Sheep Wars

By: Vernen Liles

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: July 1, 1995

The so-called sheep wars, conflicts between cattlemen and sheepmen over grazing rights, took place particularly between the early 1870s and 1900. Fundamental differences between sheep and cattle meant that they required different amounts of water, different types of food, and different manners of herding. Differences in life and equipment of the cowboy on horseback and the sheepherder on a burro or afoot also made for antagonisms. The cattleman had priority of establishment in most areas of Texas and resented encroachment of the sheepman on his domain. The cattleman was the more aggressive of the antagonists. His methods of attempting to drive out his rival ranged from intimidation to violence, directed at both the sheepman and his flock. Nomadic sheepmen or drifters were attacked by both cattlemen and settled sheepmen because of their twisting or rolling of fences to allow passage of their flocks and because they drove sheep infected with scab across the ranges. In 1875 there were clashes on the Charles Goodnight range and in the Texas-New Mexico boundary area. Schleicher, Nolan, Brown, Crane, Tom Green, Coleman, and other Central and West Texas counties were scenes of the wars. A law of March 9, 1881, which provided for appointment of state sheep inspectors and the quarantine of diseased sheep, merely resulted in driving drifters under cover. Laws that forbade sheepmen to herd sheep on the open range were ineffective because no representatives of the General Land Office were located in West Texas to delimit the open range. A law of April 1883 called for a certificate of inspection to show that sheep were free of scab before they could be moved across a county line. Legislation, along with strict enforcement of tax collections, soon put a stop to nomadic sheepherders from out of state using Texas lands. With the general rush for leasing public lands after 1884, many sheepmen could not secure adjoining pastures and had to drive their herds across ranchers' lands, the sheep grazing on the pastures as they crossed. A code was evolved that required the herder to drive his flocks at least five miles a day on level terrain or at least three miles a day in rougher country. In court action, the cowman usually won. After the law of 1884, which made fence-cutting a felony and abolished the open range, both the cattleman and the sheepman confined their herds to their own land, and the sheep wars came to an end. Despite the occasional fights between sheepherders and cattlemen in Texas, the level of violence never reached that of some other Western states. Moreover, sheepherders and cattlemen in many areas lived in peaceful coexistence, and some ranchers ran sheep, cattle, and goats on their spreads. See also PASTORES.

Paul H. Carlson, Texas Woolybacks: The Range Sheep and Goat Industry (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982). Wayne Gard, "The Fence-Cutters," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 51 (July 1947). T. R. Havins, "Sheepmen-Cattlemen Antagonisms on the Texas Frontier," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 18 (1942). Bill O'Neal, Cattlemen vs. Sheepherders: Five Decades of Violence in the West, 1880–1920 (Austin: Eakin Press, 1989).
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Feuds
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Sheep and Goat Ranchers

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

Vernen Liles, “Sheep Wars,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 08, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995