The City is More Than Human
photos courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives and Rainier Valley Historical Society

Chapter 2:
Closing the Grazing Commons


Domestic cattle were perhaps the most versatile animals newcomers brought with them, providing traction, milk, and meat. They were essential collaborators as newcomers pushed out the domestic zone, making space for the town, and their presence told the newcomers that they, in contrast to Natives, were Americans and milk drinkers. Early city ordinances gave special privileges to cows over other livestock animals, allowing cow-owners to use public streets as a grazing commons. However, as the city expanded and housing density increased, struggles emerged in outlying neighborhoods between residents promoting the right of cows to roam free and those wanting streets free of cows. Because increasing density made grazing cows more difficult and because the presence of cows evoked the country and backwardness, cows were banned from roaming city streets by city ordinance in 1907 and from middle-class backyards through restrictive covenants in the 1920s. An important step in creating the new city was removing cows.

(A story from Chapter Two). Sarah Ewing worked hard to feed her cows. Living near downtown Seattle, she had negotiated with many nearby property owners so her cows could graze their vacant lots. She and her children herded her stock from their barn and through city streets to make use of these scattered pastures. The work of finding these grassy lots and moving her stock among them allowed her, Ewing said, "part of the means of gaining a livelyhood." Her husband worked outside the neighborhood, first as a clerk at the Seattle Transfer Company, later as a fireman for the City Water Department. It was Ewing and her children who had the responsibility of caring for the cows, finding them graze, milking them and selling the milk. On January 18, 1892, however, her cows fell afoul of an alternate vision of urban living. That morning the poundmaster, Albert E. Boyd, and his dog took three of her cows and drove them into the city's cattle pound. Ewing claimed that two of the cows were grazing a vacant lot with the owner's permission, while Ewing's daughter was herding the third. Boyd claimed the animals were running at large within the pound limits, violating a city ordinance. In the years that followed, this working-class strategy for urban survival would come increasingly under attack.