If there is a name in Colorado history that is synonymous with cattle and ranching, it is John Wesley Iliff (1831–78). At the time of his death, Iliff owned approximately 35,000 head of cattle and thousands of acres stretching from northeast Colorado to Wyoming. His method of ranching forever changed the American diet by making beef available at low cost for the average citizen.
Iliff was born in Ohio on December 18, 1831, to wealthy Methodist parents who wanted their son (named for the founder of Methodism) to be a minister. They encouraged him to attend Ohio Wesleyan University, but school could not hold John’s interest. His father, Thomas Iliff, was a cattleman himself and instilled in his son an understanding of the complexities of raising large herds. Young Iliff believed he could use that knowledge to create his future in the West. In 1849 he asked his father for a small loan and left Ohio at the age of eighteen.
In 1857 he opened his first store in Ohio City (now known as Princeton, Kansas), but two years later he heard rumors of gold strikes farther west and decided to head to Denver. Much like fellow Coloradan Charles Boettcher, Iliff saw an opportunity to sell goods to miners instead of going to the mines himself. In 1859 he and two partners opened a dry goods store called the Commercial Emporium of the Pike’s Peak Gold Regions. The success of this store helped to finance Iliff’s next venture: cattle ranching.
Revolutionizing Western Ranching
On the road to Denver, Iliff noted the large herds of fat, happy buffalo that grazed on the plains. He wondered if he could be successful with cattle. He decided to experiment to see whether cattle would survive the long, harsh winters on prairie grasses alone. At first, he purchased cattle from immigrants headed west, but he soon combined his herd with Texas Longhorns that were driven across the state on the Goodnight-Loving Trail on their way to ranches in Wyoming and Idaho. The long grasses on the plains proved an ideal food source and the cows wintered well, selling for high prices in the spring.
Feeding his herds on the open range created an opportunity for large profits. As the US government forced the Cheyenne and Arapaho off their Colorado land, cattle could graze for free on thousands of acres. For a scant $10,000 investment, Iliff soon became the largest landowner in northeast Colorado, with approximately 15,500 acres. While grazing on the range was free, buying land secured Iliff the accompanying water rights along the South Platte River. Access to water meant everything on the arid Colorado plains. Within a few years, Iliff built nine different cattle camps with adobe shelters so the cows could live year-round. He soon sold cattle to Indigenous people, army posts like Fort Laramie, the city of Cheyenne, and railroad construction crews; the latter contract proved the most lucrative.
As soon as the Union Pacific Railroad announced its plans to build the transcontinental railroad via Cheyenne and southern Wyoming, Iliff made plans to drive cattle to the area to feed construction crews. Iliff spent the late 1860s living in Cheyenne but returned to Colorado often. In 1869 former territorial governor John Evans awarded him the contracts to feed construction crews along the newly planned Denver Pacific Railroad connecting Denver to Cheyenne. Large profits from these railroad contracts helped Iliff expand his ranches that stretched between Greeley and Julesburg.
Iliff was widely regarded as a simple, traditional cowboy. He believed that working alongside his men with his own hands helped him to better understand the cattle business. He often did so, even after he and his second wife moved to Denver. He forbade the use of alcohol in his camps and was known as a fair businessman. Although he had not fulfilled his parents’ wishes to become a minister himself, he wished there were more ministers in the area to help guide the colonists.
Iliff met Sarah Elizabeth Smith in 1863, and they married on January 11, 1864. Their son William Seward Iliff was born on October 20, 1865, but Sarah died in December. Iliff left his young son in the care of his in-laws and focused on building his cattle empire.
Iliff met Elizabeth Sarah Fraser in 1868 in Wyoming, and they married on March 3, 1871. At the time she met John, Elizabeth sold Singer sewing machines. The couple lived in Cheyenne until 1874, when they moved to a large mansion, known as Shaffenburg Place, in downtown Denver. The couple had two children, Louise on August 15, 1875, and John Wesley, Jr., on December 13, 1877. Iliff’s youngest son only outlived him by a year; he died on April 8, 1879.
In December 1877, Iliff fell ill, and on February 9, 1878, he died of gallbladder complications. He left no will, and the courts awarded his wife Elizabeth stewardship of his land and finances, worth an estimated $10 million. This made her the wealthiest cattle magnate in the United States and one of the only women in that profession. Her sharp business acumen helped to grow Iliff’s business and wealth. She later sold the ranches and cattle, and the profits made her one of the wealthiest women in the state. Elizabeth and her second husband, Methodist bishop Henry Warren, would later make a large donation to establish the Iliff School of Theology, fulfilling John’s dream of educating ministers to serve in the West.
The present cattle industry is composed of many individual ranchers and conglomerate ranchers that own and sell thousands of cattle to beef-processing facilities. These facilities then ship beef all over the country, making it a staple of the American diet. This practice originated in the late nineteenth century with magnates like Iliff. By the 1870s, Iliff was known internationally as the “Cattle King of Colorado” and boasted a herd of 35,000. He pioneered the practice of sheltering cattle on the plains and encouraged the use of new technologies that helped to make beef readily available to consumers. Today, raising cattle for beef on large ranches like Iliff’s is a multibillion-dollar industry in Colorado.