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At the GRS Symposium: Ticks, shootouts & dynamite in ‘The War for the Southern Range’

  • Tick, tick, boom!
    Tick, tick, boom!  David “Mac” Marquis studies a widespread conflict over land use that changed the economic and environmental landscape of the South, was punctuated by shootings and dynamitings, but has largely slipped under the barbed wire of American history.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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A campaign of resistance smoldered though the rural South in the early decades of the 20th century. The smoldering erupted into massive civil disobedience, dotted with outbreaks of violence in many places.

David “Mac” Marquis says the conflict was bigger in both scale and duration than other sectional outbreaks such as the Black Patch Tobacco War, the Johnson County Range War and the Green Corn Rebellion. This struggle doesn’t even have a name, but it did have plenty of dynamite.

Marquis is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at William & Mary. He received the William & Mary Interdisciplinary Award for Excellence in Research for his paper “Tick, Tick, Boom: Dynamite, Cattle Ticks, and the Closing of the Southern Range.”

Marquis will speak on the topic of his award, one of a number of honors associated with the 18th Annual Graduate Research Symposium, held at the Sadler Center on the campus of William & Mary on March 15 & 16, 2019. The symposium is hosted by William & Mary's Graduate Student Association of Arts & Sciences and the Arts & Sciences Office of Graduate Studies and Research.

His presentation concerns developments that brought together a number of issues, including resistance to what many considered government overreach, skirmishes over land use, conflicts between what we now call agribusiness and a group that Marquis calls “yeoman farmers.”

As the 20th century began, the timber industry in the American South was rapidly running out of trees to cut. By 1918, there were 76 million acres of cut-over land in the South, real estate assets that clear-cutting had turned into a tax burden for the timber companies. The timber companies were keen to turn cut-over grazing lands into something profitable, but there were a couple of interrelated barriers for Southern timber barons who wanted to unload their land to large scale ranchers.

Marquis explains that southern law — as well as the even more potent custom — stated that livestock could be run on open land. Cattle roamed freely; it was the crops that were fenced in.

“In short, this meant that a farmer could own virtually no land yet still have hundreds of cattle or hogs,” Marquis writes.

The free-range concept was inimical to timber companies and any other group that wanted to get into cattle in a big way. Marquis explains that the big operators planned to run high-profit, purebred cattle on land they owned. They didn’t want their pedigreed stock interbreeding with the “scrub cattle” of the small farmers on the open range.

Another problem was a cattle disease called Texas Fever. Texas Fever is caused by a protozoan parasite carried by a species of tick found in the American South. Death toll among cattle infected by Texas Fever can be as high as 90 percent.

 Marquis says that in 1906 the federal government had launched a program to eradicate the cattle tick. The program was based on quarantines, along with a regimen of dipping to kill the ticks.

“Dippers would build large vats, fill them with an arsenic-based solution and then walk the cattle through the vat,” Marquis writes.

Dipping was effective, but wasn’t a permanent solution for an individual animal. A dipped steer could become re-infested. Marquis notes that in the early days of the program, dipping was instituted on a county-by-county basis, and some counties could opt out.

It became clear that voluntary tick control, especially on the open range, was a case of Whac-A-Mole. Compulsory dipping was mandated. Marquis said the small farmers, running fewer than a couple hundred head, would have to drive their stock to a dipping vat twice a month.

“This was a significant investment in time and money for the small farmer who previously only rounded up their cattle twice a year — once in the spring for branding and once in the fall for slaughter,” Marquis said.

The timber companies supported fencing off the open range as well as the dipping program. Marquis said they often worked behind the scenes to bring about the two changes, because they feared reprisals.

The fears of the timber executives were well founded. The yeoman farmers resisted compulsory dipping and all that went with it, including confiscation of cattle. Especially galling was the end of the open range.

Many farmers began to deal with their frustrations with compulsory dipping in low-level sabotage, such as cutting fences. Things soon escalated, and Marquis’ research is filled with acts of violence chronicled in period newspapers across the South.

One such narrative from The Shreveport Times of 1928 told how Walter Williams shot and killed Jewell Ball over dipping. Williams was acquitted, only to be shot dead by Arthur Lawson, a tenant on the Ball farm. A 1913 Natchez newspaper tells of a tick inspector shot dead by a woman whom she believed was going to confiscate her cattle. Marquis says there were plenty of shootouts, many associated with attempts to blow up dipping vat sites.

“This research has so far identified over 1,450 dynamitings and points to hundreds more, making the bombing of dipping vats one of the largest and paradoxically least known domestic bombing campaigns in U.S. history,” Marquis writes in his synopsis presented for the symposium.

He says that dipping bombers often acted singly, although many dynamitings were obviously coordinated, large-scale events. One of his sources, Claire Strom’s Making Catfish Bait Out of Government Boys: The Fight Against Cattle Ticks and the Transformation of the Yeoman South, reports a single night in which 67 vats were sent sky-high.

The vat dynamitings and shootouts among dipping partisans peaked in the late teens and continued sporadically until 1930. It was a rolling anti-government insurrection. When the clashes ended, vast areas were left contaminated by arsenic, and the end of free range transformed the landscape and economy of the region. But the whole conflict, as Marquis says, “has been curiously overlooked by many historians.”

He believes a conflict of such a size deserves a name. Marquis suggests “The War for the Southern Range.”

The feds and the dippers eventually won the tick battle, through supervised, compulsory dipping rolled out county by county. Marquis said the government declared victory over the cattle tick in 1944.

But the cattle tick is not extinct. Marquis points out that there is no cure for Texas Fever. There is a permanent quarantine area in Texas for cattle imported from Mexico, and Marquis says the quarantine area is extended as needed. In November 2018, there were an additional 800,000 acres under quarantine.

He cites a warning from Texas A&M that the success of the dipping/quarantine program of the last century remains largely unknown, leaving few people who can understand the potential devastation that a 21st century outbreak of Texas Fever might cause.

“This lack of memory and understanding could result in lax oversight on the borders of the quarantine region, leading to a new threat of cattle tick infestation,” Marquis writes. He added that it’s reasonable to expect the cattle tick, like other tick species, to expand its range northward.

Marquis is careful not to conflate the tick issue on the Mexican border with concerns about food security or, especially, with the debate about immigration, but rather to “lay bare the lie that we can control our environment and dictate nature.”