Monday, September 23, 2013

How did open-range or stock laws affect your ancestors’ farming decisions?

Photo from An Overview and History of Pineywoods Cattle

Most people today associate the term “open range” with the great cattle ranches in the America west of the Mississippi River. But until the 20th century, Mississippi and other Southern states also had an open range, and it played an important part in how farmers, including my Poore family ancestors, ran their farms.
The voters of each county decided if it had an open range.

Jasper County was among the state’s counties with an open range. Mississippi’s open-range law allowed animals to roam freely on unfenced land. The law required farmers to fence their crops if they wanted to protect them from any damage caused by someone else’s foraging animals.

In 1880, 41 of Mississippi’s 74 counties had open ranges like Jasper County. In the other 33 counties, the law required stockholders to keep their stock fenced. These are called stock-law counties. The stock law required the fencing of horses, mules, oxen, cattle, sheep and hogs, which were especially destructive of crops.

But in an open range county, if a row-crop farmer did not put up a fence, then he could not recover damages from the stockholder if the animals got into the farmer’s fields to munch on the crops.

Fences cost a good deal of time and money to keep up. By one estimate, out of every 10 working hours, a farmer spent one hour repairing fences. As for money, my Jasper County ancestor William B. Poore spent $12 building and repairing fences in 1879, according to the 1880 agricultural census.

In many ways Jasper County’s open range directed farmers’ choices more than the fertility of the soil. The open range amounted to weakly enforced property rights. The law allowed stockholders, whether they owned land or not, to benefit from using other people’s property freely to pasture and feed animals throughout the year. They turned the resources of the forests into farm income with hardly any cost.

Because of the costs to grow, protect and harvest a crop, the Poore family and others had little incentive to invest in improving their land. Nor did most other farmers in Jasper County. In the 1870s, 77 percent of all farmland remained unimproved.

In contrast, those who owned land and those who didn’t both had good financial reasons to keep larger herds than if they had to provide all the forage themselves.

The Poore family, too, focused more on raising livestock on the open range than on raising crops.

Did your ancestors live in an open-range county? How did that affect their farming decisions?

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