The ranching history in the Mancos Valley began with cattle, which arrived in the valley with the early settlers in 1876. Shortly after the first permanent settlers, Dick Giles and Harry Lee, built the first log cabin in 1875, other settlers were attracted by a land “verdant with grass and trees and watered by a wonderful stream of pure mountain water” (Freeman, 2005:27). With them they brought cattle and horses. Notably, Manse Reid and Charley Frink, who had visited the valley in the spring of 1876, came back in the fall with herds of cattle. In the same fall they were followed by other cattlemen who brought in herds, and later still others brought herds by the thousands and turned them loose in the valley (Freeman, 2005:28).
Fern Ellis in her book Come Back to My Valley writes an entertaining narrative of how recent valley settlers greeted a cattle drive headed by Major Daniel Sheets. The large herd was headed for Utah, but among the cowboys were Lou Paquin, Charley Frink, Wylie Graybeal, and John Gregor, all of whom returned to the valley to establish homes (Ellis, 1776: 4-5).
It was not an easy life. There were instances of local natives killing cattle and of horse theft, but settlers reacted with diplomacy and shared with the Indians (Freeman, 2005: 28-29).
Jim Frink is recognized among early cowmen, along with Jaspar Butts who summer pastured at the T-Down corrals. Working cattle was and is a dangerous business; Butts died of a broken neck, probably from a fall off his horse, while tending his cattle near T-Down (Freeman, 2005: 29-30).
In the first years a little grain, for feed for horses, was grown in the valley (Freeman: 2005:31).
Dressed beef could be sold locally and to the area mines. The trail was too arduous to get cattle to markets in the east. In 1881 the railroad came to Durango, thirty miles to the east of Mancos. Freeman writes, “Stockmen began driving their cattle to Durango for shipment to the market, which brought in considerable money and a great relief as, prior to this time, money had almost gone out of circulation in every part of the country” (Freeman, 2005: 31).
The Rio Grande Southern Railroad reached Mancos ten years later. According to Ellis, “No more would the cattlemen be compelled to drive their cattle over the long road to Durango for shipment to markets” (Ellis, 1976:31). The railroad, in one form or another, would serve Mancos for fifty-three years before closing down in 1946 (Ellis, 2004:95).
The authors Ubbelohde, Benson, and Smith (1982) state, “During the early years the range cattle enterprise offered a relatively free and open economic opportunity to anyone. The cattle themselves were the only major investment. Everythings else – water, feed, cowboys’ wages – was either free or very inexpensive” (177). Also, investors at home and abroad created corporate ranching, forming investment companies with good return on their money (Ubbelohde, Benson, & Smith, 1982:177-179). Historical records refer to the Mancos Cattle Company (Elliott McGalliard and James Frink) and the McGalliard-Stevens Cattle Company in the Mancos Valley (Ellis, 1976: 181 & 184). There is more research to be done on the area’s old cattle companies.
Several cattlemen ran cattle on Mesa Verde. They reached the top of the mesa by various trails named for the cowmen who followed them – White, John Hammond, Frink, and Wetherill (later the Prater Trail). Freeman states, “It was while riding after their cattle in the fall of 1888 that Richard and Clayton Wetherill discovered the great Cliff Palace ruin on the Mesa” (Freeman, 2005: 32). [Other histories also list Charlie Mason as a discoverer.] Mesa Verde, the home of Ancient Puebloan peoples from approximately 600 to 1300 AD, would become a national park in 1906 (Ubbelohde, Benson, & Smith,1982:242). The original Wetherill place, Alamo Ranch, has become well-known as the home of the famous Wetherills (Freeman; 2005: 32).
Wardrip in her book Montezuma’s Trails of Time reports, “Colorado was the first state to require brands on cattle to identify ownership, ratified in 1885 and recorded with the Secretary of State. In 1899 the State Board of Stock Inspection Commission controlled all brand registering and recording” (Wardrip, 1993:41). With the establishment of the Colorado Stock Growers Association, brands were registered with a county clerk for twenty-five dollars and with the state for fifty cents (Wardrip, 1993:41).
The Mancos Valley had a connection with well-known cattleman Charlie Goodnight for whom is named the Goodnight-Loving Trail, a trail used for cattle drives in the late 1860s. His nephew James Lorenzo (Jim) Sheek lived with Charlie from age twelve, learning the cattle business and trailing cattle on the famous trail. After marrying he visited Mancos where his father John Wesley Sheek had homesteaded in 1877. The family was determined to move to the valley but did not accomplish the move until 1904. Jim became president of the Cattlemen’s Association and was instrumental in convincing local ranchers to import registered Herefords to improve cattle herds. Jim was also known for having one of the best cutting horses in the country (Holston & Trevino in Ellis: 1976:181-2).
Montezuma County where Mancos is located was largely cattle country until about 1900. Then, to the indignation of the cowboys, sheep began to arrive (Wardrip, 1993:43). The demand was great for mutton and wool in new Colorado communities. The Merino sheep had been introduced to Colorado in 1869, and breeding of a better quality sheep was introduced (Ubbelohde, Benson, & Smith, 1984:181) The Robb family became well-known sheep ranchers in the Mancos Valley.
At the turn of the century the area was still open range for cattle, but, in 1906, open range came under the supervision of the National Forest, changing the face of the cattle business (Holston & Trevino in Ellis: 1976: 181). Fencing had began due to an increased population claiming the formerly open lands. Barbwire had been perfected in 1874, making the fencing of open land more feasable. At first the cattlemen had not been hindered in closing off even the public acreage, but in 1885 Congress enacted legislation forbidding fencing on public lands (Ubbelohde, Benson, & Smith, 1984:179).
On February 18, 1918 the Mancos Cattlemen’s Association was formed with A. Morris Decker as president. That year the Forest Service announced seventy-three permits would be available . Applications for 6,500 head of cattle were received, but only 5,000 head were allowed (Ellis, 2004:11). Darrell Ellis writes, “In the early 1920’s, the Cattlemen’s Association voted to use only registered bulls – Hereford and Shorthorns – on the National Forest. In a few years this paid off with high-quality cattle being sent ot market and drawing top prices”(Ellis 2004:17). Farmers were now providing more alfalfa and grass and less grain since there was a declining number of horses in the valley (Ellis, 2004: 17).
A report in 1924 showed that there were 65,499 cattle in Montezuma County, “outnumbering the population three to one,” with a livestock investment of nearly forty-five million dollars. Included in that number were dairy cows as well as beef cattle (Ellis, 2004:25).
Its first locker plant came to Mancos in 1941. It provided butchering, chilling, cutting, wrapping, grinding, freezing, and storage of meat (Ellis: 2004: 76). It would be important to area families for preservation of large quantities of meat up until the time that home freezers would replace locker plants.
The second world war brought some changes. Many young men of area ranches were called to serve. At least one Mancos Valley resident, Gilbert Pickens, gave up his business to devote time to his ranch to answer the call for provision of more foodstuffs for the fighting men (Ellis, 2004,81).
The women of ranching organized in the Cowbelle’s Association in 1954 (Wardrip, 1993:41).
The Mancos Valley is still cattle country. There are still approximately ten forest permits, some larger than the originals, for cattle grazing. The Alexander, Koppenhafer, Graf, Wolcott, Cox, and Weaver families raise cattle on the valley and mountain’s lush grass. Their cowboys and helpful neighbors can be seen horseback driving cattle down the highway and area roads, even right down Main Avenue, moving cattle to and from mountain range in the spring and fall. The popular breeds have changed, primarily to Angus and Angus-cross animals. The ranching families generally raise their own hay for winter feed.
There are many stories of the exploits, misdeeds, and tragedies of the ranchers, cowboys, and their families in the sources listed on the Resources page.