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Farm Byline: March 2021

The history of sheep in Dakota

by Al Gustin


My mother-in-law, Rosemary (Tetzlaff) Gunsch, was raised on a farm that was inundated when the Heart Butte Dam was built in 1949. On her 94th birthday this past Jan. 19, she talked about how she and her siblings would herd the family’s flock of sheep on some unfenced land.

Interestingly, on that same day, the president of the N.D. Lamb and Wool Producers had asked if I had ever done any reporting on the history of North Dakota’s sheep. I hadn’t. But his query was enough to prompt some digging.

A newspaper account I found said steamboats passing through Bismarck in 1881 carried 1,800 head of horses and cattle and 600 sheep.

The Bismarck Tribune, on Sept. 1, 1882, reported, “The Coteaus are admirably fit for stock raising. Sheep do particularly well. The effect of the climate is to make fleeces heavier.”

In March of that same year, the Jamestown Weekly Alert reported, “A party of Philadelphia capitalists are contemplating sheep farming on a large scale in Dakota.”

From D. Jerome Tweten’s book, “Marquis de Mores,” I learned that the Marquis, although considered a cattle baron, also decided to raise sheep and horses in the Badlands. But the sheep he brought to the Badlands in the fall of 1883 didn’t survive the winter.

Meanwhile, many homesteading farmers had been bringing sheep to the state. The Cooperstown Courier in May 1884 reported, “Mr. Herman Hemp from Wisconsin arrived here with a carload of cattle, horses and sheep on Friday for his farm west of here.”

The N.D. Cowboy Hall of Fame describes inductee Donald Stevenson as one of the state’s best-known early ranchers. In the early 1880s, he and his wife raised cattle, sheep, horses and hogs in Emmons County.

According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, 5,000 farms in North Dakota had sheep in 1900. The flock was estimated at 682,000 head. That’s nine times what it is this year.
I didn’t realize the extent to which sheep were an important part of North Dakota’s livestock industry in those early years.

Al Gustin is a retired farm broadcaster, active rancher and a member of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative.