Murdo Mackenzie: The most influential cattleman in America was from Scotland
Any cattleman worth his salt will tell you that he’s in the grass business. He either grows it himself or takes his cows where it grows up naturally. That means that it is not so much the cow that deserves attention. The important thing is the land and the water – when water is available, which isn’t all that often in the great American desert.
When land and water combined well in the late 19th Century, endless American prairies produced the grass that fed the cows that fed a growing nation and then some. The iconic American cattle industry was a multi-ethnic team sport in the nineteenth century west, involving First Nations folk, Black Americans, Spanish and Mexican vaqueros and others. But the basic shape and direction of the western beef industry was in no small part the work of a handful of first and second generation Scottish immigrant company managers and their Scottish right hand men. They were dispatched to a land as freshly cleared of conflicting human settlement as Scotland was. They went to spend enormous amounts of Scottish/British imperial wealth and enlightenment ingenuity to overcome all obstacles and achieve success breeding, growing and moving “beeves” from west to east and south to north to feed an insatiable America.
Most of the profit of these huge and complex operations was sent back to Scotland to build Scottish infrastructure and baronial mansions. But many of the Scots cattlemen lingered on the prairie. They sprouted American families who have remained in the west, often still working in western agriculture. Scottish cowboys and cattlemen who came here to create a new industry have left a most indelible mark on the American west.
From one cleared landscape to another. Perhaps the greatest of the immigrant Scottish American cattle barons was born in 1850, the second of eleven children of Gaelic tenant farmers in Ross-shire in northern Scotland. The area around Scotland’s oldest royal burgh, Tain, had been a ground zero for brutal clearance and removal of Gaelic communities in Scotland since 1792 when Sir John Lockhart-Ross introduced the first sheep into the area and cleared a corresponding number of Gaelic tenant farmers from his Balnagowan estate. Clearance of Ross County continued throughout the next century and almost sixty years later, during the same year that Murdo Mackenzie was born, his own clans folk, Mackenzies, were brutally cleared from Strathconon, just down the road.
Though Murdo Mackenzie’s parents were tenant farmers in Ross County, the family apparently did not itself suffer clearance and they were able to send their second born to the Tain Royal Academy where he could acquire skills to compete in the new highland economy. Even though Murdo’s family did not suffer removal, the tragedy of others’ lives was forever visible. The infamously cleared community of Strathnaver was less than sixty miles from the Tain Tollbooth where much of the administrative work of the clearances was done. No doubt, at the Tain Royal Academy, Murdo learned the best English grammar and the newest improved agricultural and economic ideas as they were sweeping across Scotland’s highlands and islands in the heady enlightenment atmosphere of the second half of the 19th century.
While it might make for a better rip roaring Wild West frontier saga if Murdo Mackenzie had led a young life more like a Rob Roy or if he had a bit of that outlaw William Wallace in him, the truth is that Mackenzie was groomed for clerking and law. And management. He didn’t like guns and made a strong argument that carrying one, even in the gun toting American west of the early 20th century, put a man at a distinct disadvantage. As a fellow who had more than once found himself looking down the business end of another cowboy’s hand gun, Mackenzie maintained that “A man who carries a gun is no man.” Lack of a sidearm was no disadvantage and Murdo Mackenzie was not a man with whom to trifle:
“He is is heavy-set. Physically, he is a man whom it would be hard to move. And when he looks straight at you out of his gray eyes, you cannot doubt that it would be still harder to move him from a course of action which he had decided was right.”
— From “Do you use fair play or gun play to gain your ends”, American Magazine, by Neil M. Clark (1922).
The man who would one day build and run a vast American cattle empire in the still largely wild American west was taken from the Scottish legal and banking industry to begin his first adult agricultural job as an assistant factor on the Balnagowan estate of Sir Charles William Frederick Augustus Lockhart-Ross, 8th Baronet, possessing Scottish lands extending to an estimated 500,000 acres and 500 tenants. By Scottish standards, that is an awful lot of land. By the measuring stick that young Murdo Mackenzie would learn to use in America, it was a drop in a bucket.
Having performed well as assistant factor for ten years at Balnagowan, Murdo Mackenzie earned enough respect and confidence to attract the attention of some of the wealthiest Scottish investors of the period. Sir Charles Ross died in 1883, the same year that the Highland Land League was formed. Things were beginning to change in the highlands but not until they had become a sad and divided battleground pitting old ways against new. When those investors tapped Mackenzie to take his young family to the American frontier to help build great cattle empires, Mackenzie said yes.
The scholarship is not available to tell us for certain what Murdo Mackenzie was involved in during his decade long tenure as assistant factor on the Balnagowan estate. It seems unlikely though, that he was an active advocate of highland land reform, especially in light of the great trust he had gained from highly placed investors during that tenure. It is clear however, that Murdo Mackenzie’s early years were spent at the very heart of the new agricultural practices that were pushing his own Gaelic people out of the lands they had occupied from time immemorial. Undoubtedly, Mackenzie took these lessons and ideas with him to the wild American west where another episode of human clearance had also been underway.
The challenges Murdo Mackenzie met in the American southwest were very different from the chores of raising sheep and managing land and men in the Scottish highlands. Indeed, the Scot who Theodore Roosevelt would one day call “the most influential cattleman in America” had no personal experience with the type of environment he found in America. Yet it was the application of the lessons learned from a wider Scottish experience – one heavily influenced by Scottish enlightenment ideas, for good or ill – that Murdo Mackenzie likely used to shape new long lasting land use and ownership patterns across a great American frontier.
Yee Haw! In 1885 Murdo Mackenzie removed his family from Ross County to the new town of Trinidad in the frontier state of Colorado. He was to help grow and market tens of thousands of cows in an unsettled and largely unimproved desert. Mackenzie’s first job was an unromantic one: watching over the finances of the already very substantial Prairie Cattle Company, based out of Trinidad. But the especially cold and snowy winter of 1885-86 saw thousands of Prairie Cattle Company stock perish as the cold and snow bunched the cows up along the endless ‘drift fences’ that southwestern cattlemen had erected to stop northern cows from drifting down to munch southern grass. It was called “the big die-up.” The winter storms drove the cows south into the fences and when the animals could go no further they piled up against the fences and simply died there by the thousands. In early 1886 the old Prairie Cattle Company ranch manager had left and Murdo Mackenzie took the reins of a very large but very young cattle operation.
Based out of southern Colorado, the Scottish owned Prairie Cattle Company ran around 100,000 head of cattle across range that covered a 300 mile section of land between the Canadian River and the Arkansas River. It would become Britain’s largest investment company, finally dying out in 1916, but it wouldn’t hold Murdo Mackenzie very long. As he continued to learn more about cattle, cowboys and American grass and water, other opportunities came his way.
Murdo Mackenzie left the Prairie Cattle Company in 1890 to become the general manager of the new Matador Land and Cattle Company. Though the Matador was based in Texas, Mackenzie chose to remain in Colorado with his family. He brought a great deal of the administration of the Matador operation to Trinidad in order to allow him to stay in that dusty and diverse little town. With Scotland firmly in his past, Mackenzie became a naturalized American citizen at the earliest opportunity and eventually was elected mayor of the roughly 3,000 citizens of the town of Trinidad, Colorado, where he remained for the majority of his long American life.
The Matador Land and Cattle Company, Trinidad, Colorado. Before Kansas soil grew corn, wheat and soy beans, it sprouted short and medium grass prairies that fed migrant cattle. These were cows that Murdo Mackenzie had set in motion from Texan hills as part of his innovative – and braw – Matador herd management scheme in the 1890s. While the Kansas prairies did not ultimately prove the grazing panacea that Mackenzie sought, there were plenty of other places to try – and succeed – Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, North and South Dakota and Saskatchewan, Canada. Eventually, he would use them all, including several “indian reservations” where native bison had been replaced with Matador Herefords. The idea was to get two year old Matador cows off of dry Texans plains way down south and up to richer grass farther north for their third and fourth years with the least amount of expense to the cow and the cowman. According to Mackenzie’s plan, this would deliver the fattest and most profitable four year old steers to slaughter at Chicago. It did.
Before the cows got there, however, that same Midwest soil grew the grass and forbs that fed vast herds of buffalo, elk, antelope and other animals. Thus, it also fed the First Nations peoples who lived there until they were cleared, along with the buffalo, under order of the U.S. Government and by settlers, with and without governmental sanction. The Natives and the buffalo and a great deal more were cleared to make way for cattle.
The pattern is hard to ignore when considering the perspective of an immigrant from Tain, Scotland in the 1890s. Like the Scottish highlands where Mackenzie was born and grew into adulthood, married and began a family, the American west was still in the process of being cleared for men like Murdo Mackenzie to recast as they thought best, for the alleged betterment of mankind, completion of Manifest Destiny and all that. It still bore the fresh marks and reminders of several very recently cleared societies when Mackenzie arrived about ten years following General George S. Custer’s bad day at Little Big Horn. The same year that Murdo Mackenzie undertook the management of the Matador Ranch, troops of the United States Army committed the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The Matador would a few years later graze cows on the Pine Ridge reservation. By removing the people and the buffalo, the land had been made ready to accept an American cattle industry of a grand scale.
The numbers of Scottish beef cattle on the prairies are greatly reduced today and the ranches are no longer the play things of Scottish empire builders. But the defining marks of immigrant Scotsmen on land use and management west of the Mississippi River remain in place long after the giant Scottish cattle empires have blown away with the dry cold prairie winds.
We’re not at Falkirk anymore – driving cattle on an American scale. It seems a paradox that western American grass had, for centuries, richly supported herds of bison so large that it was reported early in the 19th century that entire days passed before the end of a migrating herd of native buffalo rambled through a valley. Yet Murdo Mackenzie reported cheerfully to Dundee shareholders at the close of the 19th century that portions of the Matador range could support one cow on every 15 acres. Back in Scotland the cattle to land equation was more along the lines of how many cows could be fed on each acre of grass instead of how many parched American acres were needed to carry one cow. America was definitely not Scotland, and it was not even especially well suited to growing fat cattle. But it possessed advantages that could, if rather mercilessly exploited, overcome all of the disadvantages and provide returns on investment to Scottish investors that satisfied their appetites.
Yes, it could be dry, cold, windy and blazing hot in ways that often conspired to kill cows by the hundreds and sometimes thousands. Yes, Americans were none too pleased that British bankers were buying up king sized portions of the American western frontier for their own foreign advantage. In response, Washington D.C. politicians were enacting limiting regulations that squeezed Scottish cattle profits. Railroads didn’t yet reach everywhere and where they were, the railroad men drove very hard bargains. Nonetheless, Mackenzie was determined to find ways to make cattle profitable on the high, dry American prairies.
One big thing that the American frontier gave Mackenzie to work with during the last decades of the 19th century was mind boggling geographical vastness. The incredible scope of the available landscape was accompanied by broad seasonal diversity across that land. In ways that were similar to the ancient Gaelic practice of moving cows from one landscape to the next according to seasonal variations, Mackenzie devised a network that would put the enormous western American landscape to work growing fat Matador cows and even fatter Matador profits. The Matador’s Scottish financiers were generally pleased with the results and Mackenzie continued to grow this king of American cattle companies stretching from Trinidad, Colorado to his namesake town of Murdo, South Dakota.
Mackenzie’s network of Matador pastures strung from Texas to the Dakota country, west to Montana and back down south through Wyoming and Colorado. His Matador cowboys began moving cows along that plan in the 1890s and the practice continued until 1928 when Mackenzie himself suggested to the shareholders that conditions had changed enough that the Matador should release its vast network of pastures and grow cows entirely on Texas grass.
The numbers associated with these early livestock operations are amazing. From his headquarters in Trinidad, Colorado, Mackenzie directed not only the Matador’s home division in Texas but the leased divisions as well. The leased pastures included 500,000 acres on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, a Sioux preserve in South Dakota, 500,000 acres along the Milk River on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana, 150,000 acres along the north bank of the Saskatchewan River in Canada, and 300,000 acres on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Closer to home, in 1902 the Matador purchased 210,000 acres of the XIT Ranch in Oldham County, Texas. Subsequent acquisitions increased the size of this home Alamositas Divisions to approximately 800,000 acres. That year, when the ranch counted 69,213 head of stock including 600 horses, the ranch hands branded 17,647 calves with the Matador “Flying V”, a brand that was chosen to reflect the original 50,000 pound capital investment made to begin the outfit.
More to learn. There is no scholarly study of Murdo Mackenzie’s early life yet available and we do not know all of what motivated and influenced him. Of what impact were those ten years with Sir Charles Ross at Balnagowan, during active local clearances and removals? Was the tragedy possibly overshadowed by the excitement of the success of new agricultural improvement and every growing profits gained from the changes? We do not know how those infamous Scottish experiences affected Mackenzie or influenced his decisions and ideas on the American landscape. But it is difficult to believe that those vivid Scottish land and landlord experiences did not, in some ways, color America’s early cattle industry and the ultimate development of the American west.
- Highland Cowboys by Rob Gibson (2003)
- The Matador Land and Cattle Company by W. M. Pearce (1964)
- Frontier Scots: The Scots Who Won The West by Jenni Calder (2010)