Early Sheep Entrepreneurs in Montana

Historical research on the Montana cattle industry is abundant; research on the Montana sheep industry during the same years is scant. A lot of attention has been “devoted to the trail from Texas, with its cowboys and longhorns.” Few knew about the great sheep trails from California and Oregon, argued Edward N. Wentworth in 1941. In his view, “the rush of their hooves fully equaled that of their more widely advertised cattle drives.”[1] According to historian K. Ross Toole “myth and fact are so interwoven in Montana’s history, mention is seldom made of sheep in the books which presume to tell us about our past. Yet at one time Montana raised more sheep and produced more wool than any other state in the country.”[2]

When did the great sheep ventures in Montana begin? Historians differ in their opinions. All agree that the rich gold discoveries in 1862 and 1863 were crucial for the development of sheep ranching.[3] Entrepreneurs drove sheep from California and Oregon to Montana to be sold for mutton in the digging camps. “In contrast to some other places, like Wyoming,” wrote Michael P. Malone and Richard B. Roeder, “breeders of sheep and horses got along reasonably well with cattlemen in Montana; many operators in fact, raised horses, sheep, and cattle together.”[4]

The 1870s represented the breakthrough for sheep ranching in Montana, and the growth of the sheep population was phenomenal between 1880 and 1910. Between 1877 and 1880 as many as 350,000 sheep were exported from California to states in the east, including Montana. Oregon sheep proved to be better adapted to the Montana environment than sheep from California. In 1883 the US Department of Agriculture estimated that 600,000 head of cattle and 500,000 head of sheep grazed in Montana. Sheep ranching grew almost as fast as cattle ranching.

Texas was the state with the highest number of sheep in the United States in 1890, with 4,264,187. Ten years later the number of sheep in Texas had fallen to 1.4 million, while the sheep population in Montana increased from 270,277 in 1880 to 2,352,886 sheep in 1890. Only the sheep population in California was higher than that of Montana.

In 1900 Montana was the leading sheep state in the US with 4.2 million sheep. Sheep husbandry peaked in Montana in 1909 with 6,643,000 sheep. By that time dry land farmers had arrived in large numbers, and sheep and cattle ranchers had to reduce the size of their sheep herds considerably. In 1921 the number of sheep in Montana had decreased to 2 million and continued to decline, not least because of higher cattle prices.

The harsh winter of 1886/1887 had a disastrous effect on the cattle industry in Montana. It did not hurt the sheep industry to the same degree as the cattle industry. Some of the cattle ranchers who managed to remain in the business, chose to invest in sheep. However, the number of experienced sheep men were few compared with cattle men. “This led to some strange partnerships between the providers of capital and the providers of experience.”[5] Ambitious men with little capital, who could live with the loneliness and hardship of herding sheep, were offered partnerships to take a band of sheep on shares. If they did well, they established their own sheep ranch after a couple of years.[6] Most Norwegian immigrants who established themselves as sheep owners started out by being offered sheep on shares, like the pioneer Norwegian sheep rancher Martin T. Grande.

Early sheep drives and sheep entrepreneurs

“Like cattle, sheep were driven in from Oregon in the late sixties, and the first big drive (1,500 head) traveled from the Dalles to Dillon in 1869.”[7] John F. Bishop and Richard Reynolds were the entrepreneurs behind the venture. They went to Oregon to buy horses but found the prices too high. Instead, they bought 1,500 sheep at 2.50 dollar a head. It took three months to herd the flock back to Montana, not least because of the numerous rivers and creeks they had to cross.[8] This flock became the foundation for the first permanent sheep ranch established in the Beaverhead Valley near Dillon in November 1869.

John Fernando Bishop arrived in the goldfields in Montana in spring 1863

Both Bishop and Reynolds arrived in Montana during the first big gold rush. John Fernando Bishop was born March 14, 1836, in Wyoming County, New York, and was the fourth of nine children. After he left his home, he first migrated to Columbia County in Wisconsin and worked in the woods for one year. In 1860 he was offered a job as a bullwhacker on a wagon train bound for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and continued to the gold fields at Pike’s Peak in Colorado.

The wagon train arrived in Nevada City on November 1, 1860. He purchased a load of hay, which he sold in small amounts at a good profit. Later that winter he was employed in a quartz mill. In spring 1861, he traveled to Atchison, Kansas, to buy supplies and freighted them to Colorado. He was involved in placer mining again at Nevada Gulch in summer 1862.

Bishop joined the stampede of men bound for the gold discoveries in Montana in March 1863. He arrived at East Bannack on April 20 and sold his interest in a team and wagon for $175. He bought claim No. 3 on Stapleton’s bar, but sold the claim the next spring and moved to Alder Gulch in Virginia City. Again, he found that freighting paid better than prospecting. He bought two yoke of oxen and a load of general merchandise in Salt Lake City. He sold his merchandise back in Montana at a profit of $1,000.

The cycle was repeated in spring 1864. He made four round trips to Salt Lake City and back to Montana that season, clearing a profit of $5,000. He did so well that the merchants I. G. Baker & Co. of Fort Benton bought his business in summer 1865. He began on the Salt Lake City round trip again but took up ranching when winter arrived.

Bishop and Reynolds traveled to the Willamette Valley to buy sheep

In the winter of 1868 Bishop established a ranch on the Beaverhead River, nine miles north of Dillon. He signed a partnership with his friend Richard A. Reynolds (1842 – 1904) in spring 1869. Around July 1, the two men drove to Bannack in a wagon driven by a span of horses. They continued across the Continental Divide, through Junction, Idaho, and to Boise City. The distance between Bannack and Boise was 400 miles and there were no ranches along the way. When they arrived in Umatilla City on the Columbia River in Oregon, they started for the Willamette Valley on the west side of the Cascade Mountains. They crossed the river at the county seat Salem and traveled down to Portland.

Bishop brought with him gold dust and received a greenback dollar for each 75 cents in gold dust. On a ranch three miles from Dalles, he bought 1,100 ewes and Reynolds bought 400 head. They began moving the flock of sheep in the direction of Montana on August 1. On November 7, 1869, they were back in Bannack.[9] The distance from the Dalles to Bannack was 800 miles and the drive took 80 days.

The flock was wintered on the ranch of John Selway. Next spring the sheep were driven to the Bishop ranch on the Beaverhead and were sheared there. “It was hard to get men who knew how to shear or were willing to do it. We paid 15 cents a head.” The first wool clip was sold for 19 cents a pound to Colonel Charles A. Broadwater, the man in charge of the large Diamond R freighting company.[10] The wool fleeces were hauled more than 300 miles overland to Corinne, Utah, where they were loaded on the train and transported to St. Louis.[11] During the next years Bishop built up one of the best-known sheep ranches in Montana. He also raised high grade Durham and Hereford cattle on his ranch as well as Norman horses.[12]

Pointdexter and Orr

William Crosby Orr was born in County Down, Ireland, on April 11, 1829, and died May 11, 1901, in Beaverhead County, Montana. He was of Scottish heritage and his father was a manufacturer of potash in County Down. The family emigrated to America and settled in Ohio in 1833. William C. was number eight of nine children. His father died when he was only eleven years old, and he had to take responsibility for his own life. In Wheeling, West Virginia, he learned the skills of a carriage maker. At the age of fourteen he moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to complete his training. In 1850, when he was seventeen, he purchased the woodworking department of the shop in which he was employed. In 1853 he also purchased the blacksmithing department.[13]

Because of health problems he sold his business the same year. He purchased a band of cattle and horses and joined a wagon train consisting of five families bound for California. He arrived in Shasta Valley, northern California, in October 1853. Shasta County was established in 1850, two years after Pierson B. Reading discovered gold on Clear Creek. A small settlement grew up around the discovery site, named Reading Springs. It got the name Shasta in 1851 and it became the county seat. The small gold rush was followed by more discoveries. A local newspaper proclaimed in 1853 that every river, creek, gulch, or ravine in Shasta County contained gold. Orr established a ranch in 1854. He left his stock on the ranch and joined the gold seekers on the Virginia Bar on the Klamath River.[14] It did not take him long, however, before he discovered that mining work was detrimental to his health, and he returned to his ranch.

In 1856, Phillip H. Pointdexter bought an equal interest in the Orr ranch. From now on the joint venture became known as Pointdexter and Orr. Phillip H. Pointdexter was born September 5, 1831, in Danville, Pennsylvania, and died in 1891.[15] His family moved to St. Louis after the death of his father in 1848. In 1852 Pointdexter traveled west across the plains to California.

He was involved in mining on the Humbug River, but like so many others he found that money could also be earned by supplying the miners with food and equipment. He opened a butcher shop in Yreka, California. It was here that he met William C. Orr. A deep friendship developed between the two men and the partnership lasted the rest of their lives. They chose as their cattle brand the Masonic emblem the Square and Compass. This was the first registered brand in California. Later it became the first registered brand in Montana. Orr and Pointdexter were Masons and Knight Templars.[16]

The Great Flood of 1862

Pointdexter and Orr and thousands of others were strongly affected by the Great Flood of 1862, the largest flood in the recorded history of Oregon, Nevada, and California. It occurred between December 1861 and January 1862. The flood was preceded by weeks of continuous rain and snow in November 1861 and continued into January 1862. The Great Flood extended from the Columbia River southward in western Oregon, through California to San Diego, and extended as far inland as Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Streams and rivers rose to great heights, flooded the valleys, swept away towns, water mills, dams, flumes, houses, fences, livestock, and ruined fields. The downpour of rain and snow lasted over a period of 43 days. One home in eight was carried away or ruined by the floodwater. One-quarter of California’s estimated 800,000 cattle were killed by the flood, and in March 1862, the California Wool Growers Association reported that 100,000 sheep and 500,000 lambs had been killed. Approximately one-quarter of real estate in California was destroyed by the flood, and one home in eight was carried away or ruined by the flood waters.[17] The governor, state legislature, and state employees were not paid for a year and a half. At least 4,000 people were estimated to have been killed in the floods in California, which was roughly 1% of the state population at the time. 

Moving livestock to Bannack, Montana

Pointdexter & Orr suffered a heavy loss in the Shasta Valley. They moved some of their business to Lewiston where Orr became involved in supplying the growing community with logs. Orr soon continued to Oregon where he took up mining again. In the fall of 1863 he drove cattle to Canyon City, while Pointdexter remained on the original ranch. Next spring, Orr drove cattle to Idaho City. After the news came of the mineral discoveries made at Bannack, Montana, Orr put together a herd of cattle and drove them to Montana.

When he crossed the main range in November, the herd was hit by a snowstorm. On arrival in Bannack, he found he could not winter his cattle there, and drove them into the Beaverhead Valley where they wintered well.[18] Next spring Orr returned to California and took another herd to Beaverhead Valley. In 1867, he bought 400 cattle in Oregon, and brought them to the Montana ranch. The partners decided to move their whole business to Beaverhead County. They sold everything they still owned in the Shasta Valley and moved north via Canyon City, Oregon, before turning east to their ranch ten miles south of Dillon.

Pointdexter and Orr were among the first to bring cattle and sheep into Montana for breeding purposes. According to the History of Montana, 1739-1885, William C. Orr went back to California in 1870 and brought a band of 2,700 sheep and 375 horses to Montana. In his America’s Sheep Trails. History and Personalities, Edward Norris Wentworth argued that this happened in 1871, and that Orr brought 2,467 California sheep to Blacktail Deer Creek in Beaverhead Valley near Dillon.[19]


[1] Edward N. Wentworth, “Eastward Sheep Drives from California and Oregon”, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 28, No. 4, March 1942, pp. 507-538, p. 507.
[2] K. Ross Toole, Montana. An Uncommon Land, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1959, 4th printing March 1968, p. 148.
[3] Edward Norris Wentworth, America’s Sheep Trails. History and Personalities, The Iowa State College Press, Ames Iowa, 1948, p. 294.
[4] Michael P. Malone and Richard B. Roeder, Montana. A History of Two Centuries, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 3rd printing 1988, p. 112.
[5] K. Ross Toole, Montana. An Uncommon Land, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1959, 4th printing March 1968, p. 149.
[6] K. Ross Toole, Montana. An Uncommon Land, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1959, 4th printing March 1968, p. 152.
[7] K. Ross Toole, Montana. An Uncommon Land, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1959, 4th printing March 1968, p. 148.
[8] Edward Norris Wentworth, America’s Sheep Trails. History and Personalities, The Iowa State College Press, Ames Iowa, 1948, p. 263.
[9] “Beginning of the Montana sheep Industry. As Narrated by John F. Bishop”, The Montana Magazine of History, vol. 1, April 1951, p. 5-8.
[10] Edward Norris Wentworth, America’s Sheep Trails. History and Personalities, Ames, Iowa, 1948, p. 295-296.
[11] Edward Norris Wentworth, America’s Sheep Trails. History and Personalities, Ames, Iowa, 1948, p. 295-296.
[12] “Beginning of the Montana sheep Industry. As Narrated by John F. Bishop”, The Montana Magazine of History, vol. 1, April 1951, p. 8; Progressive Men of Montana, A. W. Bowen & Co, Chicago, p. 52.
[13] Progressive Men of Montana, p. 346.
[14] Michael A. Leeson, History of Montana, 1739-1885, Chicago 1885, p. 993.
[15] History of Beaverhead County, 1990, p. 447.
[16] Montana. The Magazine of Western History, volume 20, no. 1, Winter 1970, p. 83.
[17] “The Great Flood of 1862”, from Wikipedia; Null, J.; Hulbert, J. (2007). “California Washed Away: The Great Flood of 1862”, Weatherwise, 60, no. 1, 26–30. doi:10.3200/wewi.60.1.26-30; Ingram, B. Lynn (19 January 2013). “California Megaflood: Lessons from a Forgotten Catastrophe”Scientific American. Retrieved 10 April 2013; Newbold, John D, “The Great California Flood of 1861–1862” (PDF), San Joaquin Historian, San Joaquin County Historical Society, vol. 5, no. 4). Retrieved 1 March 2016; “The Great Flood in California: Great Destruction of Property Damage $10,000,000”, The New York Times, 21 January 1862; Castaneda, C., and Simpson, L., River City and Valley Life: An Environmental History of the Sacramento Region, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh 2013; “The 1861–1862 Floods: Informing Decisions 150 Years Later”, California Extreme Precipitation Symposium, June 26, 2012.
[18] Michael A. Leeson, History of Montana, 1739-1885, Chicago 1885, p. 993.
[19] Michael A. Leeson, History of Montana, 1739-1885, Chicago 1885, p. 993; Edward Norris Wentworth, America’s Sheep Trails. History and Personalities, Iowa State College Press, Ames Iowa, 1948, p. 260.

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