The Last J.J. Steer

In the American west, it was common practice for early large cattle operations to file on only parcels of land that contained access to water.  This allowed those operations to control  a great deal of the public domain land.  The J.J. Ranch was founded in 1869. By 1879 the JJ controlled about 960,000 acres of land, although they only held title to about 18,000.   Much of the area we know as modern day Baca County Colorado was part of the territory controlled by the .JJ. Ranch.  In 1882 the J.J. Ranch was purchased by the Prairie Cattle Company.

The Prairie Cattle Company, Limited, is sometimes called the “mother of British cattle companies” since it was the first foreign syndicate to take advantage of what has been open range cattle ranching.(1)

This open range cattle ranching is for the most part gone, but it left one enduring legacy: the stereotype of the cowboy. As a symbol of the free and rugged Westerner, the cowboy endures today, although the open range cattle rancher is long gone.

So what about the cattle in this open range environment?  Early on it was the rugged Texas Longhorn.  The mid 1880s began a change to the type of cattle run on this range from the Texas Longhorn to the British-derived breeds of cattle which required less range than Texas longhorns and depended more on haying in winter. This change was pushed by a series of  extremely harsh winters, in combination with drought, in the mid-1880s. These culminated in the calamitous winter of 1886-87, which resulted in the death of approximately 90 percent of the cattle on the open range, an event known as the “Great Die-Off” or sometimes the “Great Die-Up.”(2)

Stories of the Prairie Cattle Company and the J.J. Ranch are familiar to those with any family history in Baca County and there are many Baca county stories told about J.J. ranch and livestock in such books as J.R. Austin’s “Early History of Baca County”, Ike Osteen’s, “A Place Called Baca” and Iris Powell Cowell’s “Bear Tracks and “Cactus Trees: In a Land of Challenge”.  My favorite story may be one recorded in Bear Tracks and Cactus Trees

On another trip when they awakened, Papa had a feeling of being pinned down, although he could feel nothing extra on top of him.  He asked Uncle Jess to try and see what was holding him down down.  Uncle Jess, quietly, a very unusual action for him, peeked out from under the edge of the tarp and let out a quiet chuckle.   ‘There’s a full grown J.J. cow standing right over you with all four feet straddling you.’  he said.  In this case they decided to flap the covers and yell loudly.  The cow almost literally flew off without even touching them.  She didn’t stop until she was well away from those noisy, strange-smelling men.

The following are a few J.J pictures my Grandad Huckaby’s had in an envelope. I found them in my Mom’s basement several years ago.

JJ Cattle on the Trail

JJ cattle with people

Time never stands still and the magnificent tale of the J.J. Ranch and Prairie Cattle soon dissolved into history.   As the Prairie Cattle company was wrapping up their history you saw a whole series of ads in various 1917 issues of the Springfield Democrat Herald such as the January 9, 1917 example shown below.  

Prairie Cattle Company Ad Jan 9 1917

Even though the type of cattle began to change in the 1880’s a few of the J.J. longhorns remained in Baca County  into the early 1900’s.  The final tale of the last J.J. steer is told in the Thursday February 17, 1921 issue of the Elkhart (KS)Tri-State News as a reprint from the Dodge City Globe

“The horns of what is said to be the last longhorn steer in Baca County Colorado, if not in the Great Southwest, have been on display at the ‘Palace of the Sweets’ this week, and connected with them is an interesting story of Baca County before it was the agriculture community it now is.  The horns are the property of Ralph Murphy of Topeka, who’s in Dodge City this week on his way home from Baca County.

About 10 years ago a number of Longhorn cattle belonging to the J.J. Cattle Company at that time one of the big cattle concerns in Baca County, The main herd and made for the hills, where they soon became wild and approach was impossible.  They remained Away from the big herd and were seen only occasionally when severe weather and short feed force them down from the hills, and at such time a few of the cattle were caught.

However, three of the cattle, a cow and two steers, clung to the wild and refused to be captured. The J.J. company went out of business and a part of the ranch fell into the hands of Cliff Wills, who about 2 years ago decided to bring in these animals and clear the range of the old JJ brand, offering $10 per head in the chase soon began.

The hunt at first soon promised to be short, for  in a few days the range Riders looped a loop over the cow and led her to the corral of Will’s, where terrified at her strange surroundings she was found dead the next morning.

The second steer fell a comparatively easy victim but not so with the single survivor of the old herd of Texas Longhorns. He was a crafty animal, faster than any horse on the place, having led the pursuing for a Chase of 15 miles thru the Cedar Canyons, and finally eluded them completely, his victory was more complete because of the fact that among those who set out to do away with him were some of the most noted riders of the West — men who were famed for their ability as riders and ropers and who carried away the big prizes at Wild West and Frontier Day Celebrations year after year, and who thought the capture of this lone steer would be only another feather place to easily in their caps. But they derived  very little honor from the chase. The only one of the champions that ever came within roping distance of the Longhorn Monarch turned and fled and dismay when the steer, and place of running in Terror, turned and charged just as the rider was ready to throw in the Fatal noose.

All things must come to an end, though, even the life of a wild steer, and about a week ago, Cliff Wills, owner of the ranch which is about 42 miles south of Las Animas, caught a view of the lone steer through the sites of his rifle and the outlaws career was at an end.

The horns, which are symmetrical as nature will permit to grow, are 42 inches from tip-to-tip and though not as large as many which have been seen, are worthy a place in the den of any lover of the great outdoors in the things of the early days. The host of the animal had change in character from those of an ordinary cow, being more like those of a deer and plenty hard.”

(1)   ANDERSON, H. ALLEN. “PRAIRIE CATTLE COMPANY.” ANDERSON, H. ALLEN, 14 June 2010, tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/dsp01. Accessed 14 Sept. 2017.

(2)  Colorado Preservation Inc,   http://coloradopreservation.org/crsurvey/ranching/sites/rch_contexts_openrange.html.  Accessed 14 Sept. 2017.

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