Guest Author - Vance Rowe
The Great Die-up was a morbid term given to the harsh winter of 1887. It was a play on words from the term “round-up”.
It was January 9, 1887 when a blizzard hit the Wyoming, Montana and Dakota territories. More than sixteen inches of snow fell that day and cattle ranchers were ill-prepared for the storm. There had been a long, hot scorching summer prior to this so grass on the prairies was virtually non-existent. When the snow began to fall in November of 1886, the cattle were already starving then. Few ranchers had enough hay stored for the winter and the cattle industry got rocked on that fateful January day in 1887. The blizzard hit, winds whipped hard, and temperatures got as low as 50 degrees below zero. The cattle who didn’t die from the cold, died from starvation.
When the spring thaw finally arrived, there were literally millions of cattle dead and those present said there was dead cattle as far as the eye could see. Approximately 90 percent of the open range’s cattle lay rotting where they dropped. The dead cattle clogged up rivers and spoiled drinking water for many people. Many ranchers went bankrupt at this point and many others just called it quits and moved back east where conditions were less punishing. This is how the term, the “great die-up” got its name.
In the long run, this disaster changed the course of agriculture and development of the west. Ranchers began keeping smaller herds of cattle and began bigger farming operations so they could feed the animals they owned. Most of them also quit using the large open prairies where cattle could roam farther away from grain reserves and began using smaller, fenced in grazing terrains.
Essentially, the hard winter was the beginning of the end of the cowboy and drover way of life and the end of the wide open frontier. Many cowboys had lost their jobs on ranches and that was hard on those who only knew how to work on the back of a horse.
As bad as this storm was, it would pale in comparison to the winter of 1888 when the mid-west was hit with another deadly blizzard and the eastern part of the United States was hit with a blizzard that dropped as much as 58 inches of snow in some places and produced frigid temperatures. The snowfall had only accumulated about 6 inches of snow, but it had hurricane force winds and temperatures dropped to 30 and 40 below zero. This storm affected much of Nebraska and is known as the “Schoolhouse Blizzard” because a lot of students were trapped in one-room schoolhouses.