Big western ranches

James Riley

Jan 10, 2015
Idle curiosity for anyone who knows. Sorry if this is the wrong forum to ask this, or if it's all moot, but I'm curious if anyone here could educate me. :confused:

I understand Texas is different but when it comes to states like Colorado and Wyoming and Montana, I've always wondered how some ranches got so big.

First, I know there were homestead acts where each family member, ranch hands and whatnot would all file, prove up and then "sell" to the one guy who was really behind it all, but there is no way there was enough people to make up some of the contiguous acreage (tens or hundreds of square miles) we see on some ranches today.

Second, even if they were put together by arm's length purchases from independent sellers, it's hard to believe so many people filed contiguous to each other. I figure most were on good flat bottoms so how did all the high and dry get wrapped into it.

Third, I know the railroads were given a checker board and maybe they sold to other private folks like ranchers but again, how did the checkerboard get filled in?

Fourth, "if" the railroads were give contiguous sections, weren't those timbered for ties? If so, again, how did all the non-timbered range land end up in those big ranches?

Fifth, I suppose State land grant or school sections could have been transferred, traded, sold, consolidated, auctioned or whatever. Is that what happened?

I really don't know and there might be a good legal explanation and I'd really love if someone could enlighten me on how it all got put together. However, as a suspicious (paranoid?) lay person, it smells funny. Like, in the late 1800s/early 1900s there was some shenanigans with State and/or Federal Senators/Representatives/governors/bankers/barons etc.which allowed large tracts of public land to somehow end up in private ownership and I've wondered if it was all legal and stand up, even at the time.


Well-known member
Jan 8, 2015
You mean like the 300,000 acre Great Western Ranch near me ? Butterfield stage buildings,etc..
I'm still trying to find out histories out here of stuff like this. Many here were by gun point for sure,seems like it's still going on in NM. LOL
Heard it just sold in bidding war 59mil.
DB Horton the crap home builder is new owner.
Cattle operation stopped as it was and all the elk hunts now off the table from the public.
Millions in lost local revenue,jobs and new owner gets tax write off.......
Sorry for the hijack ....


Well-known member
Oct 23, 2012
SE Montana
There is no question that relatives and hired help homesteaded to increase the size of the ranch but the biggest contributor was the dirty thirty's. Hundreds of thousands of people were living on small marginal homesteads scratching out a living during the good years of the 20's. During the 30's they starved out. The homesteads were sold to the more established ranch owners for little to nothing. I bet a lot of them were gotten for the taxes. If you had any money during the thirty's you could put together a big ranch and not spend to much.


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