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Texas History

The Winchester Quarantine

Texas ranchers turned to rifles when deadly tick-borne disease threatened their herds

In June 1868, when a fatal disease broke out among cattle in North Texas, a group of ranchers decided to take matters into their own hands. They realized that the Texas fever, which had a 95 percent death rate among their cattle, came from South Texas longhorns on the way to market. These longhorns carried disease-causing bacteria in their blood, transferred to other animals by ticks.

The wiry longhorns of South Texas had developed immunity to the disease, but cattle in the Panhandle and Midwestern states died in droves within a few days of exposure.

Diplomacy preceded. North Texas cattlemen suggested that cattle infested with ticks be wintered in isolated pastures north of the quarantine line, which ran through Waco.

This idea was not popular with South Texas ranchers, who had to establish what amounted to a second ranch and hire another roster of cowboys to hold the cattle over the winter. In some cases, the year-long delay in getting the cattle to market resulted in bankruptcy.

Instead, the South Texas ranchers suggested a fenced cattle trail 20 miles wide that would run straight from South Texas to the railheads in Kansas. This proposed trail would cleave some ranches in half and fence off others’ water supplies. And funding was not established. Other ideas included spraying or dipping cattle to kill ticks. Ranchers responded that dipping was too expensive and spraying might contaminate the beef with arsenic.

As tensions mounted, dipping vats were dynamited and law officers were fired upon. Loaded rifles appeared in more saddles. The Winchester Quarantine had begun.

First Kansas, then the Oklahoma Territory and finally Texas passed laws requiring that cattle be certified disease-free before being driven or shipped north. In 1881, Panhandle ranchers formed the Panhandle Stock Association, which pitted North Texas cattlemen against their South Texas counterparts. Demand for cattle was high at the railheads, as buyers rushed to fill orders for beef.

The Panhandle Stock Association met in 1882 in Dallas, and members negotiated with drovers. Association members asked the drovers to establish a mile-and-a-half buffer zone around their ranches or to drive cattle around the Panhandle region altogether. Southern cattlemen scoffed, pointing out that their herds appeared perfectly healthy.

After much wrangling, Charles Goodnight of the JA Ranch and Orville Nelson of the Shoe Bar Ranch sent armed cowboys to guard a 45-mile stretch where the two ranches met. The cowboys had instructions to do whatever necessary to hold the Southern herds back until an injunction could stop the drive in its tracks.

Goodnight sent a letter to an old friend, George Reynolds, who had plans to drive a herd north. “I hope you will take this advice as yourselves and I have always been good friends,” Goodnight wrote, “but even friendship will not protect you in the drive through here. I hope you will not treat this as idle talk, for I mean every word of it. My cattle are now dying of the fever contracted from cattle driven from Ft. Worth, therefore do not have any hope that you can convince me that your cattle will not give mine the fever.” In closing, he warned, “I simply say to you that you will never pass through here in good health.”

The Panhandle Stock Association’s procedure, backed by a forest of Winchester rifles, protected Panhandle cattle from Texas fever for several years.

By the mid-1880s, barbed-wire fences crisscrossed the region to help manage the movement of cattle and men. Dips and sprays made inroads on the tick population, but the long and bitter fight and the heavy losses among cattle had taken a toll.

A Bureau of Animal Industry report in 1884 stated that the conflict “enhanced the prejudice against Texas beef, unsettled the trails and markets, agitated the law-making bodies of the West as well as Congress and reduced the consumption of beef.”

Martha Deeringer, a member of Heart of Texas EC, lives near McGregor.