Moab History: The Sheep Wars

Wool from Moab sheep, dyed with locally foraged natural dyes during 2023 demonstrations by Navajo Master Weaver Roy Kady. The overgrazed area sign was erected by the Forest Service in Grand County. [Moab Museum]

Sheep have a long, multifaceted legacy in the Southwest. Navajo Churro sheep, introduced by Spanish colonists in the 1500s, became an important part of Navajo culture – evident today in the annual “Sheep is Life” celebration of the hardy breed. Also, across the West, sheepherders grazed hundreds of thousands of sheep in the late 1800s and early 1900s – often in conflict with cattlemen using the same land for their stock. 

In the mid- to late 1800s, lasting for the next fifty years, intense competition for prime grazing land often exploded into “range wars” between ranchers, homesteading farmers, and sheepmen. These armed conflicts occurred throughout eight states in the United States Mountain West and resulted in the deaths of at least 54 men and between 50,000 and 100,000 sheep.  

One of the most well-known and oft-referred to anecdotes from this time period is of Charlie Glass, now memorialized on the North wall of the Travel Council Building, rendered by artist Chip Thomas. Learn more about Charlie Glass and his involvement in the conflict in our previous column from February 2023. You can listen to an oral history with Bill Wallace Cunningham in 1980, stored within the Bud Werner Memorial Library collected as part of the Mesa County Oral History Project. Cunningham, who grew up on the Cisco Ranch, later Cunningham Ranch, makes reference to growing up with Charlie Glass around on the ranch:

“I remember him well. Charlie Glass worked for Oscar Turner, of course… then after Oscar died, he worked for my father for a number of years. He was at this ranch, the Cunningham ranch, at that time…and I suppose I was five of six and Charlie was killed about 1938 as I remember it. So, I was about fifteen when he was killed and I was quite fond of Charlie. He killed the sheepherder there, you know, in those war days of the sheep and cattle. And then there’s lots of stories about Charlie.”

Cunningham’s oral history is also featured in Issue 45 of the Canyon Legacy from the summer of 2002. 

Wire fencing separated cattle and sheep and the double-strand wire with barbs, patented by Michael Kelly in 1868, kept cattle from leaning on the fence and breaking it. This display features several wire styles from Baja, Mexico, and Iowa, and was donated by Bill Hubel of Iowa. [Moab Museum]

This week in history: Cunningham Ranch brought 4,000 sheep to graze in the La Sal Mountains. Overgrazing across Southeast Utah ultimately led to the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, which regulates rangeland use and their condition.


The Moab Museum is dedicated to sharing stories of the natural and human history of the Moab area. To explore more of Moab’s stories and artifacts, find out about upcoming programs, and become a member, visit www.moabmuseum.org.

This article was originally published in the Moab Sun News in the Museum’s weekly Moab History Column.