"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


When the first settlers came to Nebraska they settled along the streams where there was timber and water. They farmed very small fields and fenced them, turning their horses, cattle and other stock loose to go where they pleased and find food, water and shelter. It was a very easy way to raise stock and the longer one raised it in that way the more he thought it was the only way.

All about the early settlers' cabins were miles upon miles of grass-land free for everybody. Cattle, sheep and horses would find the best places to feed and stay there as long as they liked. When they were thirsty they would go to the running water to drink. Often they would lie down in the shade of trees and rest during the heat of the day. All the owner had to do was to ride around them once in a while to see that all were there. Hogs also ran loose and lived chiefly on acorns. Where there were no acorns they ate rushes which grew thickly in the valleys and their ready noses found roots to dig everywhere.

A good many of the early settlers liked to hunt. There was plenty of game. After a settler had his crop in he could go hunting and after he had it gathered he could go hunting again. His stock would take care of itself while he was gone.

After a while all the land with wood and water in each neighborhood was taken. Settlers kept on coming. Some of them went on farther west to get land with wood and water. Some of them took the rich grass land which the first settlers had passed by. They had no timber to fence with and they did not wish to fence. They broke out larger fields and began to farm on a larger scale. When the stock running loose got into their crops there was trouble. The settlers on the prairie said that every man should take care of his own stock and keep them out of the crops. The settlers along the streams said that every man should fence his crop and all should let their stock run. So they disputed and sometimes fought.

Herd Law Act of 1870.
(Photo from original in Statehouse.)

More settlers came in and the settlements spread rapidly west from the Missouri River and away from the timber along the streams. There were some settlements where everyone wanted the stock kept up and some where all wanted the crops fenced. Laws began to be passed that sheep and hogs should not run at large. A little later laws were passed that horses and cattle should not run at large in the night. Then laws were passed making owners of stock liable for damages done by it in certain counties only. The people divided into two parties, those who wished to raise crops and those who wished to raise stock. The dispute grew warm in all the settlements.

Finally in the year 1870 so many thousand settlers were coming that the legislature met in special session at the call of Governor Butler and passed the first general herd law. Under it everyone had to keep his stock from the crops of other people or pay damages and anyone finding stock in his crop might take it up and hold it until the damages were paid. This was called the "herd law," because the best way found to keep stock from the crops was to herd it. Some parts of the state were excepted from this law. The next year the law was changed so that all the state came under the herd law unless the people of a county voted to have a fence law in that county.

This has been the law of Nebraska since 1871. It has made it possible for poor people who could not fence to raise crops and make homes on the prairie. With this law the settler could plant a crop anywhere and harvest all he could raise. Without it he could harvest only what he could protect from roaming stock. No law has helped more than this one in the settlement of our state and although the need of it is no longer felt, the good that it has done abides with us, giving each man the right to reap where he sows.


  1. What differences between farming in the early days and now?
  2. Who has better right to use of the land, the stockman or the farmer? Why?
  3. How has the herd law helped Nebraska?
  4. Do we need it now? Why?