Cowmen vs. Crops

TULARE'S HISTORY - Cowmen vs. Crops in 1870’s Conflict - by Derryl Dumermuth

It is generally conceded that the first Caucasian to view the San Joaquin Valley was Don Pedro Fages, a Spanish officer and later governor of both Baja and Alta California. It was the fall of 1772 and he entered the great valley through Tejon Pass.

    When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the government in faraway Mexico City rewarded influential and loyal citizens with "Land Grants", called ranchos, ranging in size from 4,500 to 50,000 acres. Soon, uninvited Americans began crowding out the native Yokuts and the Mexican ranchers

The Bear Flag Rebellion of 1846 wrested control of California from Mexico and was validated by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 at the conclusion of the war with Mexico. Two years later California was admitted to the Union as a free state. Ten days before the signing of the treaty, James Marshall discovered gold on the south fork of the American River, and the "Gold Rush" was on.

    Cattle, which had been selling for two dollars a head, mostly for hides and tallow, suddenly found an easily accessible market. Now the same cows were worth 30 to 70 dollars as beef to feed the tens of thousands of hungry miners.

By 1860, most of the easily found gold had been dug out of the hills. Many of the miners returned to their families in the east - a few rich, most impoverished. But a substantial number decided to stay in California, swelling the population of the few cities and creating a land boom in the San Joaquin Valley.

Until the arrival of the railroad in 1872, the economy of the Central Valley was based primarily on cattle and sheep, grazing free-range on the abundant grass. Row and tree crops had been limited by the prohibitive cost of transportation to market.

The flood of farmers into the valley changed the dynamics of the economy forever. In the musical "Oklahoma" the cast sings "The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends". But the truth of the matter was that they must be enemies. The cowman's free-range cattle trampled and destroyed the farmer's crops, and the farmers plowed the grassland that ranchers depended on to feed their animals. Farmers often resorted to shooting trespassing cattle. The two groups could not coexist without changes in the law.

Barbed wire had been invented in the 1870's, but was still not common in the west. The cost of enclosing a quarter section of farmland with a board or rail fence was estimated at $2,230, an astronomical sum out of the reach of early-day farmers. They supported passage of a state law (the No Fence Law) aimed at forcing cattlemen to control their animals, a measure first proposed by Stephen Barton, editor of the Visalia Times. Tulare at that time was represented in the state senate by Thomas Fowler, a wealthy cattleman who had blocked several attempts to pass the no-fence law.

    The 1873 election was bitterly contested with Fowler opposed by Tipton Lindsay, who supported the law. Lindsay won the senate seat, and at the same time Fresno County elected John W. Fergusun, also a "no-fence man, to the assembly. In the next session of the legislature the measure was introduced by these two men and, after much controversy, was made law.

Application of the law forced ranchers to prevent their livestock from trespassing onto the property of others and held them liable for damage or injuries in the event the animals strayed onto the ever-increasing acres of cultivated land.

Derryl Dumermuth is a retired TUHS mathematics teacher, author of "A Town Called Tulare", and co-author with his wife, Wanda, of "Tulare Legends and Trivia from A to Z". Both books were written as fund-raisers for the Tulare Historical Museum and can be purchased in the Museum's gift shop.


1.  Free-range longhorns in the San Joaquin Valley.