Nelson, Orville Howell (1850–1930)

By: L. F. Sheffy

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: June 6, 2020

Orville Howell (Bull, Judge) Nelson, cattleman, was born on October 9, 1850, in Lebanon, Ohio. His father died when Orville was six, and the boy attended the public schools of Lebanon and Southwest Normal School. In March 1868 Nelson left Ohio and settled at Burlingame, Kansas, where he tried his hand at farming, handled livestock, and worked as a clerk in a hardware store. In 1870 he married Flora Lord; three sons and three daughters were born to them. Nelson put a carload of scrub Texas steers, which he had bought, on his farm in the late 1870s but lost most of them to severe northers. Afterward he concentrated his efforts on developing high-quality stock. In 1877 he formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, W. H. (Hank) Lord, to deal in livestock. Two years later they joined the brothers L. E. (Lue), H. C., and John A. Finch, who likewise dealt in livestock and general merchandise. The new firm of Finch, Lord, and Nelson, based in Burlingame, turned its attention to the Texas cattle trade, and in 1879 Nelson made his first journey to the Panhandle over the old buffalo trails from Dodge City. He bought several thousand steers for the firm from Thomas S. Bugbee, Robert Moody, Henry W. Cresswell, W. E. Anderson, and others. This venture proved profitable, and as both agent and independent operator, Nelson confined his activities to this area. His ability to spot and pick out the best cattle in a herd became legendary. In the next fifteen years Finch, Lord, and Nelson moved thousands of high-grade Durham and Hereford cattle into the Panhandle. They took out calves and yearlings for Kansas pastures, the Corn Belt, and much of the East Coast.

Nelson began importing Hereford bulls and selling many to area ranchers, among them Charles Goodnight, who came to be numbered among his staunchest friends. Nelson helped organize the Panhandle Stock Association at Mobeetie in 1880 and about three years later succeeded John F. Evans as its president. Nelson played a leading role in the events surrounding the Winchester Quarantine and the Grass Lease Fight and was among the first to use barbed wire fences. In 1882 he and Bugbee obtained half interest in the Shoe Bar Ranch. In the fall of 1886 Nelson sold his shares to Bugbee and, as the agent of his firm, started his Bar 96 bull ranch in the northeast corner of the Shoe Bar. The registered Herefords he raised there earned him the sobriquet "Bull" Nelson; it was estimated that in seven years he sold 10,000 bulls. He left this enterprise in 1889 to devote full time to a new firm, the Finch, Lord, and Nelson Townsite Company, formed to start townsites ahead of the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railway. Under his leadership, the company platted Higgins, Canadian, Miami, and Panhandle City. Nelson was elected the first county judge of Carson County.

In 1892 he moved his family to Kansas City to provide his children with better education. He continued his business connections in the Panhandle, however, and for the next several years made and lost investments in various land and cattle ventures throughout West Texas. He built stockyards at Amarillo and was instrumental in establishing the first packing house there. He helped form the Panhandle Hereford Breeders' Association in 1907 and later served as its second president. After losing heavily on a large ranch he owned with two partners in 1903, he and J. A. Finch formed the townsite of Romero in Hartley County, to where Nelson moved. He was a key figure in the organization of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society and served as its third president (1926–27). He died at Dalhart on December 13, 1930, and was buried at Burlingame, Kansas. He was survived by his widow and four of his six children.

O. H. Finch, "Judge O. H. Nelson," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 19 (1946). J. Evetts Haley, Charles Goodnight (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949). Joseph A. Hill, The Panhandle-Plains Historical Society and Its Museum (Canyon, Texas: West Texas State College Press, 1955). Jo Stewart Randel, ed., A Time to Purpose: A Chronicle of Carson County (4 vols., Hereford, Texas: Pioneer, 1966–72.


  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Ranchers and Cattlemen

Time Periods:

  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

L. F. Sheffy, “Nelson, Orville Howell,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 17, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 6, 2020