By Bill O’Neal
THE LARGEST RANCH UNDER ONE FENCE
Across the frontier of the cattleman’s Old West, the largest ranch under one fence was the three-million-acre XIT in the Texas Panhandle. The vast XIT stretched for 200 miles north to south and grazed in its heyday 125,000 to 150,000 head of cattle. As if such a massive operation could not be corralled in one state, the XIT expanded into Montana and became unforgettable in both states.
The northern XIT operation sprawled across more than two million acres in eastern Montana with Texas cowboys riding the Montana range, Texas foremen directing their work and Texas steers — as many as 65,000 head at one point — growing fat on Montana grasses. Some of the Texans even chose to remain permanently in Montana as productive citizens.
During the 1880s big Texas ranchers began moving young steers north to be fattened for market on the ranges of Wyoming and Montana. John V. Farwell, XIT managing director, conducted experimental grazing in Montana in 1889. Impressed with the results, he wasted no time enlarging the northern XIT on a large scale.
In 1890 Farwell established a northern headquarters by buying a small ranch on Cedar Creek in Custer County, Mont., 65 miles north of Miles City. Farwell leased two million acres as a finishing range, a superb grassland located “between the rivers”— the Yellowstone and the Missouri. A subdivision was established at the Hatchet Ranch, almost 20 miles north of Terry.
AN 850-MILE JOURNEY
From 1890 through 1896, the Texas XIT drove from 10,000 to 20,000 steers annually to Montana. Normally, the XIT sent five herds on the 850-mile journey from the Texas Panhandle to Montana. Each herd usually was composed of 2,500 steers and driven by eight cowboys, a trail boss, a horse wrangler and a cook. The drive took three months, during which time the trail hands were paid $35 a month (XIT cowboys in Texas earned only $25 monthly).
Although most of the trail hands were laid off in Montana, enough men were retained to drive the combined remuda back to Texas. The XIT’s most famous animal was “Dunnie,” a buckskin mustang so dependable on night herd that he was used season after season on the long drives. One of the five chuck wagons was used to feed the remuda crew during the two-month return journey, while the four “empties” were hitched together in two pairs and driven back by one team per pair.
The XIT “double-wintered” steers bred in the Panhandle, expanding them in loin and frame on the Montana range. Bob Fudge, a 250-pound Texas cowboy, helped drive two herds from Texas and then stayed with the Montana XIT until 1909. Most of the time Fudge was in charge of the Hatchet subdivision.
Endorsing the policy of finishing cattle on northern ranges, Fudge reported that “when they had been in Montana a year or two, they grew in size and weight to more than double the steer which we brought up the trail from Texas.”
O.C. Cato was sent up from Texas to manage the Montana operation. According to Al Denby, one of the first trail hands brought from Texas, Cato was such an expert cattleman that he “could very near tell the color of a cow by looking at her track.”
OSCEOLA C. CATO
Born in 1858, Osceola C. Cato was raised on the family farm near Waco. The Chisholm Trail crossed the Brazos River at Waco, and young Cato’s imagination was captivated by Longhorn steers and the cowboys who handled them. At 14 he left home to become part of the great adventure of the age.
After only four years as a cowboy, Cato’s affinity for cattle and his leadership qualities resulted in a successful career as a ranch manager. Serving ably for several ranches, Cato took time in 1881 to marry Julia Jourdan in Austin. Cato and Julia became parents of three daughters and a son.
At age 32, Cato agreed in 1890 to trail the first herd of cattle from the Texas Panhandle to Montana and establish the XIT finishing operation. The spacious Cato family home became a social center in Miles City, seat of Custer County. As head of one of Montana’s most celebrated ranches, Cato became a citizen of prominence and proved that the Montana XIT was in highly capable hands. O.C. was a stockholder and vice president of State National Bank in Miles City and a member of the Elks and Masonic Lodges. He was elected to a term as county sheriff and later served two terms in the Montana State Senate.
Cato assigned Bob Fudge, who was spending his first winter in Montana, to a lonely line camp on the Yellowstone River, which was the southern boundary of XIT range (the northern line was the Missouri River). The XIT provided winter hands with fur coats, fur caps and fur chaps. Fudge, therefore, was protected from the cold, but after a couple of months on his solitary rounds, he was badly injured when his horse suffered a fall. As a result, O.C. Cato initiated a policy of keeping two riders at each line camp throughout the long Montana winters.
A COWBOY’S LIFE
Aside from line riders, little ranch work was available during the winters until the April horse roundup began seven months of intense activity. The fall beef roundups across the vast open range of the XIT involved five big wagon crews, each consisting of a chuck wagon and cook, a bed wagon carrying tents and bedrolls, eight to 10 cowboys, and two horse wranglers — a day herder and a night hawk. Each roundup crew made two rail shipments during the fall. The final shipments were dispatched by rail to Chicago by the first of November.
Although most cowboys were laid off until the next spring, they were permitted to pick out a horse from their string to use through the winter. Any man not allowed to keep a winter mount was wise to look for work outside the XIT. The remaining 600 horses were kept at the headquarters ranch during the winter months. Wagon boss Rufe Morris was in charge at headquarters, keeping only a cook and one cowboy. Bob Fudge ran the Hatchet subdivision with a cook and Al Denby.
Most of the laid-off cowboys were allowed to stay in the log bunkhouses on the two XIT ranches and, according to Al Denby, “took in all the dances in the country during the winter.” Key figures at each dance were XIT men Ed and Louis Weisner who rode to the festivities with their fiddles strapped to their backs.
It was customary for every man at a dance to pitch in a dollar, and this collection was presented to the musicians. Cowboys readily rode horseback 20 to 60 miles to attend a dance. If a blizzard struck, the ball might become a three- or four-day party. “But there was always plenty to eat,” reminisced cowboy J.K. Marsh, “as all of the married women always brought plenty of cakes.”
The most popular married woman was Mrs. H.J. Kramer of Fallon (near Terry), whose husband assisted the XIT with shipping. She loved to waltz and taught the dance to many eager cowboys. As one of her dance partners recalled, Mrs. Kramer “was a large, strong lady who could steer them around.”
The primary attraction of the XIT for cowboys was the opportunity to practice the old-fashioned art of open-range cowpunching. The XIT in Texas, divided into eight separate divisions, was tightly fenced and cross-fenced, as were other large and small ranches throughout most of the rest of the West. But in Montana, except for horse pastures, the enormous XIT ranges were unfenced. Young cowboys could live and work in a manner that had largely disappeared in the West.
THE FINAL DRIVE
At the height of XIT operations in Montana, as many as 65,000 XIT steers were on the range along with 1,000 cows brought from Texas to raise beef for the roundup wagons and line camps. Two long creeks, the Redwater and the Big Dry, meandered through the heart of the XIT range. Although XIT steers ranged as far west as the Musselshell River, most of the cattle grazed near the Redwater and the Big Dry during summer months. A beef roundup usually could gather enough steers near these creeks to drive a herd to the shipping point.
The XIT drove its final herds north from Texas in 1897. After that date settlers and their fences closed the Montana Trail to Miles City, making it necessary to pay railroad rates to move Texas steers to Montana. But the XIT in Texas continued to send large numbers of steers north for double wintering. In 1902, for example, 22,000 head were shipped by rail to Montana.
By this time homesteaders were penetrating the XIT range in Montana and introducing sheep in large numbers. The Capitol Syndicate, which owned the three million acres in Texas, already had begun selling off their Panhandle lands to farmers and ranchers. Reducing the Texas cattle operation meant that the Montana range was no longer essential.
On October 8, 1909, after the XIT terminated its Montana operations, O.C. Cato staged a farewell barbecue at the Hatchet Ranch. The Terry Tribune reported the event, concluding with a gloomy prophesy: “The XIT is closing out and by next year will be only a name on the page of Montana history.”
As the XIT downsized in Montana, O.C. Cato bought a herd of the XIT cattle as well as saddle horses, and he purchased the Hatchet Ranch from the Capitol Syndicate. Although Cato remained active as a Montana cattleman, his health failed in 1915 and he returned to Texas to die. He passed away in Austin at the age of 57, but his remains were transported back to Miles City for burial in the family cemetery plot.
The Cato ranching enterprises were carried on by family members, most notably by O.C.’s granddaughter, Mary Cato Swayne. After graduating from high school in Miles City, Mary attended the Spence School for Young Women in New York. She later returned to Montana and ran the family ranches for decades after her father died in 1943. Mary was 33 years old when she took control of the ranches, a year older than her grandfather when he came from Texas to establish the XIT.
A LASTING LEGACY
Even though the XIT had operated barely two decades in Montana, old-timers from the area long related tales of the massive cattle ranch and its Texas connections. Texas drover Bob Fudge stayed with the Montana XIT until its liquidation and later collaborated with Jim Russell to produce Bob Fudge, Texas Trail Driver, Montana-Wyoming Cowboy. The book is replete with XIT range adventures. Both the Prairie County Museum in Terry and the Range Riders Museum in Miles City boast of a rich Montana collection of XIT photos and memorabilia. When Mary Cato Swayne died in Miles City in 2004, her obituary reminded the public that “Mary Cato was the granddaughter of O.C. and Julia Cato of the famous XIT ranch that was such a part of Miles City history.”
Contrary to the 1909 journalistic foreboding predicting the XIT would be “only a name” in Montana history, the XIT has proven to be an unforgettable and colorful part of Montana’s past. A more accurate tribute to the Montana XIT may be a favorite gravestone epitaph of the era: “Gone But Not Forgotten.”
BILL O’NEAL is the author of more than 40 books, including Historic Ranches of the Old West, published by the Eakin Press. O’Neal served as State Historian of Texas for six years (2012-2018). In addition to numerous professional affiliations, he has been a longtime member of the Montana Historical Society and the Ranching Heritage Association.
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of the Ranch Record. Would you like to read more stories about ranching life? When you become a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, you’ll receive the award-winning Ranch Record magazine and more while supporting the legacy and preservation of our ranching heritage.