of ignorance and human herd behavior.
As good horsemen and curious newcomers Marquis De Mores and his wife Medora saw the qualities in the little tough Indian ponies that others despised. So when Sitting Bulls horses were sold or disposed by the US Cavalry, De Mores took the opportunity to buy 250 of the Lakota Indian horses. An act of impulse that later proved to be one of the most crucial steps ever taken for the preservation of the horse that later were to be called the Nokota horse (and probably the most prosperous undertaking De Mores ever achieved). De Mores and his wife were good riders and became very affectionate of the horses and kept them away from crossbreeding.
The prairie town of Medora was founded by De Mores in honor of his wife and a packing plant was built to process, pack and ship beef to consumers in Chicago. The Chicago beef trust managing corn raised cattle in the stockyards of Chicago was not happy about the competition so their connections in the North Pacific Railroad did their best to keep up the prizes for De Mores railroad transportations. De Mores was involved everywhere and by everything and at one occasion he and some of his men were involved in a gunfight against three hunters or rustlers and one of them was killed. De Mores was trialed for murder twice but was cleared both times.
Theodore Roosevelt came to Little Missouri in September 1883 to hunt buffalo and elk in the Badlands. He liked the life on the open range and decided to go into cattle business. He made a deal with S Ferris and W Merrifield and they started out with 400 cattle and within a year they brought another 1000 heads of cattle from Iowa and the year after that another 1500 heads. Still he was not one of the biggest ranchers in the area. Roosevelt and De Mores were ranch neighbors and often visited each other.
As common in those days the ranches were located on government or railroad land, so most ranchers were squatters and did not actually own any land. Cattle from different ranches roamed free on unfenced open range, some strayed in to the neighbors range and blended together. Every year the ranchers held two roundups to gather the cattle. The cattle were separated among the neighbors according to ownership, calves were branded and vendible cattle were shipped by railroad, or driven to slaughter at De Mores packing plant in Medora. A team of about 50 cowboys was required to do the job and each of them had a string of about 8 horses. First a team of men drove the cattle ahead to a gathering place near the river where the cutting took place (separation of individual cows). The cutting was a job for the most skilled and experienced horses and cowboys.
The devastating winter
Throughout the summer of 1886 more herds of cattle were driven into the crowded ranges. (Every steer needed about 20 acres to graze.) The summer was hot and dry, so grazing was poor. In November a really bad snow storm rolled in, after that there was a short period of mild weather so some of the snow melted and froze to a hard ice crust. The cattle could not get through to the grass so they starved badly. Then more snow storms and lower temperatures hit the open ranges. Not until early March the Chinook winds came down from the Rockies to break the winter.
The disaster was a fact. At the summer roundup only 25% of the cattle were still walking on the northern plains. Another rancher in the Badlands district, A.C. Huidekoper, wrote: “We had about the same number of cattle as when we had started (in 1881). We had done years of hard work, for no profit.”
Teddy Roosevelt and De Mores were among the many ranchers that lost almost everything and had to give up their ranches. The packing plant in Medora closed for good in 1887 and many moved out. Soon it was almost a ghost town and so was the Little Missouri village.
De Mores sold out and went back to France and then to China in 1888 to build a railroad to the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, but the project was turned down. Back in France again he was involved in various political blunders including a pistol duel against Alfred Dreyfus. In 1896 he went to Tunis to unite the Arabs in northern Africa against the British. His escort of Touareg tribesmen led him into an ambush and after a courageous gunfight he finally fell. He was buried in Paris, France.
Back in the Badlands, only a few ranchers continued, among them the Huidekoper’s at HT Ranch. When De Mores sold out Huidekoper bought 60 of the horses that De Mores had acquired from Sitting Bull.
The wealthy Pennsylvania farmer Arthur Clarke Huidekoper came to Medora in North Dakota the same year as Sitting Bulls surrender at Fort Buford. He bought several sections of railroad land and set up fences that also closed off unclaimed land. He started up a ranch business and raised cattle until the devastating winter of 1886-1887 after which he lost most of his cattle like everybody else. Huidekoper sold his remaining cattle and gave up the cattle business.
However his horses had survived almost without any losses so he began raising horses and called his ranch Little Missouri Horse Company under the HT brand (Huidekoper and Tarbell). He imported 35 Percheron mares from France and 6 stallions. A few Thoroughbred stallions from Illinois were bought to cross with the Oregon mares he had. He bred horses and sent the yearlings to his farm in Pennsylvania where they were trained and then sold to various companies as draft horses. The full blood Percherons and Thoroughbreds were held in three fenced pastures about 8 square miles each.
As mentioned he also bought 60 of Sitting Bulls horses from de Mores. “Some of these ponies had bullet holes through their necks, received in the Custer fight”, Huidekoper wrote in his memoires. The horses were bred in open pasture in a 100 mile square or more and they fed themselves. The horses didn’t mind the cold winters, as he wrote; “I have seen colts running around playing, with the thermometer in 40 below zero.” He cross bred some of the horses and sold them as polo horses for a good profit. The idea to breed in some Percheron into the Lakota ponies proved to be A.C. Huidekoper’s stroke of genious!
At the end of the 19th century the Little Missouri Badlands were opened to be claimed by homesteaders and that put an end to the era of open range ranchers. In 1906 Huidekoper was charged to have fenced land he didn’t own and was ordered to open it up for homesteaders, he was stubborn of course and had to spend a few days in jail. Soon after that he retired and sold his ranches and his horses, the finest range bred herd in the whole country.
How many horses that were actually sold is unknown. Probably there were a whole lot of horses that never were gathered at all when Huidekoper left, but simply stayed free out on the open range. The next part of this story will be about what happened after the big ranchers left and the horses once again were left to themselves up in the Little Missouri Badlands.
See you all later on down the trail!