Beef cattle have been an economic driver in Washington's agricultural history since the first cattle arrived by ship with Spanish explorers in the late 1780s. Production soared with the rush of gold miners in the 1840s as cattle pastured in Puget Sound fed Canadian miners. After the rush, beef fed immigrants flocking to the Puget Sound area. Cattle roamed the state, adding to the stories of cattle drives, barons, and range wars. Irrigation projects and the depletion of rangeland in the early 1900s changed the landscape as ranchers fenced in their cattle and diversified with crops. By 2019, there were more than 9,000 cattle ranches in the state with a combined 2019 economic impact of $5.7 billion. Cattle and calves are the fifth-highest-valued agricultural commodity in Washington behind apples, milk, wheat, and potatoes. Cattle prices have increased in recent years, but Washington's cow-herd inventory in 2019 was a 30-year low.
The First Herds
Spanish ships brought the first cattle to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1780s, arriving at an armed Spanish outpost at Nootka Sound, which is now Canada's Vancouver Island. Spanish explorers brought livestock, including cattle, in 1792 to their newly established military fort at Neah Bay, at the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula. The fort was abandoned a few months later.
The Hudson's Bay Company in 1824 began building Fort Vancouver on the lower Columbia River near today's Vancouver. George Simpson (1792?–1860), governor of the Hudson's Bay Company's Northern Department, reported that the area was "capable of pasturing numerous herds of cattle" (Kershner). Fort Vancouver was home to one of the state's earliest cow herds. Starting in 1833, the company also raised cattle at Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound.
In 1825, cattle from Fort Vancouver were driven to the company's new trading post, Fort Colville, strategically placed on the Columbia River at the top end of the two-mile portage around Kettle Falls. By 1837, Fort Colvilee would become the primary supplier of agricultural products east of the Cascades into the interior.
In 1843, William Fraser Tolmie, a young Hudson's Bay Company recruit, returned to Puget Sound to command Fort Nisqually, where the HBC had created the Puget Sound Agricultural Company and built up animal stocks. In 1850, Fort Nisqually was home to 2,280 horned Spanish cattle and 5,872 sheep.
Pioneers Bring Cattle
More pioneers moved into the region after the U.S. Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which granted 320 acres to each adult U.S. citizen who arrived in Oregon Territory before December 1850. Soon cattle and crops mushroomed across the countryside in 320-acre segments. The creation of Washington Territory in 1853 stimulated further growth, and more immigrants came after Congress passed the Federal Homestead Act of 1862. Early settler James Longmire (1844-1925), who would later raise cattle on the Yelm Prairie, crossed the Naches Pass with the first immigrant train in October 1853.
By the late 1850s, settlers and their cattle were scattering across the state. Between 1860 and 1880, cattle and sheep raising dominated agriculture east of the Cascades. There were 327,811 head of cattle in the Territory in 1860 and sheep were almost as numerous.
Some ranchers drove their herds over Naches Pass, the same route Longmire's immigrant train followed. But when Puget Sound's population center shifted north to Seattle, Eastern Washington ranchers began to use Snoqualmie Pass more frequently. In the summer of 1877, more than 3,000 cattle were driven from the Yakima Valley over Snoqualmie Pass into the Puget Sound region. Most of the meat was butchered in Seattle and distributed to cities and towns on Puget Sound or north to Victoria, British Columbia.
As more settlers arrived, Native people in the region adopted some of the agricultural practices the newcomers brought with them. In 1840, Dr. John McLoughlin, Procurator of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, sold a few head of cattle to Chief Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877) of the Yakama Tribe. The southeastern regions of the Cascades were soon covered with the chief's herds.
The cattle in the Northwest were mostly quality English breeds, superior to the Texas Longhorns found in the Southwest. From east of the Cascades, herds were trailed to Canadian mining camps, and eastward to stock the northern Great Plains ranges and farms. By the 1880s, when ranching was at its peak in the Yakima Valley, it was estimated that there were 200,000 cattle in the valley. A. J. Splawn, a legendary cattleman of that era, reflected on the area he saw when he first arrived, describing it as "a perfect carpet of grass it was a beautiful sight to behold, a paradise for stock" (Kershner). Ben Snipes, who is described as "the stuff of Western legend" (Becker), began driving cattle through the Yakima Valley in 1859. He returned five years later, and eventually grazed as many as 50,000 head in the region. By 1864, Snipes owned the most cattle in the Northwest, with an estimated 125,000 head of cattle and 20,000 horses.
The Cayuse Tribe began raising livestock, including cattle, near the Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu (near Walla Walla), which was established in 1836 by missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. In 1842, several Cayuse went to Willamette to trade horses for cattle. Two years later, Narcissa Whitman reported that "some were going out eastward along the Oregon Trail as far as Fort Hall to trade their 'cayuses' (Cayuse horses) for emigrant cattle" (Rowe).
In the Spokane area, Chief Spokane Garry and his indigenous people grazed cattle and planted crops. In 1853, Francis B. Owens, a cattleman driven out of Montana by the Blackfeet Indians, brought some 600 head of cattle and 500 horses to feed in the valley along the Spokane River.
Worn out settlers traveling the Oregon Trail found respite at Fort Walla Walla, many deciding to stay instead of achieving their goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean. During the 1850s these pioneers prospered in the cattle business. All that was needed was "a $10 horse and a rope" (Rowe). The premium on food, as well as the bunchgrass lands along the Snake River and in the Columbia Basin, attracted cattlemen. By 1852, cattle ranching dominated the Klickitat Valley.
Sheep and cattle ranchers often established a homestead. Livestock grazed on the open range, leading to the need for owners to brand their animals with unique symbols to identify ownership. The Balloon Bar brand is the oldest registered brand in Washington, recorded on June 11, 1868. Six generations later it is still found on livestock grazing in the Kittitas Valley.
The cattle rancher of that time was described by historians William Galbraith and E. William Anderson as a special type of character:
"The old-time cattleman, the rangeland operator of 1850-1890, was probably the toughest, most courageous, most independent, sometimes the kindest, and often the orneriest character this country ever produced. From where we are now, he appears to have been in some respects a man of vision and in others a man without foresight ... Let's look at some of the facts of life that faced him. First, he had to acquire a few head of cattle and get them to the open range. Then his troubles really began. To name a few, there were marauding Indians; rustlers (other men trying this method of getting a start for themselves); natural predators such as coyotes, wolves and cougars; poison weeds and roots which cattle often ate; rattlesnakes; natural disease; grass and forest fires; and bitter cold winters. These things the cattleman accepted, fought, and finally overcame. His real fight for existence was yet to come" ("Grazing History ...").
The description seemed to fit the cattlemen in the area of Colfax, which was almost exclusively a cattle center and where gun fights were common and sometimes there were lynchings. Colfax wasn't alone; vigilante justice was exacted elsewere in the state: "Sheepherders and cattlemen squabbled over range and water rights; well-organized gangs of rustlers drove stolen cattle over the Canadian border. Dance halls and saloons prospered, for the cowboys from the range and miners from the creeks were easy spenders. The ineffectiveness of the courts and officers of the law resulted in the organization of vigilante groups in 1865 near Walla Walla. They took the law into their hands, and soon the neighboring trees bore gruesome fruits; in one month several men were hanged. The law could no longer be broken with impunity in Walla Walla" ("Washington: A Guide to ...").
Miners Need Meat
After the Treaty Wars ended in 1858, mining increased in the region. A gold rush in British Columbia was on, and by the early 1860s miners swarmed into the Columbia River Basin and adjoining areas. Whether successful or not in their quest for gold, miners needed food. This was an opportunity for stockmen and farmers, many of whom resisted the lure of the gold fields. Cattle from Washington and Oregon were the primary source of fresh beef for British Columbia miners. Cattle had been accumulating in the Puget Sound region for years. Some were driven from California to the Willamette Valley. More had been brought across the plains by annual immigrations since 1843. By 1858, western Oregon was the cattle reserve of the Pacific Northwest.
Cattle destined for the mines of eastern British Columbia went up the Columbia River to The Dalles, and then were driven north to the desired markets. The most important route through Eastern Washington was through the Okanogan Valley. Some cattle bound for Vancouver Island were shipped from Astoria or Portland to Victoria. But for the most part, the cattle intended for the areas of the British Northwest accessible by sea were crossed to the north bank of the Columbia River and driven by the Cowlitz River route overland to Puget Sound.
Large bands would pasture on the lush grasses of the Puget Sound Basin until the Canadians needed meat. Steilacoom became the chief cattle-shipping port on Puget Sound. The importance of this market was highlighted in 1863 when a Civil War embargo was enacted. President Lincoln soon amended the embargo, realizing Pacific Coast exports, especially beef to British Columbia, were not impacting war efforts back east.
By 1865 Victoria's boom days were over and exports of American cattle to British Columbia began declining until the vanishing point in the years 1881-1883. In 1866 British Parliament passed an act for the union of the Vancouver Islands and British Columbia. The act abolished Victoria as a free port, meaning tariffs would be placed on beef and dairy cattle. From the middle 1870s onward, the Victoria market was unimportant to Pacific Northwest cattle producers.
By the early 1870s, the Yakima Valley and the Columbia Plateau took over from Oregon as the cattle reserve of the Pacific Northwest, feeding the growing Puget Sound region. Walla Walla also became a supply center for equipment and livestock for miners and mule packers traveling to the gold mines in the mountains of western Montana, northern Idaho, and interior British Columbia.
As the number of homesteaders grew, so did the miles of fences and barbed wire destroying the open-range system of cattle (and sheep) ranching. Near Creston, disputes between homesteaders and ranchers were storied. "In frustration and vengeance, ranchers occasionally drove their herd through fields. They also pulled up surveyors' stakes to stymie homesteaders intending to file legal claims" (Kirk and Alexander, 86).
Railroads added to the distruction of the open range. The U.S. government granted land to railroad companies to encourage westward expansion. Some railroads allowed open grazing on their lands. As more people raised cattle, they competed for grassland and water. The cattle ranchers fought with sheep herders, who could raise sheep for a lower cost than cattle. Cattle ranchers complained that sheep destroyed the grass with their rough hooves.
Financial booms and busts were a common feature of the farm economy, and promoted poor land-management practices. By the 1870s, the ranges were fully stocked. Stockmen didn't understand the fragile nature of the local vegetation. Harsh winters caused even more troubles. At the start of ranching in the region, winters were mild but then winters became daunting with blizzards. The winter of 1861-1862 was especially hard. Thousands of livestock died by starvation and exposure with some stockmen losing entire herds. The deep freeze emphasized the need for raising and storing crops such as hay, bringing numerous farmers to the "forty-bushel" land. Soon broad wheat farms, supplemented by staple crops of potatoes, corn, and apples, appeared.
During the brutal winter of 1889-1890, Douglas County stockmen saw as many as 90 percent of their herds starved, frozen, or drowned when cattle seeking water broke through the ice on lakes. As the snow thawed in the spring of 1890, residents discovered cattle carcasses jamming lakes and decaying in heaps throughout the area. The settlers were in "a sad plight," according to An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country, published in 1904, and "the stench from these [dead animals] was unbearable and threatened an epidemic ... most of the stock had died and there was no seed grain in the country; money was scarcer than that, if possible" (An Illustrated ..., 549).
Settlers combined resources for wheat seed, which was a successful endeavor. Farming became more lucrative than ranching, finally ending the open ranges. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Interior established control over public grazing lands in 1905, causing even more ranchers to diversity and add crops to livestock operations. Stockman accepted they needed winter feed and shelter for their herds. They bought additional land for haying and erected more fences so they could have year-round control of their herds.
Like today, large areas remain where native grasses are better suited for cattle raising than for agriculture. By the 1940s, some of the best grazing lands remaining in the state were in the national forests.
To boost agricultural production, irrigation projects became popular at the same time that rangeland was converting to farmland. Farmers and investors developed central Washington's Yakima, Wenatchee, and Okanogan valleys with the help of the irrigation projects built by the U.S. Reclamation Service after 1902. Within a decade central Washington had become one of the most productive fruit and vegetable regions and the apple capital of the United States.
Smaller, localized irrigation projects -- hand-dug ditches -- were common. The first large-scale irrigation project in the Columbia Basin was built in 1859 in the Walla Walla River valley and others soon followed. Construction of Grand Coulee Dam began in 1934, the start of the Columbia Basin Project that would include 300 miles of canals and provide irrigation water to more than 600,000 acres of Central Washington farmland -- area that had been rangeland for cattle, horses, and sheep.
Although changed, cattle ranching remained profitable. The number of cattle and calves in Washington continued to grow, dipping in numbers starting in 1906 before starting to rise again in 1913 to 475,000 head. By 1919, there were 630,000 cattle and calves reported in the state along with 248,000 dairy cows. Yet the roaring 1920s weren't so lucrative for cattle produces as inventories decreased before starting to recover by 1929. A report from Kitsap County showed farming and agriculture, including beef production, contributed $146,894,700 to the state's revenues in 1929, a 5 percent increase from the previous year.
In a February 20, 1920, editorial in the Spokane Daily Chronicle, Edward C. Johnson, the dean of agriculture at Washington State College, encouraged extensive one-crop farmers to consider diversifying to livestock production. Johnson noted that the Spokane market was vibrant, and the local stockyard's receipts were increasing, 23 percent over 1918, and the packing plants, especially Armour and Co., were willing to expand.
Large cattle herds remained along the base of the Cascade Range and in the highlands of the Okanogan, Snake, Yakima, and Spokane valleys, where dry farming was impracticable. There were 327,000 head of beef cattle, largely within these regions, in 1935. Yet highly productive farming areas still had beef cattle. For example, in the Dayton area, C. J. Broughton had a band of Wheatland Shorthorns, one of the famous herds of beef cattle in the United States in the 1940s.
Farming and ranching trends shifted again after World War II. Farmers began to specialize in monocultures instead of mixing crop and livestock operations, and it became common to raise livestock separately on feedlots or isolated operations. Production followed predictable cycles: When prices increased, more cattle were added to the inventory and when prices dropped, cattle were culled. Nationally, demand peaked during World War II, with the number of cattle in the United States increasing to 85.6 million in 1945 before declining to 76.8 million in 1949. Despite this pattern, cattle numbers were on an upward trend from the end of the war until the 1980s.
Washington's decline from a 1984 inventory of 436,00 cows to 209,000 cows in 2014 was 52 percent, about double the rate of decline of the U.S. herd level. In 2014, there were 5,938 beef cow-calf operations in Washington. Sixty-five percent of these ranches raised fewer than 10 beef cows, which is only 3 percent of the state's total inventory. Meanwhile, large ranches with more than 500 beef cows accounted for 63 percent of the cattle inventory but only 0.5 percent of the number of ranches across the state.
Washington's beef industry is active in all three production sectors: cow-calf, feedlot, and packers. In 2014, Washington cattle production inventories based on USDA reports were 209,000 calves produced, 488,000 finished feedlot steers and heifers sent to slaughter, and 1.072 million head of cattle slaughtered. All told, the Washington beef industry had an estimated economic impact of $5.7 billion while shipping beef all over the world. The packing sector led this economic contribution, with two major operations accounting for 61 percent of the total economic contribution of the state. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. in Wallula opened in 1966, and Agri Beef owns the processing plant in Toppenish. The total employment in the state in the beef industry in 2014 was 13,933 jobs.
Most of the beef cattle in the region -- Washington, Idaho, Oregon -- are slaughtered in Washington. In 2015, roughly more than 1 million head of cattle were slaughtered in Washington, compared to 63,000 in Oregon and 35,000 in Idaho, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In 2019, according to the state agricultural overview, there were 228,000 beef cows, 1.2 million calves, and 240,000 cattle on feed in Washington.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.