Winter of 1886–87

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Waiting for a Chinook, by C.M. Russell. Overgrazing and harsh winters were factors that brought an end to the age of the Open Range

The Winter of 1886–1887 was extremely harsh. Although it affected other regions in the United States, it is most known for its effects on the Western United States and its cattle industry. This winter marked the end of the Open Range era and led to the entire reorganization of ranching.

The summer of 1886 had been unusually hot and dry, with numerous prairie fires and water sources often dried up. In the fall, signs of a harsh winter ahead began to appear. Birds began flying south earlier than usual, beavers were seen collecting more wood than normal for the winter ahead, and some cattle even took on thicker and shaggier coats.[1]

The first snows fell earlier than usual in November and were reported as some of the worst in memory. Extreme cold temperatures killed humans and animals. In some instances, people got lost close to their houses and froze to death very close to their front doors. The winter weather even reached the West Coast, with snowfall of 3.7 inches in downtown San Francisco setting an all-time record on February 5, 1887.[2]

The loss of livestock was not discovered until spring, when a large number of cattle carcasses were spread across the fields and washed down streams. The few remaining cattle were in poor health, being emaciated and suffering from frostbite. This resulted in the cattle being sold for much lower prices, in some cases leading to bankruptcy. Future president Theodore Roosevelt's cattle ranch in Dakota was wiped out by the severe winter, prompting him to abandon his ranching operations and instead pursue his political career.


  • Briggs, Harold Edward, Ph. D. Frontiers of the Northwest. New York: Peter Smith, 1950
  1. ^ Mattison, Ray H. (October 1951). "The Hard Winter and the Range Cattle Business". The Montana Magazine of History 1 (4): 5–21. 
  2. ^,