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'Oregon cattle' a forgotten breed from 19th century

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In the 50 years following the end of the Civil War, nearly six million longhorn cattle were herded north out of Texas. In the 1880s, Montana cattlemen brought in hundreds of thousands of these Texas longhorns to stock the eastern prairies of the territory. The Texas longhorn is now an instantly recognizable icon of the open range years. But when the herds of longhorns arrived into Montana from the south, there were already herds of another, much different type of cattle, in Montana coming in from the west to help stock the range.

This other type of cattle came from the area of the Columbia River basin that is now eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon and northern Idaho. Montana stockmen called these animals simply “Oregon cattle.” Today, Oregon cattle have almost completely disappeared from memory, although, on the open ranges of Montana Territory, they were second in numbers only to the Texas longhorns.

The Oregon cattle were descended, in part, from cattle the American settlers herded with them along the Oregon Trail on their epic trek in the 1840s and ’50s. The Oregon-bound settlers’ cattle were English-American breeds, and included many shorthorns — a type that had been developed by scientific breeding in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The original shorthorns were dual-purpose cattle — the cows were good milk producers, but the breed also produced excellent beef. It is easy to appreciate why these dual-purpose cattle were particularly valued by settlers hoping to start self-sufficient farms in the Oregon country.

When the American settlers arrived in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, they discovered that there was a distinctive type of hybrid cattle already there. To provide a source of beef for their Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading posts, the English had brought longhorn cattle to the Oregon country from California by sea in the late 1700s. The California longhorn cows were then crossed with purebred Durham bulls the English had also brought in. (Durham cattle were very similar to shorthorns.)

In the Willamette Valley, the settlers’ cattle were pastured with the hybrid cattle of the English. Several generations of random interbreeding produced the hybrid of a hybrid that became known as “Oregon cattle.” These animals were robust and endured the winter well, but also dressed out to provide high-quality beef.

By the end of the 1850s, American settlers had established large herds of these cattle on the open lands of the Columbia River basin east of the Cascade Mountains. In the early 1860s, several residents of what are now the western valleys of Montana had small herds of Oregon cattle herded in on the newly opened Mullan Road. Later, the influx of gold-seekers into southwestern Montana created a huge demand for beef. In the spring of 1866, future cattle magnate Conrad Kohrs, in partnership with Ben Peel, brought in 300 to 400 “fine” steers from Walla Walla. Other gold rush-era Montana cattlemen also had small herds of Oregon cattle herded in.

In the 1880s, Montana stockmen brought in large herds of Oregon cattle to stock the eastern prairies of the Territory, which recently had been emptied of Indians and buffalo. At first, the Oregon cattle walked to Montana by a route which started southeast parallel to the Oregon Trail and then turned north into the Territory by several different trails. After the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883, tens of thousands of Oregon cattle were shipped to eastern Montana by rail. Some large Montana ranches, such as the DHS, east of Lewistown, ran Oregon cattle exclusively.

At the same time as the cattle boom on the Montana prairies, the cattle industry of the eastern Columbia River basin was in decline — in part because of increased numbers of sheep and also because of homesteading farmers claiming grazing land. More importantly, the Oregon cattlemen were shipping out far more animals than could be replaced by natural increase. After 1890, the flood of Oregon cattle into Montana slowed to a trickle.

Today, Oregon cattle are gone from Montana and from the Columbia River basin. On the Montana open range, their genetic heritage was diluted by interbreeding with the other types of cattle on the range. After the end of the open range-era, pure-bred strains of cattle became dominant. Still, it is fascinating to wonder if, in the back pasture of some Montana ranch, there is a nondescript bovine with some of the genes of the long-gone Oregon cattle.

Vic Reiman is a museum technician at the Montana Historical Society.

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