When folks from Montana talk about tough winters, several are mentioned: the winters of 1919-1920, 1935-1936, 1948-1949 and 1968-1967.Then  most likely the conversation will turn to the hard winter of 1886-1887...THE BIG DIE-UP. The severity of this winter has become legend. The truth is that this winter can be matched in terms of severity.  Other winters have tested Montanans with earlier blizzards, longer periods of sustained cold, deeper snows or less relief from chinooks.  THE BIG DIE-UP earned its name because of the tremendous livestock destruction that occurred.

                A number of factors combined to wreck havoc among Montana's cattlemen and sheepmen in 1886-1887. Stockgrowers had operated in the Montana territory since the 1860s but they had moved onto the grassy public domain only during the 1870s.Scores of livestock companies, both from the United States and abroad, flooded the Montana prairies with locally-bred cattle, Texas longhorns and cattle from the Midwest and the West Coast. Each outfit established their own range and ran from 500 to 75,000 head on its self-designated area of the public domain. Only an occasional voice reminded cattlemen of the dangers of overstocking.  While the winter of 1885-1886 had been a relatively mild one in Montana, it had been severe in Texas and the ranges to the south. As a result, cowhands trailed some 15,000 head from these hard hit regions to Montana. Much of the public domain in Montana became acutely overstocked.

    The winter of 1885-1886 had been relatively mild. However, the normal Montana spring rains did not materialize. By July of 1886, and extreme drought spread across the Montana plains The prairies grasses were stunted and sparse.  Grazing herds traveled further for less grass and both cattle and sheep put on little weight. That summer, temperatures were searing, and dry winds evaporated any moisture left in the grass mat. Temperatures were reported of up to 108 degrees. Creeks and streams were bone dry. Rivers as large of the Rosebud stopped flowing. Grasshoppers descended in large dark clouds on portions of the grasslands. Range fires stripped other grasslands of even their sparse growth. Autumn rains, when they finally did come, were too late to improve the grass..

      There were many signs that indicated a tough winter ahead. Beavers stocked abnormally large supplies of saplings for the winter. The bark on cottonwood trees had grown with unusual thickness and toughness. Ducks and geese started their southern migrations early. Many birds that normally wintered in Montana disappeared to the south. Muskrats built their creek houses twice the normal height; and their fur was longer and heavier than usual. Even the range cattle took on longer and shaggier coats of fur. In the middle of November, the winter hit with a fury.  An Artic storm brought 6 to 10 inches of snow that drifted with the howling winds. The temperature dropped to minus 20 and did not rise above freezing for the rest of the month. Herds of cattle and flocks of sheep drifted with the blizzard and many of the weaker animals perished. Cowboys and herders were found frozen.

          In mid-December, there was some relief, when temperatures moderated and the heavy snowpack began to melt. In some areas, there was a drizzling rain that resulted in a thick cover of  thick slush over the snow. Then in  late December, the temperatures dropped to the minus 30s. A thick crust of ice formed over the snow pack. Through January and February, temperatures remained below freezing and this impenetrable sheet of ice did not melt. Moreover, snowstorms and driving winds dumped additional snow on top of the ice. Bands of cattle drifted with the storms until they were piled up in draws or coulees or against line fences, where they froze to death standing upright. Lead cattle ventured onto frozen rivers where they tried to reach the open water flowing under air bubbles in the ice, only to be forced into the holes and drowned  by the anxious cattle that followed them. Surviving cattle tried to reach the grass but the ice crust cut their noses, which became bloody and swollen.  In places where they broke through the ice, the ice shards lacerated their legs. Most of them lost strength, and finally died. Coyotes, wolves and other predators stalked them without mercy. Hundreds of thousand of cattle and sheep perished.

     Finally, at the end of February, 1887, after more than 100 days of severe winter weather, a long awaited chinook (a warm dry wind that flows down the eastern slopes of the Rockies) arrived. Within a week, the snowpack disappeared and cowhands and sheepmen were able to survey the horror.  Bloating carcasses littered the ranges and were piled up grotesquely in draws and coulees. The carcasses had been ripped by wolves, coyotes, smaller animals and birds of prey. The stench of rotting meat carried for miles. Some streams were forced from their banks during the springs runoff, when carcasses of decaying cattle, sheep and horses dammed up their normal course.

           This tragic winter broke the back of many cattle speculators, and the hard winter brought many changes to the cattle industry. Montanans rebuilt cattle herds on smaller ranches with barbed wire fenced ranges, where they owned or leased the land instead of grazing cattle on the public domain. They learned the value of winter feeding and raised and stored hay. Cattlemen constructed barns, sheds and windbreaks to protect cattle during severe weather.  They brought in blooded bulls to raise the quality of their herds; and today, Montana cattle are valued for their hardiness.   Cowboy western poems ....5000, MINUS ONE and THE LONELY ONE  are featured on a previous page.

And here's a special one by cowboy poet, Mike Puhallo. 


The picture below  titled, THE FALL OF THE COWBOYS, is by Frederick Remington.  

Mike Puhallo's poem, THE BIG DIE UP refutes Remington's premise.


With "the big die up" in "88
some said the west was done.
And for a fact it forced a change
in the way a ranch is run.

They had to fence the open range
so cattle wouldn't stray.
They put in fields and water works
to winter cows on hay.

With "the big die up" in 88
some said the west was done.
But the days of cattle ranching
had really just begun.

Ranches keep on changing
more modern every day !
But there's still a place, for a good cowhand
to ride and earn his pay.

With "the big die up" in 88
some said the west was done.
But if heart and spirit count at all
HEY, folks we've just BEGUN!!!

Mike Puhallo
copyright 1995



                About the author.... MIKE PUHALLO

                            Mike is a partner in a cattle ranch as well as an artist and cowboy poet. He was on the rodeo circuit for twenty years starting at the age of sixteen.  Currently, Mike lives on a ranch in Kamloops,  British Columbia, along with his wife,  daughter, and son, .  (If you've never been there folks, this is one of the prettiest  places you could hope to find.)   A third generation rancher and rodeo cowboy, Mike has also found time to sketch and paint cowboy western art.  In this, he has a great deal in common with Charles M. Russell.  Russell was a working cowboy who both painted and wrote cowboy poetry.  Puhallo has this to say about his own art: "At night when the heifer's are calving, I stay up between the watches. It's a good time to paint."    

                            After attending his first cowboy poetry gathering in 1993 at the 108 Ranch, he was inspired to write his first cowboy poem entitled: "B.S."  A widely published  cowboy poet and western painter, Mike's rhymes touch people where they live. His poems are so genuine because this cowboy "has been there and done that". He now travels to western shows displaying his art and reciting his rhymes.  He has had three of his books of poetry published by Hancock House Publishers.   Mike is teamed with cowboy poet Brian Brannon and cowboy cartoonist Wendy Liddle.  Their books- Rhymes on the Range, Can't Stop  Rhymin' on the Range, and Meadow Muffins .    

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