In the nearly two centuries since sheep were first brought to Washington, sheep farmers have been rocked by financial panics, the Great Depression, soaring labor costs, foreign competition, catastrophic weather, and evolving consumer tastes, while also having their interests shouted down by cattle ranchers, crop farmers, conservationists, and even the media. During the peak of large-scale Washington sheep farming around 1920, an estimated 1.5 million sheep dotted the open ranges east of the Cascades, but much of the land already had been claimed for crops, fenced off by private owners, or otherwise made off-limits to sheep. By 1940 the essential character of the industry had changed, and most of the sheep in Washington were in farm flocks – small operations of a few hundred head owned by wheat farmers using year-round pastures adjacent to their farmlands. By 2019 most of the state's farm flocks consisted of 24 or fewer sheep being raised at diversified, family-owned farms, which appears likely to be the future of the sheep industry in Washington.
Coming of the 'Woolies'
Washington's sheep industry began with a laugh at the expense of the British. The year was 1829, and the first shipment of sheep brought to British traders at Fort Vancouver had recently arrived by boat from California, supposedly a hardy band of foundation stock for a planned breeding operation to help feed the fort and the Hudson's Bay Company's outlying trading posts. But when the sheep were turned out to breed, they were all found to be wethers (castrated males). Nary a ram or ewe among them. "The sea captain entrusted with the project was a better sailor than stockman," historian L. G. Connor observed in his 1921 volume, A Brief History of the Sheep Industry in the United States.
After this setback, the Hudson's Bay Company methodically built a sheep operation, the first in what is now Washington. By 1848 the sheep population at the fort had swelled to 3,000, and by 1850 there were 15,382 sheep in the newly created Oregon Territory -- more sheep than people. The largest number, 5,300 head, were at another HBC center, Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound. The HBC's farmhands were a mix of French Canadians, Scots, Americans, Iroquois, and Hawaiian laborers known as Kanakas. In 1853, a crew of Kanakas at Nisqually loaded 1,369 sheep onto the steamship Beaver and brought them to San Juan Island to establish Belle Vue Farm. In 1857 some 4,250 sheep grazed the island. When the so-called Pig War made it probable that the disputed territory would fall to the United States, the Hudson's Bay Company abandoned San Juan Island in 1862, leaving the decaying Belle Vue Farm to one of its shepherds.
At about the time the Hudson's Bay Company was retreating from Washington, the sheep business began to stir east of the Cascades. Sheep had arrived as early as 1838 when missionary Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) imported three ewes from the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and quickly built up a flock near present-day Walla Walla. The Treaty Wars of 1855 to 1858 halted settlement, but when the U.S. military reopened the interior of Washington Territory in 1858, settlers again began streaming in and claiming land. In 1859 Jesse Drumheller (1835-1907), who had come west in a wagon train led by Ezra Meeker (1830-1928), partnered with Billy Goodman in a sheep business near Walla Walla, and for the next 105 years, the Drumheller name was synonymous with Washington sheep ranching. His son T. J. Drumheller (1873-1954), who took over the business in 1900, moved the sheep operation to a sprawling former cattle ranch near Ephrata in 1906. In 1918, a boom year for the industry, Drumheller built a new sheep barn with room for 10,000 animals.
In 1869, S. M. Wait drove 5,000 sheep from Umatilla County, Oregon, into the area around present-day Dayton. The 1880 federal census of livestock noted, "Others soon followed from California and Oregon. The route of the drive is through Umatilla, across the Snake River up to Crab Creek, Big Lake, Wilson Creek and the Four Lakes; in the west from the Willamette region it is mainly over the military road, by way of Oregon City, Mount Hood, Deschutte's Bridge, Leonard's, Pendleton, and Weston, to Walla Walla and onward" (Paul, 50). Dayton, 30 miles northeast of Walla Walla, began as a wagon stop and grew into an agricultural hub so quickly that by the time brothers Peter and Archie McGregor arrived from Ontario, Canada, in 1882, nearly all the nearby land had been claimed. They opted to homestead about 50 miles away and took jobs with other ranchers, accepting minimal pay in exchange for part ownership ("shares") of future lamb crops. When they had accumulated enough shares, the brothers went out on their own. They were not unique: "Many immigrants arriving on the Columbia Plateau during the days of the open range – particularly men from France, Spain, England, Ireland, and Scotland – entered the sheep business in such fashion" (McGregor, 23).
Some of these newcomers became accidental ranchers, turning to sheep after failing at other pursuits. Most of them knew little about Eastern Washington's frigid winters. In 1860-1861, entire bands of livestock froze to death on the ice-encrusted winter range. A similar freeze 20 years later killed even more sheep. Eventually, necessary adjustments were made by the surviving sheep operators. They grew or bought hay and grain for winter feed, built holding pens and shelters, and hired more seasonal help. The cost of doing business rose accordingly.
Washington's sheepmen enjoyed a period of prosperity into the early 1890s, but the financial Panic of 1893 brought them to their knees. Wool and mutton prices in the West dropped to their lowest levels since the Civil War, and many farmers went bust. George McCredy, a Washington woolgrower, described the panic as a time when a sheepman "went to bed not knowing if he would wake up a sheepman or a sheepherder" (McGregor, 57). The giving of credit evaporated, and soon a dark story began circulating among the sheepmen of a "fellow (who) sent his wool to Boston during the depression. When it arrived, it wasn't worth enough to pay the freight. His broker in Boston wired him and told him that he owed $150 to pay the freight ... [The sheepman] wired back and said 'I do not have $150. Am sending more wool'" (McGregor, 58).
In 1894 brothers Lester (1865-1918), Arthur (1856-1921), and Stanley (1870-1940) Coffin moved from Oregon into North Yakima and began raising sheep. Already successful merchants and businessmen, the brothers had a golden touch with the "woolies" and soon were using their profits to buy or lease vast chunks of grazing land. Stanley Coffin visited Australia and New Zealand in 1917 to study their sheep operations and returned with 100 Romney, Lincoln, and Corriedale rams and ewes, breeding stock to improve bands in the Yakima Valley. By then the Coffin brothers had helped make Yakima County the epicenter of Washington sheep ranching. In 1900, according to the official census, there were 138,222 sheep in the county, about 30 percent of the state's total.
Meanwhile, sheep farming on the west side of the Cascades had been greatly diminished. Some 6,821 head remained in the dry microclimate of San Juan County in 1900, but most of the other counties had been consumed by the timber and coal industries and a rapid influx of settlers. Grazing land was scarce, much of it was too wet, and the forest reserve lands on the western flanks of the Cascades were off-limits to sheep. In Clark County, where the Hudson's Bay Company launched the state's first sheep operation in 1829, only 1,258 head remained.
Life on the Open Range
The seasonal and alternating migrations of livestock with humans is called transhumance. The practice, centuries old, was adopted in California in 1860 and then in Washington Territory, where the wide-open spaces were ideal for large-scale transhumant sheep farming. Sheep are voracious eaters -- they can graze for seven hours and mow eight miles of trail in a single day -- and the Columbia Plateau alone contained 50,000 square miles of potential grazing land, with few impediments. When settler George Waldron brought the first flocks into Klickitat County in 1860, he found not a single fence between the Columbia River and the distant Cascades.
By the late 1800s bands of migrating sheep were ubiquitous in Eastern Washington. Flocks were driven from the eastern counties over the old Mullan Road for summer grazing in Montana, from the Palouse into the forests of Idaho or south to the Blue Mountains, from the Yakima Valley onto the flanks of Mount Rainier, through the towering canyons of the Grand Coulee, into the high country above Leavenworth, and to the northern reaches of the Okanogan. Sheep were barged across rivers, ferried up Lake Chelan, and goaded single file over rickety bridges in the wilderness. Decades later, after Grand Coulee Dam was completed, they were driven across the top of the dam on their annual march to the high country.
The state's human population exploded after 1900. The wheat industry boomed, and sheep and cattle stocks soared. Large bands of sheep wintered in Whitman, Kittitas, Franklin, Walla Walla, Klickitat, and Yakima counties. Yet behind this prosperity, trouble loomed: Much of the available range had been claimed and turned under for wheat, leaving sheep and cattle ranchers – enemies in the best of times – to fight over the rest. Tensions escalated into the so-called range wars; outlaw justice prevailed and blood was spilled all over the West. This "legendary blaze of hatred toward herders in general" (Gossett, 123) claimed a Washington victim in 1914 when night raiders stormed the camp of Leo Brume near Wahkiacus, shot him, and killed 100 of his sheep. Hostilities would linger into the 1930s.
Early spring was lambing season, the most fraught time of the year. Depending on the size of the flock, lambing could go on "steadily for twenty-four hours a day for nearly a month" on spring rangelands with predators nearby, and where "a wet snow or a cold rain can cause heavy losses. Ewes may die in giving birth; lambs may be stillborn" (Shaw, 161). Lambing crews sought protected valleys with running water and early growth of grasses as ideal locations for lambing. Early shepherds would surround the birthing grounds with fires to ward off predators. When those proved insufficient, temporary corrals were built for birthing. Later, lambing took place in sheds. Coyotes were the most dangerous predator, attacking lambs with a slash to the throat and often eating them alive. Wolves, wild dogs, bears, cougars, panthers, bald eagles, and mountain lions all savaged and killed sheep. In 1905 Washington state put a $1 bounty on wolves and coyotes; the wolves were eradicated, but coyotes regrouped in larger numbers. In 1975, the state had an estimated coyote population of 150,000, outnumbering sheep nearly 3-to-1.
When lambs were several weeks old they were ready to begin their long amble to the high country. Often it took just one herder and his dogs -- usually border collies or Australian shepherds -- to move a flock of 1,500 or more. The crew included a packer who took care of supplies, moved the camp, and did the cooking. The men lived in wagons, shanties, or tents. As Yakima Valley sheepman Armando Fernandez recalled:
"[H]orses were used for moving the camps along with the sheep as they trailed. It was necessary to have at least two men with each band. Rifles were necessary to take care of the coyotes, bears, and cougars. Lambing crews were made up of a few neighbors who needed cash, and Spanish and Scotchmen who stayed on for the summer. Liquor was a problem. If the men could obtain it, many times they would get too drunk to do their jobs" ("Custodians ...").
The early shepherds were polarizing characters. "There is in the minds of the public a deep-seated prejudice against the range shepherd, the sheep herder, and he is often regarded as being an ignorant, lazy, and generally degraded individual," wrote Joseph Wing in Sheep Farming in America, published in 1912. "But in the main the herders are men of character and intelligence" (Wing, 239). The men most in demand were Spanish Basques from the Pyrenees Mountains, where transhumant sheep farming had been practiced for centuries. Basques trickled into Washington at first, then came in droves after 1952 when Congress authorized a program that allowed hundreds of Basque herders into the country on renewable, three-year contracts.
The Sheep Paradox
In 1869 a newcomer to the West, 31-year-old John Muir (1838-1914), signed on with a California sheep outfit to help drive 2,000 head into the High Sierra. Muir described the land that would become Yosemite National Park, and his growing contempt for the flock. "Sheep, like people, are ungovernable when hungry," Muir wrote, alarmed at the scarred earth left behind. "Almost every last leaf that these hoofed locusts can reach within a mile or two from camp has been devoured" (Muir, 76). Muir's concerns would find an audience in the Pacific Northwest after he cofounded the Sierra Club in 1892. Increasingly, the narrative about the sheep industry was being colored by conservationists and cattle interests. In 1901 The Seattle Times reported that streams and rivers above the Yakima Valley were being fouled by the 257,000 sheep permitted to graze on the eastern side of the Rainier Forest Reserve:
"Since the beginning of sheep grazing and the consequent natural destruction of the grasses (and) small trees, and the burning of the forests, the water supply has diminished until litigation has ensued, some lands have been deserted, and the homes of the people have been in danger. The water supply is befouled by careless bedding of sheep, the throwing in of dead carcasses, and the washings of filth from the mountain slopes into the streams carrying water to the farmers below. Many of the most dreaded diseases in other lands are attributed to these results of sheep grazing" ("Sheep Grazing Ruining …").
Yakima Valley's sheep farmers ultimately lost their access to forest-reserve lands by federal decree. Some left the business; others drove their herds to ranges with no restrictions. "Some went up into the Okanogan and Colville rangelands – and later to Chelan – even though it took from four to six weeks to trail a herd into those ranges" (Gossett, 126). But much damage had already been done, and by the turn of the century "the native bunch grass had all but disappeared because of overgrazing, and the cheat grass and other weeds had taken over the rangelands. 'Bob wire' fences were now crisscrossing the landscape" (Gossett, 126).
In Southeast Washington, the best land for wheat farming had long since been claimed, and range operators were pushed farther north and west into the scrubland of the Columbia Plateau or to other areas of the state that had yet to be irrigated. In Whitman County there were 1.3 million acres of unimproved rangeland in 1879, but 20 years later the range was down to 380,000 acres. In 1901 the state's Bureau of Statistics, Agriculture and Immigration published Agriculture, Manufacturing and Commercial Resources and Capabilities of Washington, a 334-page book of superlatives intended to lure newcomers to the state. The report correctly predicted imminent change for the sheep industry:
"Through the breadth of the state, the free range is being so rapidly restricted by the advent of settlers and the fencing of open tracts that in a few short years the range industry will be a thing of the past ... So far sheep have been confined to the ranges solely, and grown chiefly for wool ... In the future the immense flocks are bound to be reduced, and in their place will be found thousands of smaller flocks kept on enclosed pastures, grazing on the summer fallow and stubble fields of the wheat-growing regions, and fed on the surplus grain there produced. The type of sheep will doubtless change from a distinct wool-bearing animal to one more adapted to mutton" ("Agriculture, Manufacturing ..." 88, 91).
Getting to Market
Sheep are a wonderfully versatile commodity, supplying meat (lamb or mutton), wool, leather, and milk. Sheep fat is rendered to make tallow, an ingredient in lubricants, soaps, candles, and cooking oils. Lanolin, harvested from the fleece after shearing, is common in skincare products. One sheep "provides around 4.5 kilograms of wool per year, the equivalent of 10 or more meters of fabric. This is enough for six sweaters, three suit-and-trouser combinations, to cover one large sofa, or 15 chairs" ("About Sheep"). Market lambs are generally led to slaughter when they are six to nine months old and weigh about 140 pounds. Per the USDA, a market lamb "yields approximately 46 to 49 pounds of edible lean retail lamb cuts, semi-boneless" ("Lamb from Farm ...").
In the early days, wool was the only significant cash crop, "with mutton figuring in only as food for the herder or the family of the sheepman" ("Custodians …"). Shearing took place in late spring, and Eastern Washington farmers could trail their bands to shearing centers on their way to the summer range. For the McGregor operation prior to 1900, this meant driving the sheep 80 miles "to the Northern Pacific siding at Sprague, where shearing took place. Buyers from eastern wool commission houses were on hand and purchased the McGregor wool and shipped it by rail to their headquarters" (Counting Sheep, 91). In the 1930s there was a camp on the highway between Vantage and Ellensburg, "excellently located near a spring on the route between the winter and intermediate ranges and protected on the north by a valley slope ... When shearing is completed, trucks pick up the bags, and in a few hours, they will be in Portland warehouses to which will come Boston buyers" (Shaw, 164).
Often the only convenient way to get sheep to market was to walk them there. When Ellensburg farmer Jim "Dad" Wright found a Canadian buyer in the 1890s, he trailed his flocks over the Cascades at Naches Pass, down the White River Valley, and into Seattle, where the sheep were loaded onto ships for Victoria and Vancouver. Markets broadened considerably with the coming of an integrated railroad system. The Great Northern route, finished in 1893, linked Seattle with St. Paul, Minnesota, and points east and sparked more investment and expansion in the sheep business. In 1877 there were about 220,000 sheep in Washington Territory. By some estimates, more than a million sheep roamed the state by the late 1890s.
The nation's demand for mutton soared after 1895, fueled in part by a wave of immigrants from traditional lamb-eating countries across Eastern and Southern Europe. Washington sheepmen hurried to meet the rising demand, and "the increased railroad shipments made possible a change in the methods of marketing western sheep. Fat, young sheep could quickly reach markets where they were slaughtered as premium quality meat" (McGregor, 89).
The internal-combustion engine made it far easier to get Washington lambs to market. In 1923 the Drumheller operation pioneered the use of trucks to remove sheep from the summer range, contracting with a Twisp lumber company to transport market lambs through the Methow Valley to waiting rail cars at Pateros, about 25 miles away. This avoided a four-day walk in sweltering heat, during which the lambs would have lost valuable weight. Tom Drumheller Jr. recalled, "these hard-rubber-tired white lumber trucks were fitted with double-deck rough lumber racks, and that fall the Chicago Tribune announced the arrival of the first sheep at the Union Stock Yards to have traveled by both truck and rail. More important, our lambs had gained about seven pounds per head in Chicago" ("Custodians …").
Downsizing and Diversifying
It was clear by 1900 that Washington's sheep numbers would decline because of shrinking rangelands, and yet the industry, propped up by tariffs on foreign wool and rising demand for mutton, continued to boom through the 1910s. Prices peaked during World War I thanks to a strong wool market, and the 1919 crop brought a record $11.80 per head. But the period of postwar prosperity was shattered by the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. From 1929 through 1932, Washington lambs cost more to raise than they could fetch at market, and the price of Washington wool tumbled from 28 cents to 8 cents per pound.
In the wake of the Depression, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 to regulate public grazing lands, and New Deal programs poured hundreds of millions into agriculture. Subsidies for farmers, easing of credit, and gradually improving commodity prices helped the sheep business rally, although by 1940 "most of the sheep remaining in the region were in 'farm flocks,' small operations of a few hundred head or less owned by wheat farmers using year-round pastures adjacent to their farmlands" (McGregor, 325).
World War II propped up demand for sheep yet again, but then U.S. sheep numbers plunged, from a peak of 56 million head in 1942 to about 30 million by 1950 – a 46 percent nosedive. The demand for meat cratered. One theory, disputed by historians, was that American GIs were so repulsed by wartime rations of canned mutton that they swore off lamb forever. More broadly, American tastes were changing after the war as beef, chicken, and pork replaced lamb on dinner tables. The collapse would continue for 50 years; the 1997 federal census of livestock showed that most of Washington's farm flocks had 24 or fewer sheep. By 2017, Americans, on average, were consuming 50 pounds of pork and 58 pounds of beef per year – but just 0.8 pounds of lamb – about 13 ounces.
Much like mutton, wool fell victim to changing consumer tastes. Synthetic fabrics such as Dacron and polyesters proliferated. The 1995 expiration of the National Wool Act of 1954, which offered price supports for domestic sheep producers, further weakened the market for Washington wool, as did globalization of the textile industry.
In the 1950s, with their markets in tatters, Washington's sheep operators faced a decade of reckoning. Labor costs had jumped sharply, as had the cost of transporting sheep from one range to another. An additional deterrent "came in the form of low tariffs on mutton, which allowed the market to be flooded with a product priced so low that American growers could no longer compete" (Gossett, 127). Prominent names in Washington sheep began selling off their stock, some diversifying into other crops, others leaving farming entirely. Archie Prior and Co. sold its bands of sheep in 1954 and turned exclusively to cattle. Phil Kern sold out in 1970. Hislop & Son held on until 1975. McGregor Land and Livestock began phasing out in 1974 and sold its final clip in 1976.
At S. Martinez Livestock in the Yakima Valley, the last big range operation in the state, the yearly ebb and flow remained largely unchanged. Martinez lambs are born in late winter or early spring at the firm's lambing camp in Mabton, then transported into the high desert to graze. They move even higher into permitted grazing parcels in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest during the summer. Lambs are weaned in July and brought off the range, and the ewes come off in October to spend the winter grazing near Moxee. From a peak of about 12,000 head in the 1970s, the Martinez operation was down to 5,000 head by 2019, but the family-owned business was supported by diversification in apples, hops, and cattle. The future of the sheep industry in Washington is likely to be just this: smaller flocks integrated into diversified, family-owned farms.
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.