One of the little dead towns of Kansas, just 12 miles east of Ellsworth, bears the name Carneiro (pronounced, “kahr-NAIR-oh”). Interestingly, the name is Portuguese, not a very common language for place-names in this state, and it means “sheep” or “mutton.”
Now if there is one type of livestock Kansas is typically associated with, it is undoubtedly cattle, not sheep. Nevertheless, Carneiro reminds us of a forgotten piece of state history.
The name of the town came from the name of Edward Winslow Wellington’s 12,000-acre sheep ranch, Monte Carneiro. It is uncertain why Wellington, who was born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard to be a lawyer, chose to pursue sheep raising as his career. But he was evidently enamored with Kansas, anyway. After his arrival in the West in Denver in 1877, he spent some time wandering through various parts of the state with his sheep before settling on Monte Carneiro in Ellsworth County as his home. His property soon became one of the largest ranches in central Kansas.
In 1882, Wellington decided to build a town, a shipping point for his sheep. He and a few other ranchers in the area chose a townsite just a few miles south of Monte Carneiro, on the Union Pacific tracks. Stockyards, a hotel, a school, and three general stores soon followed, as did a post office—named Carneiro.
Wellington’s animals were probably not the only sheep loaded onto the trains at Carneiro, however. While much as been said and written about the range cattle industry and the great cattle drives, historians typically overlook similar stories regarding sheep. Sheep grazed on the ranges of western Kansas (although Wellington’s ranch was one of the largest operations), and they were driven along trails to the railheads, as well.
Where did these sheep come from? Mostly from states further west. The first domesticated sheep in the American West arrived with the Spaniards centuries before. The Spanish missionaries kept flocks of sheep, and it was from these that the Native American tribes of the Desert Southwest obtained their flocks. More sheep were driven westward during the California Gold Rush to supply mutton for the hungry miners.
However, the sheep multiplied faster than people could eat them, and by the end of the Civil War, a flock of sheep could hardly be sold in the Western states—there were too many of them! Adventurous entrepreneurs began to send their best shepherds back eastward to try to find a market for their flocks.
Driving sheep was difficult work. The animals were skittish and hard to manage, and they were at constant risk from predators. It took a patient, experienced shepherd to drive sheep to market. Many of the shepherds on the great sheep trails were foreigners who had been handling sheep for generations: Basques, Mexicans, and Portuguese.
Many of the sheep went to establish range flocks in Wyoming, Montana, Texas, and the Dakotas. Over 15 million went to the feedlots and railheads of Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas. Some of the infamous cowtowns of Kansas were also shipping points for sheep, including Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge City.
And then there was Carneiro. Of course, Monte Carneiro is long gone, as is the post office. There are now fewer than a dozen people in the town. The pastures are mostly stocked with cattle. But the legend lives on.
View South Over Carneiro, Kansas
An aerial photo from the Kansas Geological Survey.