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ResearchThe social and ecological consequences of early cattle ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin, Arizona (page 1 of 3)

Author: William S. Abruzzi. Adapted from: Abruzzi, W. S. 1995. The Social and Ecological Consequences of Early Cattle Ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin. Human Ecology 23: 75-98.


Commercial cattle ranching began in east central Arizona during the late 1880s when thousands of head of cattle were introduced onto the previously unexploited grasslands of the Little Colorado River Basin (map). Most of these animals were imported from western Texas where serious overgrazing had resulted in both catastrophic cattle losses and widespread range deterioration. By the turn of the century, the Texas experience had been repeated in Arizona. This research summary looks at the early development of cattle ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin, the various factors which contributed to overgrazing in the region, and the pervasive effects that early commercial cattle ranching had on the local environment.

The Little Colorado River Basin

Little Colorado River Basin

Little Colorado River Basin

The Little Colorado River Basin is a semi-arid region of about 5000 square miles in east central Arizona. Situated at the southern periphery of the Colorado Plateau, the large basin appears as an undulating plain increasing in elevation from north to south. Average elevation ranges from 5000 feet in the lower valley of the Little Colorado to over 8000 feet along the Mogollon Rim. The highest elevations occur in the southeastern portion of the basin, where several peaks in the White Mountains exceed 10,000 feet. Semi-arid scrub vegetation predominates along the lower valley of the Little Colorado River near Holbrook and is succeeded southwards by semi-arid grasslands (the largest single vegetative community in the basin), pinyon-juniper woodlands, ponderosa pine forest, and mixed-conifer forest communities. Narrow riparian habitats are found in a few areas, principally along the Little Colorado River and its tributary Silver Creek.

Early Farming and Settlement

Most of the nearly two dozen small towns currently distributed throughout the Little Colorado area were founded during the late nineteenth century by Mormon pioneers. Colonizing the Little Colorado River Basin with farming communities was an exceedingly difficult task that was eventually achieved only at great individual and collective expense. Many towns sustained near-annual crop failures due to heat, frost, drought, and flooding - frequently to more than one of these causes during a single agricultural season - as well as to hailstorms, insect infestations, and destructive winds. In the end, the colonization succeeded.

The Advent of the Railroad

Winslow railyard

Winslow, Arizona, ca. 1890. Image NAU.PH.3 courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University.

In 1866, Congress authorized the construction of a railroad line along the 35th parallel, and the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad arrived in the Little Colorado River basin in 1881. Initially, the Mormon settlements received important benefits from the arrival of the railroad. The advent of the railroad offered a critical employment opportunity for the local Mormon population and made the acquisition of food and supplies easier and less costly in this remote region. The growth of newly-established Holbrook and Winslow along the railroad line and the regional population increase which followed the railroad's arrival also created a growing local market for produce.

The most significant consequence of the arrival of the railroad, however, was that it opened this previously isolated territory to exploitation by powerful economic interests outside the region, in particular those associated with the highly speculative range cattle industry of the time. Holbrook, which was founded in 1881, quickly emerged as the central shipping point for all of northeastern Arizona, and both livestock and livestock products became the principal freight shipped from there. The largest single enterprise to enter the Little Colorado River Basin during the nineteenth century as a result of the arrival of the railroad was the Aztec Land and Cattle Company.

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