Growth of Pettis County’s 1880s livestock industry

By Rhonda Chalfant Contributing Columnist

May 13, 2014

A 19th century folksong about “Sweet Betsy From Pike” describes the animals she brought with her when she crossed the Rocky Mountains: “Two yoke of oxen, a large yaller dog, a tall Shanghai rooster, and one spotted hog.” This view of livestock is echoed in the 1882 History of Pettis County, which described native livestock as rough creatures.

The native cattle found by the early settlers were “tall, lithe, sinewy,” with flesh that “was tough, of dark color, and as an article of food by no means desirable.” The horses were “queer looking, unshapen animals, vicious, ill-natured, clothed with long, wooly hair, low in stature.”

When the native stock interbred with the good breeds of horses and cattle brought by the more well-to-do early settlers, the result was the “much despised and caricatured ‘western scrub.’” The early settlers to Missouri raised “immense herds” of cattle, mostly “scrub.”

By the 1830s, when Pettis County was formally established, a few enlightened and wealthy stockmen began to improve their herds by importing thoroughbred bulls and stallions. Over the next 30 years, the quality of livestock showed a “gradual and permanent” improvement. Large herds fed on the lush grass of the prairies and central Missouri became known for the “excellence” of its vast herds.

The Civil War was a disaster for Missouri stock raisers. Both armies commandeered horses for their cavalries and cattle to feed their troops. The few stock that remained, according to the 1882 History, “were particularly worthless and soon disappeared.”

The livestock industry had to be rebuilt. The 1882 History points out that “probably no county in the state offers superior advantages in soil, climate, and the various conditions appreciated and utilized by nearly every farmer in the county.” Most of Missouri’s county histories extol the natural advantages of their area in much the same way.

The improvement in livestock was not only because of Pettis County’s pasture and water, but also because some Pettis County stockmen could afford to import high quality breeding stock from the East as well as from Canada and Europe. The Short Horn and Laderney breeds of cattle and Hambeltonian, Membrino, Morgan, and Denmark breeds of horses came to be common in Pettis County.

Local stockmen were adept at breeding livestock, and by 1881, the records of the Pettis County Assessor showed a total of 8,871 horses valued at a total of $325,505 and 29,040 cattle valued at a total of $466,805.

Breeders of sheep and hogs had also worked to improve the quality of their stock. They imported Berkshire and Poland China hogs and Merino, Cotswold, and Downs sheep. In 1881, Pettis Countians owned 36,675 sheep valued at a total of $57,457 and 27,294 hogs valued at a total of $64,395.

By the 1880s, less than 20 years after the devastation of the Civil War, eastern visitors were amazed at the “superior quality” of Pettis County livestock. Easterners, so the 1882 History notes, had “heard so much” about the scrub livestock that they believed it to be “indigenous to the soil, … a natural product of the peculiar climate, … and a degeneration from the higher grades.”

The easterners also seem to be convinced that the scrub was a result of “unskillful management in breeding, insufficient and improper food, and overwork when young.”

Pettis County stockmen were quick to correct the easterners’ misconceptions and brag about their skills, which they had learned in the Eastern states from which they came and applied in a place with ample pasture and a good climate.

In 1881, Pettis Countians shipped at total of 1,600 train cars full of stock valued at $1,630,000 to market. The writer of the 1882 History estimated the profit on marketed stock to be between 30 and 70 percent of the initial investment.

Pettis Countians had indeed come to be a factor in livestock breeding. Not only were they selling stock for high prices, they had begun to export breeding stock to Europe.