Roping calves, Paradise Valley, Nevada, in 1979. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer/Library of Congress


American bull

The story of American beef is like the story of the nation as a whole: a mashup of history and myth, bloody and contested

by Joshua Specht + BIO

Roping calves, Paradise Valley, Nevada, in 1979. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer/Library of Congress

In the film Red River (1948), all John Wayne wants to do is run a cattle ranch. But this is Hollywood and this is John Wayne, so there’s a lot more to the story. Wayne’s character, Thomas Dunson, embodies the old-time cowboy ideal of building a small herd of cattle into a thriving Texan ranch. It is the late 1860s, and Dunson plans a long cattle drive to Missouri to reach booming midwestern cattle markets. He and his men start north on the 1,000 mile drive, but on the journey the men heard rumours of a railroad connecting Chicago with the closer Kansas town of Abilene. Wedded to the old ways of the long cattle drive, Dunson refuses to change course, prompting a mutiny, but the herd – with Dunson in pursuit – ultimately makes it to Abilene, completing what becomes (in this telling) the first great cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail. After a lot of bravado and a fair bit of violence, Dunson and the mutineers make peace.

The drama of Red River was not just about a cattle drive. It was also about America. John Wayne’s character helps to incorporate Texas into the United States, despite the efforts of menacing Mexicans. He defeats hostile American Indians and pacifies the land. Though it appears that the cattle market – and coming railroad – have moved beyond him, it is a world that Wayne’s character has built.

The story of beef has never been far from the story of America, and in both there is a tension between the darker elements of the history and the sanitised myth. Tales of brave cowboys effectively conceal the ambiguities and violence of American development, becoming a justification for the American way. In Red River, the rancher is a hero, but we get little of the sense of ranchers as shrewd capitalists, which any history of the 1883 cowboy strike might reveal. In Red River, they bravely settled the West in the face of hostile American Indians; in reality, this was a process of violent and ruthless dispossession of American-Indian land.

This was not a dark history forgotten as we became more and more distant from the production of our food. Rather, the mythmaking started even as the system took shape, as a way of justifying its emergence. Ranchers and writers of westerns spun tales of progress and development as they worked to dispossess American Indians. Meatpackers downplayed labour violence, and assuaged consumer fears of contaminated meat with stories of technological marvels such as the refrigerated railcar and idyllic western scenes plastered on trade cards and advertisements.

The sanitised story of American beef has taken two overall forms. The first presents the shape of the ranching and meatpacking industries as an inevitable consequence of technological changes such as railroads and refrigeration; deployed by meatpackers and business-friendly politicians, this account casts any attempt to rein in the industry’s excesses as hopeless or misguided. The second presents a romanticised vision of ranching that connects beef production to the march of American progress. Both approaches are evident throughout American history.

In truth, producing American beef has been and remains a violently contested process. During the 19th century, the US Army fought wars with American Indians to control the Plains and populate them with cattle. Small-town butchers organised boycotts and protested in Congress against the Chicago meatpackers’ power. Striking slaughterhouse workers clashed with private detectives on the streets of Chicago. Today, fast-food industry workers fight for a living wage. To understand the tension between the bloody history of American beef and its shrink-wrapped and sterile retelling, it is necessary to explore the arc of its post-Civil War development right up to the present day. In the process, we might lose some faith in the world of Red River, but also create room for genuine critique and reform of an impressive, but exploitative, system.

Industrial beef was a post-Civil War invention. Though eastern and corn-belt cattle-raising had been critically important to ranching’s early days, and would continue to matter tremendously, a national ranching system would not consolidate until western ranching intensified. In the late 1870s and early ’80s, wealthy ranchers and newly created ranching corporations built what would be known as the ‘Cattle Kingdom’: ranches with hundreds of thousands of cattle stretching across ranges the size of small European countries. But before there were cattle, there was bison. And before cowboys settled the Plains, there were the Comanche, Kiowa, Lakota and other American Indian polities. The Cattle Kingdom was actively created by the bloody conquest of the Plains Indians, and not least by the slaughter of roughly 30 million bison that roamed the Great Plains, spurred by a growing market in the American East and in Europe for ‘buffalo robes’ (bison hides, as stylish as they were warm). Among ranchers there was a creeping realisation that if the Plains could support seemingly endless bison herds, then perhaps they could support equally vast herds of cattle.

In the 1860s and ’70s, on areas across the Plains, a familiar pattern emerged: a group of buffalo hunters or ranchers would try to seize Indian land or bison, provoking violence. Gary Clayton Anderson explores this in The Conquest of Texas (2005), tracing how the US Army would then intervene, securing US control of the area and forcibly confining American-Indian polities to ever-shrinking reservations. Ranching was central to this process. Threats to cattle justified military intervention and, in some places, such as west Texas, cattle ranchers functioned as paramilitaries, organising their own expeditions and working closely with the US Army.

Susan Newcomb, for instance, had moved as a teenage bride to the plains of west Texas in the 1860s. Her life was difficult and dangerous – she writes of being very lonesome, but she had little doubt that she and her husband had a right to be there. On her 18th birthday, she prayed that God would ‘stretch forth a helping hand over this wild and destitute country’. But it was ranchers and buffalo hunters working in conjunction with the US military who would take control of the West. In 1865, Susan’s husband Samuel wrote that ‘frontier people must now do something themselves’, before detailing a rancher expedition to avenge themselves on some American Indians they believed had stolen cattle or horses. The Newcombs spent a lot of time moving between their homestead and nearby Fort Davis, and ranchers like them often appealed directly to the Army for help.

The cowboy, the hunter, the pioneer … the force of American development became unstoppable

Over a period of roughly 20 years, bison were driven nearly to extinction, and vast areas once ruled by American-Indian polities were opened to settlement. The 1874-75 Red River War – triggered after Indians tried to resist the encroachment of white hunters attacking the bison herds of the Southern Plains – resulted in the US Army crushing an alliance of Kiowa, Comanche, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, and slaughtering their horses. Their people were confined to reservations, and their leaders imprisoned. In 1876, not far from the site of the decisive battle of that war, Charles Goodnight – ‘father of the Texas Panhandle’ and a figure loosely dramatised in the novel Lonesome Dove (1985) – established what would become the legendary JA ranch.

Tensions over threats to cattle were also at the heart of the Ute wars in Colorado and Utah. In 1885, for example, ranchers in southwestern Colorado murdered six Utes in retaliation for preying on their cattle. Fights over mineral wealth sparked further violence, as was the case in the 1876 Sioux War. But that too fit the general pattern: settlers desired an American-Indian resource and, when violence erupted, the US Army forcibly removed and dispossessed American-Indian peoples. Once most of the Plains Indians were confined to reservations, with few options for producing their own food, they were supplied with cattle that now grazed where bison had roamed. This was the rise of the Cattle Kingdom.

This bloody process fit inside a broader narrative of American development: the rancher would pave the way for the farmer, whose fields would give way to towns, and then cities. On this reading, heroic ranchers had, in the words of the 19th-century Treasury official Joseph Nimmo, converted a ‘barren waste … into a scene of enterprise and of thrift’. The one-time rancher and future US president Theodore Roosevelt would agree, writing in 1888 that ‘stockmen are in the West the pioneers of civilisation, and their daring and adventurousness make the after settlement of the region possible’. The making of the American myth of the West and the beef industry thus emerged at the same time and often from the same stories and figures: the cowboy, the hunter, the pioneer. Almost inevitably, or so these tales would have us believe, the force of American development became unstoppable.

Then came the rapid arrival of investment capital in the West. Vast corporate ranches, such as the 3-million-acre XIT, amassed herds of 100,000 animals or more. By the early 1880s, ranching was big business. Poor ranchers fought vainly with cattle barons in incidents such as the 1892 Johnson County War, in which wealthy ranchers controlling the Wyoming Stock Growers Association hired gunmen to drive poorer ranchers out of the county, sparking a kind of low-grade civil war that ended only after the US president Benjamin Harrison ordered the deployment of the US Army. In The Great Cowboy Strike (2017), Mark Lause argues that cowboys were beginning to look like wage labourers; William ‘Big Bill’ Haywood, founder of the Industrial Workers of the World union, had worked as a cowboy, and wrote about it as some of the hardest work he had done. This was all part of a broader process of industrialisation and marketisation, even if the popular accounts of the West, reflected in performances such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, emphasised scenes of settlement and heroic individualism.

The Cattle Kingdom was big business but it, in turn, would crumble in the face of an emerging empire of industrial beef, ruled by Chicago meatpacking firms. By the mid-19th century, the city was home to the nation’s chief cattle market, where animals from across the West accumulated before shipment. Earlier meatpacking systems had relied on distributing live cattle nationwide, for local slaughter and sale. Mary Yeager’s Competition and Regulation: The Development of Oligopoly in the Meat Packing Industry (1981) traces how, in the 1870s and ’80s, the Chicago houses realised that, with the help of emerging refrigeration technology, they could slaughter the animals in the city and then ship fresh beef ‘dressed’. The packers would function as wholesalers, selling quarter-carcasses to butcher shops nationwide. By the late 1880s, just four Chicago companies directly and indirectly controlled most of the nation’s beef (and pork).

Refrigerated railcars aside, the dominance of the Chicago houses depended on countless small victories, in stockyard cattle deals, in fights with town butchers for market-share, and with workers outside Chicago slaughterhouses. As Dominic Pacyga suggests in Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made (2015), this was a process that remade both the US and Chicago. The packers used cut-throat tactics to bankrupt local and regional wholesale butchers, including bribing respected local butchers to take their business or sell their products at a loss to woo consumers. When the firm Armour and Company entered Luzerne County in Pennsylvania, they sent a telegram to the respected local butcher Mathias Schwabe, telling him to ‘give up and go along with us’. Schwabe resisted, but to no avail. Armour and Company denied making any threats, but government investigators found an internal memo that suggested otherwise: ‘can not allow Schwabe to continue … if he will not stop … make prices so as can get his trade.’ The packers colluded to dominate ranchers, too, forcing them to accept low prices in cattle markets, or risk shipping their herds to another city controlled by the same meatpackers. In response, butchers and ranchers alike tried to boycott Chicago dressed beef. Consumers were sympathetic, but almost always went with the Chicago houses’ low prices.

Ever since, low prices have served as an organising principle and justification for the system’s iniquities

Defending themselves before government investigators, the meatpackers emphasised that disruption was the cost of progress. Philip Armour spoke of his industry as having ‘different rules’, adding that he and his ilk were lowering consumer costs. He told congressional investigators that the packers had:

[opened] up new markets in communities which were not formerly beef-consuming. They have firmly established themselves among the artisans and labourers of the East and North, and are to-day actively engaged in opening new markets throughout the South for the introduction and sale of western beef. They are making beef more palatable, attractive, and wholesome … and are distributing this beef throughout the country at the lowest possible charge for the service rendered.

This ‘different rules’ argument suggested that the meatpackers’ power was not the outcome of countless struggles for power, but an inevitable feature of any system that could provide cheap and abundant meat to all Americans. It persuaded skeptical investigators who, while sympathetic to the plight of struggling ranchers and butchers, were happy that beef prices were lower than ever. In fact, ever since this time, low prices have served as an organising principle and core justification for the system’s iniquities.

By 1900, there were national markets for cattle and fresh beef, and the Chicago meatpackers dominated both. While their control of profits would persist through the 20th century, the specifics of beef production would change dramatically. Trucking decentralised and re-ruralised animal slaughter and processing. Global meat producers became important, such as the Brazilian company JBS SA, which today is the largest meat distributor in the world. Overall, though, the power in the industry remained broadly similar: food processors controlled the profits, and ranchers, slaughterhouse workers and ecosystems bore the costs.

The world of beef consumption we inhabit today is radically different, and perhaps best reflected in the efforts of a pair of brothers from Southern California, and the businessman who realised how their model could become central to the suburbanisation of US society. In 1948, Maurice and Richard McDonald organised their small hamburger restaurant around a kind of Taylorised efficiency and speed, guessing that fast food and low prices would please customers more than the slower but more intimate table service that characterised their competitors. And they streamlined the food-preparation process, making staff easier to train, and prices easier to cut further.

The brothers had a winning model, which became hugely successful locally. But it took Ray Kroc to see how they might remake global food consumption. Kroc was an ambitious salesman who rolled up at McDonald’s in San Bernardino and exclaimed: ‘Son of a bitch, these guys have got something!’ Kroc’s idea was to franchise the business nationally. Beginning in 1954, he gradually took over more and more of the company. In 1958, McDonald’s, then a rapidly growing chain of restaurants, sold its 100-millionth hamburger. By 1984, with McDonald’s now a global phenomenon, unit sales reached 50 billion hamburgers. One of the most powerful images of the collapse of the Soviet Union were the throngs of people waiting outside the first McDonald’s in Moscow when it opened in 1990.

McDonald’s sat at the heart of broader transformations in US society. The automobile was remaking American space – people were now living in suburbs, and commuters were dining out of their cars. Across the 1960s and ’70s, Americans had less and less time to cook, while today, roughly a third of Americans eat fast food on any given day. As convenient as it is cheap, fast food’s ease of access papers over a variety of inequalities on which it rests– from the ongoing environmental impacts of beef production to gruelling slaughterhouse labour and a poorly paid labour force.

Interestingly, the early years of McDonald’s coincided with the total victory of the sanitised story of American beef. Just as popular westerns helped to romanticise beef production on film, the fast-food gospel of cleanliness and efficiency romanticised beef consumption. Similarly, corporate restaurants and ‘drive-thru’ dining were portrayed as a consequence of the automobile and suburb, just as centralised meatpacking was spawned by the railroad and refrigeration.

No one could have foreseen that beef would become a victim of its own (sanitised) success, perhaps because the increasing distance that Americans put between the production of their food and the almost total ubiquity of beef meant that its symbolic importance faded slightly. Yet Americans would soon look at the beef industry with fresh eyes: in the 1970s, they became suspicious of their hamburgers. Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet (1971) helped to popularise the link between personal eating choices and environmental impact, while hard-hitting studies suggested that red-meat consumption led to heart disease and an elevated risk of cancer. Annual beef consumption in the US has declined from just under 90 pounds (40 kg) per capita in the 1970s to a shade over 50 pounds (22 kg) as of 2014, although overall meat consumption has remained largely unchanged and has even increased since 2000, as poultry has taken off. Over time, it was no longer taken for granted that red meat was an unproblematic part of the American diet.

Some Americans have begun to celebrate unapologetic carnivorousness as a political act

Even now, however, some Americans continue to see beef (or its rejection) as part of their political identity: for a growing minority of Americans both skeptical and celebratory of beef, consumption has become political, especially in relation to climate change. The exact extent of beef’s impact – and how much practices such as ‘responsible grazing’ can mitigate it – is a subject of heated debate, but a recent study in Science found that 50 grammes of protein from beef has an impact of roughly 18 kg of CO2: almost 18 times what one might get from tofu, and even five times as much as produced by poultry. And this is to say nothing of methane emissions. Avoiding beef is now a powerful way of embodying one’s personal action on the climate-change frontline. But abstinence is far from simple when organic meats of unclear environmental or social benefit are reaching the market, and locally grown – and expensive – beef allow the wealthy to salve their conscience. American consumers, lacking the time, energy or money to fundamentally restructure their eating habits, are resentful and, in response, some Americans have begun to celebrate unapologetic carnivorousness as a political act. Taking what has long been a feature of meat consumption – the connection between beef and manliness – they have used it to bolster a vision of the virile American male. Meanwhile, climate skeptics have embraced beef as a food choice that might symbolise their rejection of climate concerns.

Through all this, the romantic ideal of American ranching remains potent and relevant. In 2014, the rancher Cliven Bundy initiated a tense standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. For more than 20 years, Bundy had been illegally grazing roughly 400 cattle on federal land in Southeastern Nevada, claiming traditional rights to the area that were ‘created by beneficial use. Beneficial use means we created the forage and the water from the time the very first pioneers come here.’ The standoff, with Bundy resisting eviction, became a national media circus, and eventually the federal government backed down, turning Bundy into a hero of the conservative movement with a platform on Fox News.

Bundy’s purported heroism belies the notion that the history of American beef is a simple story of changing technology and new business practices, when it has been a tense struggle for power on ranges and in cattle towns, stockyards, butchers’ shops and kitchens across the country. What is more, this troubling history has always coexisted with a set of myths intended to obscure it. In one version of the myth, the shape of the US food system is an inevitable outcome of technological change – railroads and refrigeration – and its structure was deemed necessary to feed Americans, rich and poor, cheaply. In another version of this myth, the development of American beef is part of a broader romantic vision of American progress and development. Like all good myths, both visions of this history contain elements of truth, even as they obscure a darker reality. Though recent criticism of beef production has started to see the pseudo-history unravelling, it remains potent because sanitising the history of US beef works to depoliticise our food system in an era where environmentally contentious farming and production methods are widely criticised.

The shape of the beef industry has always been fundamentally political; it is the outcome of an often violent struggle over how we produce our food and who gains and who loses from this system. Ironically, little has changed materially since the system took shape. Today, as in 1900, a few meat-processing conglomerates reap vast benefits. And today, as in 1900, the abundance of cheap, tasty beef is used to justify a wide range of inequalities. In addressing the high costs of our food system, we need to re-examine the myths that have sanitised the history of US beef, and begin a far-reaching discussion about what kind of food system we want, and how it might reflect the kind of society we wish to live in, from our relationship to the environment, to the power of organised labour, to American inequality.

Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America by Joshua Specht is published by Princeton University Press.