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  • Writer's pictureDerryl Dumermuth

The 1870's Cowmen vs. Crops Conflict

Many people generally concede that the first Caucasian to view the San Joaquin Valley was Don Pedro Fages, a Spanish officer and later governor of Baja and Alta California. It was the fall of 1772, and he entered the great valley through Tejon Pass.

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the government in faraway Mexico City rewarded influential and loyal citizens with "Land Grants" called ranchos, ranging in size from 4,500 to 50,000 acres. Soon, uninvited Americans began crowding out the native Yokuts and the Mexican ranchers.

The Bear Flag Rebellion of 1846 wrested California's control from Mexico and was validated by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 after the war with Mexico. Two years later, The United States admitted California to the Union as a free state. Ten days before the signing of the treaty, James Marshall discovered gold on the south fork of the American River, and the "Gold Rush" was on.

Cattle, which had been selling for two dollars a head, mostly for hides and tallow, suddenly found an easily accessible market. Now the same cows were worth 30 to 70 dollars as beef to feed the tens of thousands of hungry miners.

By 1860, miners had dug most of the easily found gold out of the hills. Many of the miners returned to their families in the east - a few rich, most impoverished. But a substantial number decided to stay in California, swelling the population of the few cities and creating a land boom in the San Joaquin Valley.

Until the railroad arrived in 1872, citizens based the Central Valley economy primarily on cattle and sheep, grazing free-range on the abundant grass. The prohibitive cost of transportation had limited row and tree crops to market.

The flood of farmers into the valley changed the dynamics of the economy forever. In the musical "Oklahoma," the cast sings, "The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends." But the truth of the matter was that they must be enemies. The cowman's free-range cattle trampled and destroyed the farmers' crops, and the farmers plowed the grassland that ranchers depended on to feed their animals. Farmers often resorted to shooting trespassing cattle. The two groups could not coexist without changes in the law.

Barbed wire had been invented in the 1870s, but was still not common in the west. History estimates the cost of enclosing a quarter section of farmland with a board or rail fence was at $2,230, an astronomical sum out of the reach of early-day farmers. They supported passage of state law (the No Fence Law) aimed at forcing cattlemen to control their animals, a measure first proposed by Stephen Barton, editor of the Visalia Times. Tulare at that time was represented in the state senate by Thomas Fowler, a wealthy cattleman who had blocked several attempts to pass the no-fence law.

Many people bitterly contested the 1873 election with Fowler opposed by Tipton Lindsay, who supported the law. Lindsay won the senate seat, and at the same time, Fresno County elected John W. Fergusun, also a "no-fence man, to the assembly. In the next session of the legislature, these two men introduced this measure and made it law after much controversy.

Application of the law forced ranchers to prevent their livestock from trespassing onto the property of others. It held them liable for damage or injuries if the animals strayed onto the ever-increasing acres of cultivated land.

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