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A homesteader and his son with their milking cows, 1925. Courtesy of the Hobson Community Library via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

In the 1850s, one of the earliest large cattle herds in Montana was driven from Oregon for the Jesuit Priest, Father Desmet, to the Mission Valley in western Montana. Later, cattle drives from Texas brought a large number of stock to Montana following the Civil War. Texas herds had been left untended during the war and had grown beyond the land's grazing limits. Texas ranchers began trailing cattle northward to find new range lands. Many of these drives ended in Montana’s open grasslands. One cowboy, traveling north with a herd of 2,000 cattle, estimated there were 58,000 cattle within eyesight on the trail.

During the 1880s, the United States and Europe experienced population booms, which created an even greater demand for beef. The completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883 enabled Montana ranchers to ship their cattle to markets across the country.

In the drier parts of the territory, one cow needed 250 acres of land a year to graze. Some cattle ranches had 10,000 cows, and a few had as many as 40,000. Ranchers required vast amounts of land and water to support this booming industry. It was estimated in the spring of 1885 there were 500,000 cattle in Montana, and overgrazing had become an issue.

The winter of 1886–1887 was one of the most severe winters remembered by the early ranchers. Heavy early snows were followed by a warming trend, which was followed by another severe drop in temperature. Grass was frozen solid under the ice and already exhausted cattle could not paw into the ice to eat. Some estimate that 362,000 cattle or sixty percent of Montana's herds died of starvation that winter.