Cowboys v. Rancheros: The Origins of Western
American Livestock Law
T HE PURPOSE OF THIS PAPER IS TO EXAMINE THE ORIGINS OF WESTERN
American cattle law. While this topic is important in both the histo-
ry and the mythology of the American West-including many myths cre-
ated in Hollywood--this is, to the best of my knowledge, the first
attempt to describe its sources and lineage on more than a cursory basis.
Indeed, much of what has been written so far about the history of cattle
law in the American West has been peripheral and incidental to the
main objectives of the writers who have touched on this subject. As a
consequence, much of what has been written is simply wrong.
For example, Sandra Myres, in writing about the ranching frontier of
Texas and Northern Mexico, has observed that the cattle laws adopted
in Texas and in the Great Plains states were "borrowed liberally from
Spanish rules."' This is not so. The laws of the Plains were copied liberal-
ly from England and the American East.
Walter Prescott Webb, the renowned Great Plains historian, believed
that cattle ranching in the West was decidedly different from stock farm-
ing in the East. As the leading advocate of the idea that the environment
dictates much of local history, Webb argued that the open-range cattle
system "arose naturally out of conditions peculiar to the setting." Ac-
cording to Webb, Eastern cattle law was unsuited to the West. He wrote:
"The Easterner, with his background of forest and farm, could not al-
ways understand the man of the cattle kingdom. One went on foot, the
* Ray August is an associate professor of law in the College of Business and Economics at
Washington State University. He holds a J.D. degree from the University of Texas at Austin, an
LL.M. degree in international law from the University of Cambridge, and a Ph.D. degree in his-
tory from the University of Idaho. This paper, slightly modified, was originally presented at the
October 1991 Western History Convention in Austin, Texas.
Sandra L. Myres, 'The Ranching Frontier: Spanish Institutional Backgrounds of the Plains
Cattle Industry," in Essays on the American West, ed. Harold M. Hollingsworth and Sandra L. Myres
(Austin: University of Texas Press for University of Texas at Arlington, 1969), 29, 30 (quota-
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 96, July 1992 - April, 1993. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101215/. Accessed March 9, 2014.