Skip to contents
SunLit Interviews

Up and down Colorado, the author saw the history of sheepherding written in the trees

That history carved into nature inspired Andrew Gulliford to chronicle generations of sheepherders -- right up to the present day

Author Andrew Gulliford

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He teaches popular courses on wilderness, national parks, Western history, and environmental history. His book “The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes” (Texas A&M University Press, 2018) was chosen the Outstanding Nonfiction winner for the 2019 Western Heritage Awards sponsored by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

The following is an interview with “The Woolly West” author Andrew Gulliford.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to write “The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes because everywhere I go in western Colorado there have been sheep from the tops of meadows in wilderness areas to the bottoms of canyons. I wanted to explore the landscape and learn about what historical archaeological signs of sheepherders have left so I combined two words—sheepherder and landscape—to create the new word sheepscape. I wanted to find sheepscapes on the ground but also to do extensive archival research because the cattle and sheep wars from the 1880s to the 1930s had been extensive but no one had ever written about them in a comprehensive way. I also wanted to learn about sheep families, Basque, Greek, and Hispanic, still in the business of grazing public land.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

My favorite authors are Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, Craig Childs, Ellen Meloy, Ivan Doig, David Petersen and other writers of the modern West both fiction and non-fiction.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

I chose this excerpt from my book to feature in SunLit because it is from the end of the book and it is a conclusion related to my thoughts and research. I wish we could do photographs as I have a lot to share. I also think it is important that Coloradans, who hike so much outdoors, have an understanding of sheepscapes and how sheep have been, and continue to be, a vital part of our state’s agricultural economy.

“The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes” by Andrew Gulliford.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

The most rewarding part of the book was getting to know and interview Basque, Greek, and Hispanic families of sheepmen and sheepherders to understand their family histories and their ongoing way of life. Of great value was spending time with sheepherder descendants whose male family members were Penitentes from New Mexico. I was honored to work with them and to visit a cross their relatives had installed high on a ridgeline in southwest Colorado so they could continue to practice their faith even though they were far from their local moradas or chapels. Working with families to help tell their stories was extremely gratifying.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

There were two difficult areas to write about in “The Woolly West.” The first was the bloody violence of the cattle and sheep wars. A few examples may have been sufficient, but I wanted to chronicle every single act of violence against sheepherders on Colorado’s Western Slope if I could find the facts. The second difficult area to write about is modern sheepherder conflicts with large, aggressive guardian dogs and attacks on hikers and mountain bikers. Those conflicts will only increase.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

It is rude to ask a rancher how large his ranch is, but as a journalist and historian writing about the sheep industry I wanted to know how big a prominent northwest Colorado sheepman’s outfit was. He grazed across vast stretches of both private and public land. Finally, I found the right question. I asked the patriarch how large his dog food bill is each year for both herding and guardian dogs. He answered without hesitation, “$30,000.”

What project are you working on next?

My next project is a canyon country history of the area in and around Bears Ears, Utah. I will explain the prehistory and history of President Obama’s 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument and the results of President Trump shrinking the monument by 85%. This will be an important analysis of state and federal land use and the integrity of the 1906 Antiquities Act. I’ve hiked in the area for two decades and there are still many archaeological sites I have yet to visit.

Buy “The Woolly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes” at BookBar.
Excerpt from “The Woolly West” by Andrew Gulliford.