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QUESTION:

A cowboy in Minnesota? Really?

A. V.

ANSWER:

Minnesota cow herd Ignoring the fact that the American cowboy originated in New England, and that even states such as Ohio and Indiana were once considered "western" states, Minnesota and the states to the south of it have long and rich associations with "The Old West" and the cowboy culture. In fact, one of my biggest gripes with the cowboy wannabe magazine American Cowboy is that it considers the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to mark the eastern edge of cowboy country. Historically, however, "The Old West" and the cowboy domain begin west of the Mississippi River and the western edge of the Great Lakes.

Minnesota is one of what I call the Western "gateway" states -- Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri [point of origin for the Pony Express], Arkansas, and Louisiana -- and lies due north of such undeniably "Western" places as Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Houston,Texas. To ignore that truth is to ignore much of Western culture and cowboy history.

For many years, Fort Snelling -- located on the bluffs overlooking the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers -- was the farthest west military post in the United States. You want cowboys and Indians? Minnesota is rich in Sioux and Chippewa reservations. The area where I live is virtually surrounded by Chippewa/Ojibwe reservations: Fond du Lac, Nett Lake, Bois Fort, Red Lake, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, etc. The Minnesota Sioux reservation -- a 10-mile wide strip of land stretching 150 miles along the south side of the Minnesota River -- was the starting point of the bloody 1862 Sioux Uprising.

Minnesota cattle drive

As the United States expanded west, the cowboys depended on the railroads to move their bovine merchandise to market. Both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads started their journey west in Minnesota -- The Great Northern from Saint Paul and the Northern Pacific from Carlton, Minnesota.

Northfield, Minnesota is the "Western" town where the James-Younger gang got shot to doll rags by a bunch of well-armed townsfolk on September 7, 1876.

The Bigfork valley, just north of where I live, was the last area of the continental United States to be opened to homesteading. Today, folks in that area still call it "The Last Frontier."

Even today, Minnesota ranks 12th in the nation in cattle production -- ahead of such "cowboy" states as New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, and Nevada. Minnesota has almost 400,000 beef cows and over 470,000 dairy cows on thousands of farms. For decades, the stockyards in Saint Paul, Minnesota, processed a huge amount of the beef production from the Dakotas and Montana as well as Minnesota.

Minnesota has the ninth largest horse population in the nation with over 150,000 horses, and Minnesota's horse industry generates nearly $1 billion in economic activity annually. Tens of thousands of modern-day Minnesotans participate in such "cowboy" sports as bronc and bull riding, competitive roping, barrel racing, and mounted shooting. According to a friend who works for the Department of Natural Resouces, Minnesotans today own more horses than they do snowmobiles and All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) combined!

I've even ridden with a cattle drive in Northern Minnesota, and I dare anyone to say that the Pitzen fellows aren't true cowboys!

A cowboy in Minnesota? Yah, sure ting, you betcha!

Minnesota cattle drive
Cowboys branding Minnesota cattle
One of the Pitzen brothers saddling up

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