Why study sheep, sheepherders and carved aspen trees in Colorado? Because everywhere I go, sheep have been there first. From high alpine meadows in federally protected wilderness areas to sinuous sandstone canyons and all the public land in between, those acres have been grazed by woollies.
As a hiker, hunter and historian, I wanted to learn more about the sheepmen and sheepherders who were and are a vital element of Colorado history. I even invented a new word. I took two words, sheepherder and landscape, and made it one – sheepscape.
A sheepscape is a place on public land modified by sheepherders to become an historic archaeological site, such as carved aspen trees, stone cairns, wooden corrals up against a canyon wall or even a large cross erected by herders with a deep Catholic faith.
HHHAlthough there have been hundreds of books about Colorado cattlemen, mining and miners, no one had written about sheepmen and lonely sheepherders working by themselves with only their faithful dogs. The last comprehensive history about sheepmen in the American West was published 70 years ago. No one had described the violent cattle and sheep wars between 1880 and 1934 that dominated Colorado’s Western Slope, especially Bureau of Land Management lands sought after for winter grazing by both sheep and cattle ranchers.
Cowboys clubbed sheep to death. They ran woollies off cliffs. They poisoned sheep dogs, shot at and killed Hispanic sheepherders, and burned sheep wagons and the adobe ranch houses of sheepmen. The conflicts were ugly, racist and untold.
In 1892 in Pagosa Springs, a tragedy unfolded when Juan Montoya and other herders brought a huge flock of sheep, 20,000 woollies, along the West Fork of the San Juan River. Cattle rancher William Shaw, distraught over the recent death of his wife and baby son, rode out to harass and shoot at the sheepherders.
Shot in the shoulder, Montoya quickly levered a shell into his Winchester rifle and fired back, fatally wounding the Anglo county commissioner. The Archuleta County sheriff charged the young herder with murder.
“No other event for years so excited our people or caused such universal regret and sympathy. There are two sides to all cases and this one is no exception,” reported the Pagosa Springs News. Because of intense prejudice, the trial was held in Durango and lasted a week. On Jan. 12, 1894, the jury took only 15 minutes to acquit Montoya. In the American West, shooting back in self-defense was never murder. Unfortunately, only rarely in Colorado history did sheepmen or sheepherders have a successful day in court.
HHHOf the hundreds of books written about cowboys and cowboying in the American West, few volumes exist on sheep and sheepmen. Cowboys sing to their cows and ride the long circle each night around their herd but then return to their bedroll and a sidekick takes over. Not so with sheep.
Sheep stories abound. In Walsenburg during the Great Depression, a sheepman had his bank loan called in by the local banker, but the rancher had no funds – only sheep. The banker refused to extend the loan so the rancher did the only thing he could think of. He brought in his woolly assets on four hooves, surrounded the bank and closed off streets in town with baaing, bleating sheep. The banker relented and extended the rancher’s loan.
In the same decade in Rifle, a Works Progress Association artist thought he’d paint sheep on a mural he was preparing for the Rifle Post Office. Historian Stephen J. Leonard wrote: But “before the sheep could safely graze, cattlemen raised such hell that the postmaster swore that he preferred undesecrated walls.” Instead, the Depression-era mural, still visible today, features a big mountain, a few horses and a dog. Leonard says that the Denver Post Office did get sheep – sculptures of mountain sheep.
In some Colorado place names, the nomenclature refers to wild mountain sheep, probably Rocky Mountain bighorns, but often the reference was to domestic woollies. The two have shared the same high-altitude ranges. Now, domestic woollies can pass a pneumonia-like virus on to wild bighorn sheep, with fatal results.
As for the lonely herders, imagine that instant panic when dusky grouse explode off the ground and fly up into tall pines. One herder with grouse nearby his camp carved Mucho Gallinas Aqui, or “many chickens here.” Of course, the herders and camptenders would arrive once every five or seven days to bring supplies, but still those were hours and hours alone and sometimes ghosts were in the forest. Certainly, there are stories.
HHHSheepherder lore drifts and settles like mist rising off a mountain stream at dawn. Tales on the Routt National Forest reverberate from a place named Dead Mexican Gulch where a herder paid the price for being too successful in a poker game and was killed by avenging losers who followed him back to camp. It’s marked on the forest map with the symbol of a grave.
I sought to become a voice for the voiceless, for those herders who spent years of their lives, almost always alone, with their sheep and their dogs and a horse or two. But also a voice for the land, how it was used, abused, restored, and how it is being used now, primarily for recreation.
Where Colorado sheep once wintered in the broken canyon country between the Green and Colorado rivers, parts of that area are now Canyonlands National Park. Dynamite-blasted sheep trails are popular hiking and mountain biking venues for visitors who have no idea that lonely sheepherders once clutched cold coffee cups where they luxuriate in distant views.
In my book, “The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes,” the timeline goes to the present. I discuss Peruvian herders and the expanding market for lamb, whose buyers are primarily Muslims living in cities and urban areas. They prefer fresh, unblemished American lamb to frozen imports from Australia or New Zealand.
Sheep-owning families prospered when multi-million-dollar ski areas came in to remote valleys. The land grandfathers bought for sheep pastures, patriarchs who barely spoke English, created a fortune for their grandchildren. Sheep browse became condos or starter castles for second-homeowners at Copper Mountain, Vail and near Telluride at Aldasoro Ranches.
HHHAs a history professor, I was able to research and write “The Woolly West” because Fort Lewis College has a commitment to the liberal arts, stamped on our college seal, and to connecting with local communities. Thanks to the college’s Board of Trustees, I received a sabbatical in 2015 to take a semester and do on-the-ground research. I also made use of Faculty Development Funds to cover some travel expenses around the state.
So, I am deeply gratified that, in April, “The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes” won the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Museum & Heritage Center for Outstanding Non-Fiction. In May, “The Woolly West” won the Colorado Book Award for History.
I am indebted to all the families and historical societies that offered me assistance. I tried to write a good book. I guess I didn’t do to baaaaaaadly.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at [email protected].