In the early 1880s the Panhandle and South Plains regions of West Texas were beginning to be crowded with ranchers. Before long the ranges were overstocked, and the depletion of grasses threatened the cowmen's livelihood. During the northers and blizzards of harsh Panhandle winters, cattle tended by instinct to drift southward, sometimes for over 100 miles, to seek shelter in various canyons and river valleys. Range outfits often had a hard time separating their cattle. Barbed wire fencing seemed to be an answer. Accordingly, drift fences, fences intended to keep cattle from drifting, were built. In 1882 the Panhandle Stock Association ranchers erected a drift fence that ran from the New Mexico line east through Hartley and Moore counties to the Canadian River breaks in Hutchinson County. Over the next few years more sections were added, so that by 1885 barbed wire drift fences stretched across the entire northern Panhandle, from thirty-five miles deep in New Mexico to the Indian Territory. These formed an effective barrier for northern cattle attempting to drift onto the southern ranges.
Beginning in late December of 1885, a series of blizzards struck the southern plains. Cattle retreating to the south were stalled by the drift fences and unable to go any farther. They huddled against each other along the fence line in large bunches, some of them 400 yards across. Unable to stay warm or escape the crush, these cattle either smothered or froze to death in their tracks within a short while. Others bogged down in icy creek beds and draws. Many, caught in open areas without sufficient food, water, or shelter, either died of thirst or afterward fell victim to wolves or coyotes. When the storms dissipated in January 1886, thousands of dead cattle were found piled up against the Panhandle drift fences, and hundreds more along lesser, but similar, man-made barriers on other rangelands. The Cator brothers' Diamond C herd was almost wiped out, and others like Henry Cresswell's Bar CC and the Seven K suffered staggering losses.
The following winter, 1886–87, brought more such blizzards to the Panhandle, and again the corpses of cattle trapped by the fences were appallingly numerous. Ranchers in Wheeler County estimated many herd losses to be as high as 75 percent along the cooperatively built barrier that followed the course of Sweetwater Creek near Mobeetie. An LX Ranch employee reportedly skinned 250 carcasses a mile for thirty-five miles along one section of drift fence. The "Big Die-up" was followed by prolonged summer droughts, and many cowmen went broke. Though some, like James Cator and Hank Cresswell, eventually recovered, others sold out at a loss, and several ranches changed hands.
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Henry D. and Frances T. McCallum, The Wire That Fenced the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). David L. Wheeler, "The Blizzard of 1886 and Its Effect on the Range Cattle Industry in the Southern Plains," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 94 (January 1991). David L. Wheeler, "The Texas Panhandle Drift Fences," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 55 (1982).
Ranching and Cowboys
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
H. Allen Anderson,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 23, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
November 1, 1994