Blazed Trees Marked “Dead Lines” During Early Range Wars

There are still dim blazes on pine trees of the Ochoco country that are reminders of the early range wars of Central Oregon. The blazes were “deadlines” that were used by cattlemen to designate areas which separated cattlemen from
sheepmen on summer ranges in the early years of the twentieth century.

The range wars were the result of competition for grazing on the lush open grasslands of the Ochoco Mountains and the High Desert. The large saddle blanket blazes on pine trees were a clear marker and a warning to sheepmen to not graze sheep north of the blazes. The line ran through the pinelands from the Crooked River country north of Prineville eastward along the Ochoco mountains to Black Canyon, which drained into the John Day watershed. The lines were marked by axe blazes and warning posters that had messages printed in red. The posters were usually printed on cotton cloth. The warning bore the signature of the “Inland Sheepshooters’ Association”, one of several anti-sheep organizations organized in the days of the range wars.

When the line was marked , sheepmen were ordered to move their flocks. In most instances the sheep were moved to avoid conflict. But some stubborn sheepmen refused to move their sheep as they considered it public grazing land. In some cases the cattlemen swooped down on flocks of sheep that were not removed and killed hundreds of sheep. Herders were usually left shoeless, but with assurance that their shoes would be found at the sheep camp. Many herders ended up making long walks back to their headquarters ranch after the killing of their flocks. Many of the sheepherders dogs
were also killed. Occasionally sheep were slaughtered on land owned by sheepmen, an apparent oversight of the enthusiastic sheepshooters.

The cattlemen appeared to be the aggressors in the range war and there are few reports of retaliation by the sheepmen other than threats of legal action and rewards offered for the identification of the killers of the sheep. Ironically many of the cattlemen reported to be active members of the Sheepshooter Association raised sheep as well as cattle. The range war reached its peak by 1908. At that time the U.S. Forest Service established forest reserves and national forests that created grazing allotments on public land and controlled grazing that eventually eliminated the long standing feud.

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