Homesteaders murdered by Wyoming ranchers

Homesteaders murdered by Wyoming ranchers

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Having made the mistake of homesteading on land previously controlled by a Wyoming cattle king, homesteaders Ella Watson and James Averell are accused of rustling and hanged.

As the days of the open range cattle industry faded, conflicts between powerful western cattle barons and the homesteaders who were settling on “their” lands were inevitable. The homesteaders had every right to claim their 320 acres of windswept grasslands but some old-time ranchers tried to discourage the settlers in hopes of preserving more rangeland for their cattle. Usually, such discouragement was limited to cowboys cutting the settlers’ barbed wire fences or diverting irrigation water, but the tactics occasionally became more violent.

A common complaint among ranchers was that many of the homesteaders were actually rustlers who stole their cows and horses. The ranchers’ accusations were surely exaggerated, but the charge of rustling allowed them to take drastic actions. Such may have been the case with Ella Watson and James Averell. Watson, who was alleged to be a former prostitute from Kansas, came to Wyoming Territory in 1886. That same year, she received a license to wed James Averell, a Wyoming saloonkeeper who had a homestead on the Sweetwater River. The couple either never married or kept the union secret so that Watson could file a second homestead near Averell’s place. Both claims were located on lands claimed by the powerful rancher Albert Bothwell without legal foundation, and Bothwell used the lands for grazing his herds.

Bothwell–described as one of the most arrogant cattleman in the region–eventually accused both Watson and Averell of rustling. On this day in 1889, Bothwell and five of his men took the couple prisoner and hanged them. Although the men were later charged with murder, a pro-rancher jury acquitted them of any wrongdoing. It was the only incidence of a woman being executed—legally or illegally—in the history of Wyoming.

Requesting Homestead Records

The paperwork required of homesteaders before they could obtain a patent, or title, to part of the public domain resulted in exceptionally detailed land records. Called land-entry case files, these records describe improvements made to the property, including houses constructed, wells dug, crops planted, trees cleared, and fences built. Some case files mention family members who lived on the land. If the claimant died and a widow or heirs completed the homesteading process, a date of death is given and relationships are explained.

Because military service could reduce the residency period, information regarding such service is sometimes included. Resident aliens who had declared their intention to become citizens provided information about their naturalization process and occasionally even mentioned place of origin. In other words, the land-entry case files of homesteaders are an important source of genealogical information.

Location of Land-Entry Case Files

All land-entry case files are held by the National Archives in downtown Washington, D.C. If you are researching homesteads in Alaska, Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Wyoming, and/or Utah, you can search for their homestead records (up to 1908) at Homestead National Monument of America for free. You may also search for digitized homestead records from your own computer on and, both of which require a subscription for these premium records. Patent information can be found on the Bureau of Land Managment's General Land Office Records website for all states, but does not include the detailed information found in the land-entry case files.

If the state you are interested in reseraching has not been digitized, you will need to contact the National Archives to obtain a copy of the records for a fee. There is no general name index to the physical files held at the National Archives. They have not been reformatted in microform or digital form, and they are not available in any other repository. (A name index to the pre-July 1908 case files does exist at the Archives on file cards for Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, and Utah.)

Importance of the Legal Land Description

Almost all homestead entries were made on land surveyed in the rectangular system that was first mandated by Congress in 1785. Employees of the General Land Office, which supervised the distribution of public land during the Homestead period, were more interested in which tracts of public land had been claimed than in the name of the individuals who had claimed them. Therefore, a researcher must often discover the legal description of his ancestor's land by numbered section, township, and range in the rectangular survey system. A researcher can often obtain a legal description of the land from the country recorder of deeds where the land was located.

A map showing the progress and future progress of the Homestead Records Project


Conflict over land was a common occurrence in the development of the American West, but was particularly prevalent during the late 19th century, when large portions of the West were being settled by white Americans for the first time through the Homestead Acts. It is a period that one historian, Richard Maxwell Brown, has called the "Western Civil War of Incorporation", [4] of which the Johnson County War was a part.

In the early days of Wyoming most of the land was in public domain, which was open to stock raising as an open range and farmlands for homesteading. Large numbers of cattle were turned loose on the open range by large ranches. Each spring, round-ups were held to separate the cattle belonging to different ranches. Before a round-up, an orphan or stray calf was sometimes surreptitiously branded, which was the common way to identify the cow's owners. Lands and water rights were usually distributed to whoever settled the property first, and farmers and ranchers had to respect these boundaries (the doctrine was known as Prior Appropriation). [5] However, as more and more homesteaders called "grangers" moved into Wyoming, competition for land and water soon enveloped the state, and the cattle companies reacted by monopolizing large areas of the open range to prevent newcomers from using it. They also forbade their employees from owning cattle for fear of additional competition, and threatened anyone they suspected to be rustlers.

The often uneasy relationship between the larger, wealthier ranches and smaller ranch settlers became steadily worse after the harsh winter of 1886–1887, when a series of blizzards and temperatures of –50 to –40 °F (–45 to –40 °C) followed by an extremely hot and dry summer, ravaged the frontier. [6] Thousands of cattle were lost and the large companies began appropriating land and the water supply in the area. Some of the harsher tactics included forcing settlers off their land, setting fire to their properties, and excluding them from participating in the annual roundup. They justified these excesses on what was public land by using the catch-all allegation of rustling. Hostilities worsened when the Wyoming legislature passed the Maverick Act, which stated that all unbranded cattle in the open range automatically belonged to the cattlemen's association. [7] The cattlemen also held a firm grip on Wyoming's stock interests by limiting the number of small ranchers that could participate.

Wyoming Stock Growers Association Edit

Many of the large ranching outfits in Wyoming were organized as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (the WSGA) and gathered socially at the Cheyenne Club in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Comprising some of the state's wealthiest and most influential residents, the organization held a great deal of political sway in the state and region. The WSGA organized the cattle industry by scheduling roundups and cattle shipments. [8] The WSGA also employed an agency of detectives to investigate cases of cattle theft from its members' holdings. Grangers and rustlers often intermixed with one another in the community, making it more difficult for the detectives to discriminate who were the criminals and the innocent. [8]

Rustling in the local area was likely increasing due to the harsh grazing conditions, and the illegal exploits of organized groups of rustlers were becoming well publicized in the late 1880s. [9] Well-armed outfits of horse and cattle rustlers roamed across various portions of Wyoming and Montana, with Montana vigilantes such as the infamous Stuart's Stranglers declaring "War on the Rustlers" in 1884. [9] [10] Bandits taking refuge in the infamous hideout known as the Hole-in-the-Wall were also preying upon the herds. [11] Frank M. Canton, Sheriff of Johnson County in the early 1880s and better known as a detective for the WSGA, was a prominent figure in eliminating these supposed criminals from Wyoming. Before the events in Johnson County, Canton had already developed a reputation as a lethal gunman. At a young age he had worked as a cowboy in Texas, and in 1871 started a career in robbery and cattle rustling, as well as killing a Buffalo Soldier on October 10, 1874. Historian Harry Sinclair Drago described Canton as a "merciless, congenital, emotionless killer. For pay, he murdered eight—very likely ten—men." [12]

Early killings Edit

On July 20, 1889, a range detective from the Association named George Henderson accused Ella Watson, a local rancher, of stealing cattle from a fellow rancher by the name of Albert John Bothwell. The cattlemen sent riders to seize Ella before capturing her husband Jim Averell as well. Both of them were subsequently hanged from a tree. This gruesome act was one of the rare cases in the Old West in which a woman was lynched, an event that appalled many of the local residents [7] and paved the way for future conflicts in the war. [13] County Sheriff Frank Hadsell arrested six men for the lynching and a trial date was set. However, before the trial, threats were sent to the witnesses who would testify against the aggressors. [14] One of those witnesses was young Gene Crowder, who mysteriously disappeared under unknown circumstances before the trial. [15] Another, Jim's nephew and foreman Frank Buchanan, disappeared from the county as well after a shoot-out with unknown suspects, and was presumed to be hiding or murdered. [16] Ralph Cole, another nephew of Averell's, died on the day of the trial from poisoning. [14]

Enemies of the Association soon fought back. George Henderson, the range detective who had accused Ella Watson, was murdered by rustlers near Sweetwater Creek in October 1890, an obvious taunt to the Association. The cattle barons soon tightened their control and hunted down those who tried to oppose them. The double lynching of the Averells was followed by the lynching of Tom Waggoner, a horse trader from Newcastle, in June 1891. [11] A friend of Waggoner named Jimmy the Butcher, who was once arrested for rustling from the Standard Cattle Company, was also murdered. [17] [18] Range detective Tom Smith killed a suspected rustler, and when he was indicted for murder, political connections of the Association secured his release. [19] These killings would precipitate more hostilities and violence in the years to come. [20]

After the lynchings of their prominent competitors, the WSGA's control over the range was undisputed, until a group of smaller ranchers led by a local cowboy named Nate Champion formed the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers' Association (NWFSGA) to compete with the WSGA. Upon hearing this, the WSGA immediately viewed Champion's association as a threat to their hold on the stock interests. The WSGA then blacklisted members of the NWFSGA from the round-ups in order to stop their operations. However, the latter refused the orders to disband and instead publicly announced their plans to hold their own round-up in the spring of 1892. [21]

Soon, the prominent cattlemen sent out an assassination squad to kill Nate Champion on the morning of November 1, 1891. [22] Champion and another man named Ross Gilbertson were sleeping in a cabin in Middle Fork of Powder River when a group of armed men went inside. [11] Two of them went in while another stood by outside. Champion was immediately awakened by the intrusion, and as the gunmen pointed their weapons at him, Champion reached for his own pistol hidden under a pillow and a shootout commenced. Champion successfully shot two of the gunmen mortally wounding and killing Billy Lykins. [23] The rest of the assassination squad subsequently fled. Champion was left uninjured except for some facial powder burns from the gunfight. In a subsequent investigation of the attack, the names of those involved were leaked to two ranchers: John A. Tisdale and Orley "Ranger" Jones. However, both men were ambushed while they were riding, which outraged many of the small ranchers and farmers in the county. [11] By early 1892, violence had reached something of a peak newspapers, such as the Big Horn County Rustler, published articles and speculations that a "war" was on the way. [1]

Invaders Edit

The WSGA, led by Frank Wolcott (WSGA Member and large North Platte rancher), hired gunmen with the intention of eliminating alleged rustlers in Johnson County and breaking up the NWFSGA. [24] By that time, prominent names in Wyoming started taking sides. Acting Governor Amos W. Barber supported the cattlemen, who blamed the small ranchers and homesteaders for the criminal activity in the state, while former cowboy and sheriff of Buffalo (the county seat of Johnson County), William "Red" Angus, supported the homesteaders, who believed that the cattle barons were stealing their land. [25]

In March 1892, the cattlemen sent agents to Texas from Cheyenne and Idaho to recruit gunmen and finally carry out their plans for exterminating the homesteaders. [1] The cattle barons had always used hired guns from Texas to take out suspected rustlers and scare away the nesters in Wyoming. One particular act of violence perpetrated by the Texans was recounted by cowboy John J. Baker, where the Texans ambushed and killed nine trappers whom they mistook for rustlers in Big Dry Creek, Wyoming. [17] They received a $450 bonus for the slaughter.

Soon, 23 gunmen from Paris, Texas and 4 cattle detectives from the WSGA were hired, as well as Wyoming dignitaries who also joined the expedition. State Senator Bob Tisdale, state water commissioner W. J. Clarke, as well as William C. Irvine and Hubert Teshemacher, who had both been instrumental in organizing Wyoming's statehood four years earlier, also joined the band. [26] [27] They were accompanied by surgeon Charles Bingham Penrose as well as Ed Towse, a reporter for the Cheyenne Sun, and a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Herald, Sam T. Clover, whose lurid first-hand accounts later appeared in eastern newspapers. [24] A total expedition of 50 men was organized which consisted of cattlemen and range detectives, as well as the 23 hired guns from Texas. To lead the expedition, the WSGA hired Frank M. Canton. Canton's gripsack was later found to contain a list of 70 county residents to be either shot or hanged, and a contract to pay the Texans $5 a day plus a bonus of $50 for every rustler, real or alleged, they killed. [28] The group became known as "The Invaders", or alternately, "Wolcott's Regulators". [7] [29]

John Clay, a prominent Wyoming businessman, was suspected of playing a major role in planning the Johnson County invasion. Clay denied this, saying that in 1891 he advised Wolcott against the scheme and was out of the country when it was undertaken. He later helped the "Invaders" avoid punishment after their surrender. [30] The group organized in Cheyenne and proceeded by train to Casper, Wyoming and then toward Johnson County on horseback, cutting the telegraph lines north of Douglas, Wyoming in order to prevent an alarm. [31] While on horseback, Canton and the gunmen traveled ahead while the party of WSGA officials led by Wolcott followed a safe distance behind.

Shootout at the KC Ranch Edit

The first target of the WSGA was Nate Champion, who was at the KC Ranch (also known as Kaycee) at that time. They were tasked to perform the assassination that others had failed to carry out five months before. The group traveled to the ranch late Friday, April 8, 1892, quietly surrounded the buildings, and waited for daybreak. [32] Three men besides Champion were at the KC. Two men who were evidently going to spend the night on their way through were captured as they emerged from the cabin early that morning to collect water at the nearby Powder River, while the third, Nick Ray, was shot while standing inside the doorway of the cabin. [32] As the gunmen opened fire on the cabin, Champion dragged the mortally wounded Nick Ray back to the cabin. The latter died hours later, and Champion was left besieged inside the log cabin alone.

Champion held out for several hours, wounding three of the vigilantes, and was said to have killed four others. [12] Another settler by the name of Jack Flagg passed by Champion's ranch on his wagon together with his stepson and witnessed the siege. The Invaders recognized Jack Flagg as one of the men on the list and they started shooting at him. Flagg then rode away and, as the Invaders gave chase, he grabbed his rifle and beat them back. During the siege, Champion kept a poignant journal which contained a number of notes he wrote to friends while taking cover inside the cabin. "Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once," he wrote. The last journal entry read: "Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It's not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again." [12] [33]

The Invaders continued to shoot at the cabin while others managed to set it on fire. Nate Champion signed his journal entry and put it in his pocket before running from the back door with a six-shooter in one hand and either a knife or a rifle in the other. [33] As he emerged, the Invaders shot him dead. The killers pinned a note on Champion's bullet-riddled chest that read, "Cattle Thieves Beware". [21] [34] Jack Flagg, who after escaping his pursuers, rode to Buffalo where he reported Champion's dilemma to the townsfolk. Sheriff Angus then raised a posse of 200 men over the next 24 hours and set out for the KC on Sunday night, April 10. [32]

Siege of the TA Ranch Edit

The WSGA group then headed north on Sunday toward Buffalo to continue its show of force. By early morning of the 11th however, news quickly came of a large hostile force heading towards them. They quickly rode and took refuge in the TA Ranch in Crazy Woman Creek. During their flight, one of the Texans by the name of Jim Dudley accidentally shot himself when his horse bucked and his rifle fell to the ground, discharging and hitting his knee. He was later escorted by two others to Fort McKinney to seek treatment, but died in the fort one or two days later from gangrene. [35]

The sheriff's posse finally reached the remaining Invaders holed up in a log barn at the TA Ranch, but the latter manage to hold them back, resulting in a siege that would last for three days. The posse surrounded the whole ranch, building pits on the ground for cover and killing the Invaders' horses to prevent them from escaping. The New York Times reported that twenty men tried to escape behind a fusillade, but the posse beat them back and killed three to five. [32] Another Texas gunman named Alex Lowther accidentally shot himself mortally in the groin as he was crawling to safety from the barrage of bullets being fired by the settlers. [36] As the siege dragged on, a settler rode off to Fort McKinney requesting to borrow a cannon but was turned down. A blacksmith named Rap Brown tried to build his own cannon, but it exploded when he first tested it. He then built a siege engine he called the "Ark of Safety"—a large, bullet-resistant wagon that would help the settlers get close to the ranch so they could throw dynamite at the Invaders.

Fortunately for the Invaders, one of their members, Mike Shonsey, managed to slip from the barn and was able to contact Governor Barber the next day. [37] Frantic efforts to save the WSGA group ensued, and two days into the siege, late on the night of April 12, 1892, Governor Barber telegraphed President Benjamin Harrison a plea for help.

About sixty-one owners of live stock are reported to have made an armed expedition into Johnson County for the purpose of protecting their live stock and preventing unlawful roundups by rustlers. They are at 'T.A.' Ranch, thirteen miles from Fort McKinney, and are besieged by Sheriff and posse and by rustlers from that section of the country, said to be two or three hundred in number. The wagons of stockmen were captured and taken away from them and it is reported a battle took place yesterday, during which a number of men were killed. Great excitement prevails. Both parties are very determined and it is feared that if successful will show no mercy to the persons captured. The civil authorities are unable to prevent violence. The situation is serious and immediate assistance will probably prevent great loss of life.

Harrison immediately ordered the U.S. Secretary of War Stephen B. Elkins to address the situation under Article IV, Section 4, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which allows for the use of U.S. forces under the President's orders for "protection from invasion and domestic violence". [38] The Sixth Cavalry from Fort McKinney near Buffalo was ordered to proceed to the TA ranch at once and take the WSGA expedition into custody. The 6th Cavalry left Fort McKinney a few hours later at 2 am on April 13 and reached the TA ranch at 6:45 a.m. as the settlers were about to use the Ark of Safety. Colonel J.J. Van Horn, the officer in charge of the unit, negotiated with Sheriff Angus to lift the siege, and in return the Invaders were to be handed to civilian authorities. [26] [27] The Sixth Cavalry took possession of Wolcott and 45 other men with 45 rifles, 41 revolvers and some 5,000 rounds of ammunition, before escorting them first to Fort McKinney and then to Cheyenne. [39]

The text of Barber's telegram to the President was printed on the front page of The New York Times on April 14, [38] and a first-hand account of the siege at the T.A. appeared in The Times and the Chicago Herald and other papers.

The WSGA group was taken to Cheyenne to be held at the barracks of Fort D.A. Russell since the Laramie County jail was unable to hold that many prisoners. They received preferential treatment and were allowed to roam the base by day as long as they agreed to return to the jail to sleep at night. Johnson County officials were upset that the group was not kept locally at Ft. McKinney. The general in charge of the 6th Cavalry felt that tensions were too high for the prisoners to remain in the area. Hundreds of armed locals sympathetic to both sides of the conflict were said to have gone to Ft. McKinney over the next few days under the mistaken impression the invaders were being held there. [26] [27]

The Johnson County attorney began to gather evidence for the case and the details of the WSGA's plan emerged. Canton's gripsack was found to contain a list of seventy alleged rustlers who were to be shot or hanged, a list of ranch houses the invaders had burned, and a contract to pay each Texan five dollars a day plus a bonus of $50 for each person killed. [28] The invaders' plans reportedly included eventually murdering people as far away as Casper and Douglas. The Times reported on April 23 that "the evidence is said to implicate more than twenty prominent stockmen of Cheyenne whose names have not been mentioned heretofore, also several wealthy stockmen of Omaha, as well as to compromise men high in authority in the State of Wyoming. They will all be charged with aiding and abetting the invasion, and warrants will be issued for the arrest of all of them." [28]

The Invaders, however, were protected by a friendly judicial system, and they took advantage of the cattle barons' corruption. [11] Charges against the men "high in authority" in Wyoming were never filed. Eventually the invaders were released on bail and were told to return to Wyoming for the trial. Many fled to Texas and were never seen again. In the end, the WSGA group went free after the charges were dropped on the excuse that Johnson County refused to pay for the costs of prosecution. The costs of housing the men at Fort D.A. Russell were said to exceed $18,000 and the sparsely populated Johnson County was unable to pay. [27] [40]

Tensions in Johnson County remained high. On May 10, U.S. Marshall George Wellman, was ambushed and killed by locals en route to the small community of Buffalo. The incident received national attention, with Wellman being the only marshal to die in the war. [41] Wellman was one of the hired guns who joined the Invaders, and his death was grieved by a large crowd. The 6th Cavalry, sent to relieve the county of its violence, was said to be influenced by intense local political and social pressure, and they were unable to keep the peace. One infamous event occurred when a group of men set fire to the Post exchange and planted a homemade bomb in the cavalry's barracks. Noted officer Charles B. Gatewood was seriously injured by the bomb blast in the barracks, shattering his left arm and ending his cavalry career. [42]

The 9th Cavalry of "Buffalo Soldiers" was ordered to Fort McKinney to replace the 6th. In a fortnight the Buffalo Soldiers moved from Nebraska to the rail town of Suggs, Wyoming, where they created "Camp Bettens" to quell the local population. Reception from the settlers were negative and in one violent incident, a gunfight erupted between them and some Buffalo soldiers who entered the town. After being initially driven off, 20 more soldiers tried to capture those responsible for the shooting, but the locals fought back which u in one Buffalo Soldier being killed and two others wounded. Another two detachments were sent and this time the locals allowed the soldiers to investigate but no one was convicted. The event forced the Army to retire the regiment from the place on November, 1892. [43] [44] [45]

In the fall of 1892, as the aftershock of the stand-off was still being felt throughout the county, two alleged horse rustlers were gunned down by range detectives east of the Big Horn River. The killers escaped the law with assistance from Otto Franc, a rancher who had sided with the large cattle company faction. [46] On May 24, 1893, Nate Champion's brother, Dudley Champion, came to Wyoming looking for work and was shot and killed in cold blood. Fifteen miles from town, Dudley had come across the ranch of Mike Shonsey who, after seeing him, immediately grabbed a gun and fired at him. A coroner's inquiry ruled Shonsey's actions were self-defense and he was acquitted of murder. Afterwards, Shonsey left the country before the officials could continue with the investigation. [46] A year before Nate Champion's death, Shonsey actually met him near the Beaver Creek Canyon, where a fight almost commenced between the two as Nate suspected that Shonsey was one of the five men who had attacked him in his cabin. [47] He further threatened Shonsey and demanded he give up the names of the rest of the assassins. This event made Shonsey harbor hatred toward Nate and probably toward his brother Dudley as well. Dudley Champion was the last person killed in association with the Johnson County War. [46]

Emotions ran high for many years afterward. Some considered the large and wealthy ranchers as heroes who had sought what they regarded as justice by using violence to defend what they regarded as their rights to rangeland and water rights, while others saw the WSGA as heavy-handed outlaw vigilantes running roughshod over the law. [48] A number of tall tales were spun by both sides afterwards in an attempt to make their actions appear morally justified. Parties sympathetic to the invaders painted Ellen Watson as a prostitute and cattle rustler, Jim Averell as her murderous partner in crime and pimp and Nate Champion as the leader of a vast cattle rustling empire, claiming that he was a leading member of the fabled "Red Sash Gang" of outlaws that supposedly included the likes of the Jesse James gang. [12] [49] These claims have since been discredited. [50] While men frequently visited Watson's cabin, this was because she mended clothing for cowboys to earn extra money. While some accounts do note that Champion wore a red sash at the time of his death, such sashes were common. While the Hole in the Wall Gang was known to hide out in Johnson County, there is no evidence that Champion had any relationship to them. [50] Parties sympathetic to the smaller ranchers spun tales that included some of the West's most notorious gunslingers under the employ of the Invaders, including such legends as Tom Horn and Big Nose George Parrot. Horn did briefly work as a detective for the WSGA in the 1890s, but there is little evidence he was involved in the war.

Political effects Edit

Although many of the leaders of the WSGA's hired force, such as William C. Irvine, were Democrats, the ranchers who had hired the group were tied to the Republican party and their opponents were mostly Democrats. Many viewed the rescue of the WSGA group at the order of President Harrison (a Republican) and the failure of the courts to prosecute them a serious political scandal with overtones of class war. As a result of the scandal, the Democratic Party became popular in Wyoming for a time, winning the governorship in 1892 and taking control of both houses of the state legislature in that election. [17] Wyoming voted for the Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 U.S. Presidential Election, and Johnson County was one of the two counties in the state with the largest Bryan majorities. [51]

Economic analysis Edit

Historian Daniel Belgrad argues that in the 1880s centralized range management was emerging as the solution to the overgrazing that had depleted open ranges. Moreover, cattle prices at the time were low. Larger ranchers also were hurt by mavericking (taking lost, unbranded calves from other ranchers' herds), and responded by organizing cooperative roundups, blacklisting, and lobbying for stricter anti-maverick laws. These ranchers formed the WSGA and hired gunmen to hunt down rustlers, but local farmers resented the ranchers' collective political power. The farmers moved toward decentralization and the use of private winter pastures. [52] Randy McFerrin and Douglas Wills argue that the confrontation represented opposing property rights systems. The result was the end of the open-range system and the dominance of large-scale stock ranching and farming. The popular image of the war, however, remains that of vigilantism by aggressive landed interests against small individual settlers defending their rights. [53]

By 1893, the WSGA was opened to the other small ranchers and farmers, finally ending their monopoly and control over Wyoming business interests. [11] Previous practices of the WSGA, such as vigilantism and confiscation of cattle, were finally stopped. Many prominent leaders of the Association such as Frank Wolcott, Frank M. Canton and Tom Smith later left the area.

The Johnson County War, with its overtones of class warfare coupled with the intervention ordered by the President of the United States to save the lives of a gang of hired killers and set them free, is not a flattering reflection on the American myth of the west. [54] The Johnson County War has been one of the best-known range wars of the frontier. [54] It has been a popular feature of the Western genre of fiction, which includes literature, films and television shows. [55] The Banditti of the Plains, written in 1894 by witness Asa Mercer, is the earliest record of the Johnson County War. The book was suppressed for many years by the WSGA, who seized and destroyed all but a few of the first edition copies from the 1894 printing they were rumored to have hijacked and destroyed the second printing as it was being shipped from a printer north of Denver, Colorado. [56] The book was reprinted several times in the 20th century and most recently in 2015. Frances McElrath's 1902 novel The Rustler, took inspiration from the Johnson County War, and was sympathetic to the perspective of the small ranchers. [57]

The Virginian, a seminal 1902 western novel by Owen Wister, took the side of the wealthy ranchers, creating a myth of the Johnson County War, but bore little resemblance to a factual account of the actual characters and events. [57] [58] Jack Schaefer's popular 1949 novel Shane treated themes associated with the Johnson County War and took the side of the settlers. [59] The 1953 film The Redhead from Wyoming, starring Maureen O'Hara, dealt with similar themes in one scene Maureen O'Hara's character is told, "It won't be long before they're calling you Cattle Kate." In the 1968 novel True Grit by Charles Portis, the main character, Rooster Cogburn, was involved in the Johnson County War. In the early 1890s Rooster had gone north to Wyoming where he was "hired by stock owners to terrorize thieves and people called nesters and grangers. . I fear that Rooster did himself no credit in what they called the Johnson County War." [60]

Films such as Heaven's Gate (1980) and The Johnson County War (TV-movie, 2002) painted the wealthy ranchers as the "bad guys". [61] Heaven's Gate was a dramatic romance loosely based on historical events, while The Johnson County War was based on the 1957 novel Riders of Judgment by Frederick Manfred. The range war was also portrayed in an episode of Jim Davis's syndicated western television series Stories of the Century, with Henry Brandon as Nate Champion and Jean Parker as Ella Watson. [62] [63] American Heroes Channel presented the Johnson County War in the sixth episode of their Blood Feuds series documentary. [64]

Homesteaders murdered by Wyoming ranchers - Jul 20, 1889 -

TSgt Joe C.

Having made the mistake of homesteading on land previously controlled by a Wyoming cattle king, homesteaders Ella Watson and James Averell are accused of rustling and hanged.

As the days of the open range cattle industry faded, conflicts between powerful western cattle barons and the homesteaders who were settling on “their” lands were inevitable. The homesteaders had every right to claim their 320 acres of windswept grasslands but some old-time ranchers tried to discourage the settlers in hopes of preserving more rangeland for their cattle. Usually, such discouragement was limited to cowboys cutting the settlers’ barbed wire fences or diverting irrigation water, but the tactics occasionally became more violent.

A common complaint among ranchers was that many of the homesteaders were actually rustlers who stole their cows and horses. The ranchers’ accusations were surely exaggerated, but the charge of rustling allowed them to take drastic actions. Such may have been the case with Ella Watson and James Averell. Watson, a former prostitute from Kansas, came to Wyoming Territory in 1886. That same year, she received a license to wed James Averell, a Wyoming saloonkeeper who had a homestead on the Sweetwater River. The couple either never married or kept the union secret so that Watson could file a second homestead near Averell’s place. Both claims were located on lands claimed by the powerful rancher Albert Bothwell without legal foundation, and Bothwell used the lands for grazing his herds.

Bothwell–described as one of the most arrogant cattleman in the region–eventually accused both Watson and Averell of rustling. On this day in 1889, Bothwell and five of his men took the couple prisoner and hanged them. Although the men were later charged with murder, a pro-rancher jury acquitted them of any wrongdoing. It was the only incidence of a woman being executed–legally or illegally–in the history of Wyoming.


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This project was funded in part by a Historic Architecture Assistance Fund grant, and completed by Dubbe Moulder Architects. The program is offered by the Alliance for Historic Wyoming in partnership with Wyoming Main Street and the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, and is made possible by a grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund.

Crook County, Wyoming

The area that is now Crook County, Wyo. was once covered by a prehistoric ocean, as demonstrated by sea-plant imprints and shellfish and shark fossils found in the area. These fossils date back 110 million years to the Cretaceous Period. The water receded millions of years later, however, and just 13,000 years ago or so, people arrived—ancestors of today’s American Indians.

Petroglyphs dated from around 1,000 to 500 years ago show the presence of aboriginal people well before Europeans began settling in the area. Plains Indian tribes followed bison through the land and were largely unbothered by white settlers until 1811, when the Wilson Price Hunt Expedition passed through on a fur-trading venture bound for Oregon.

Long-simmering tensions between Indian tribes and white people erupted into war in the mid-1860s, when the U.S. Army built a string of forts to protect emigrants on the Bozeman Trail, bound from the Oregon Trail toward gold fields of Montana. This route came north through what soon became Wyoming Territory, east of where Crook County is now.

Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux warriors drove the Army away and burned the forts in what became known as Red Cloud’s War. The Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 set aside the area east of Dakota Territory and south of Montana—parts of the Black Hills and the Powder River Basin—as hunting grounds for the tribes.

The treaty prohibited white settlers from passing through the area without explicit permission from the tribes. In the 1870s, rumors of gold in the Black Hills began to spread. The government originally ordered the U.S. Army to keep prospectors out, but many slipped through. Those who were not caught and killed by Indians brought back stories, largely exaggerated, of huge gold deposits.

In 1874, the government sent a large military expedition under Lt. Col. George A. Custer to the Black Hills. He came back with reports that there was, in fact, gold there. A gold rush began, and pressure mounted on the tribes to sell their homelands.

Government officials met with Lakota Sioux chiefs in May and June 1875 to attempt to purchase the Black Hills, but the Indians balked. The land was holy ground for them, and they refused to part with it.

On Dec. 8, 1875, Wyoming’s territorial legislature created Pease (later Johnson) and Crook counties out of the northeast fourth of the territory. It was still Indian land, however. Just four days earlier, the Legislature showed its true intent in a memorial—that is, a message—to the U.S. Congress. The memorial referred to the Lakota Sioux as “the blood-seeking brave … and his filthy squaw,” and urged Congress to open the land “to settlement and improvement” so that Wyoming could “become what her natural resources entitle her to be … a great and prosperous state …”

The act only created the county on paper, however it would be nearly 10 years before a county government was organized.

In early 1876, meanwhile, the government ordered the tribes out of the Powder River Basin and the Black Hills and onto reservations in Dakota Territory and Nebraska. The tribes, however, refused to go without a fight, and this led to the 1876 and 1877 campaign against the Sioux, including the fights on the Rosebud on June 17, 1876, Custer’s defeat on the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, and the attack on Dull Knife’s village of Cheyenne on the Red Fork of Powder River on Nov. 24, 1876. The war concluded with Indian surrender in 1877 and relocation to reservations. Brig. Gen. George Crook, the county’s namesake, directed these campaigns.

As early as late 1876, some brave settlers entered Crook County and began staking mining claims and launching small ranches. Cattle driven north from Texas began entering the area, and with them came more ranchers.

Beulah, now on Interstate 90 two miles east of the Wyoming-South Dakota line, is considered the first settlement in Crook County. First known as Sand Creek, the area drew gold prospectors in the late 1870s. The 1876 rush that began in Lead and Deadwood, Dakota Territory, extended west to Sand Creek, and while discoveries of the precious metal dwindled, the lush grass and plentiful water were enough to attract cattlemen to replace the gold-seekers who left.

Sundance, Wyo., was named after the adjacent Sundance Mountain, which was named in turn for the ritual ceremonies the Sioux performed on that sacred site. The town, founded in 1879, became the county seat when the county government was organized a few years later. A stage line connecting Spearfish, Dakota Territory and Sundance established a relay station at Beulah, and Beulah flourished, with a hotel, saloons and a dance hall.

By 1880, many large cattle operations were working the area and claimed all the land with direct access to Sand and Redwater creeks near Beulah. The 1880 census documented 239 residents in the on-paper Crook County, less than half of the 500 necessary to officially create a county.

Becoming a county

By mid-1884, the population had increased significantly. In October, the required 500 signatures appeared on a petition to organize a Crook County government. Territorial Gov. William Hale appointed W.F. Draper, J.S. Harper and W.H. Harlow as founding commissioners. They met in Sundance on Nov. 28, 1884, and set Dec. 9 as the date for the county’s voters to select a county seat and elect officers.

The commissioners met again on Jan. 22, 1885. Sundance was named the county seat. The county attorney and prosecutor, county clerk, probate judge, ex-officio justice of the peace and treasurer, sheriff, superintendent of schools, surveyor, assessor and coroner were administered oaths of office.

The second floor of a log building, rented for a monthly fee of $15 and moved to the center of town, was selected for the location of county offices. In its early years, the county’s commission work mostly involved roads, taxes and financial issues.

As the county grew, so did demand for better county offices. Early in 1886, the commissioners issued county bonds for $25,000 at 6 percent interest to pay for construction of a new courthouse and jail. They had no trouble raising the needed funds. In May, they accepted plans for the two new buildings. Construction began on Aug. 17, 1886. Winter weather and labor shortages delayed progress. Officers finally moved into the new building in December 1887.

Sundance made its way into the legends of the West after desperado Harry Longabaugh, then about 20, spent 18 months in the Sundance jail for horse theft beginning in 1887. Afterward, Longabaugh became known as the Sundance Kid. Longabaugh, his friend Robert Leroy Parker, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy and members of Cassidy’s Wild Bunch were responsible for a string of successful train and bank robberies between 1889 and 1901, when Longabaugh and Parker left the West for South America.

In 1890, the Wyoming Legislature created Weston County from the southern half of Crook County. Crook County was now bound by Johnson County on the west, South Dakota on the east, Montana on the north and Weston County on the south. In 1913, Campbell County was created, taking the western halves of Crook and Weston counties. Since then, the boundaries of Crook County have remained the same.

In 1906, Crook County won national attention when President Theodore Roosevelt declared Devils Tower, 25 miles northwest of Sundance, the nation’s first national monument.

Early industry

Crook County’s industrial past dates to the discovery in the 1870s of coal deposits about 20 miles northeast of Sundance, near what would become Aladdin, Wyo. Wagon teams originally transported coal 50 miles or more to gold smelters in Lead and Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

In 1895, the Black Hills Coal Company was founded and began mining coal in Crook County. Soon, the company needed a more efficient way than wagons to ship the coal. In 1898, the Black Hills Coal Company built the Wyoming and Missouri River Railroad to haul coal from the Aladdin area 18 miles to the east to the main Chicago and Northwestern Railroad line, at Belle Fourche, S.D. The new line also connected the mines to gold smelters in Lead and Deadwood, S.D.

The line between Aladdin and Belle Fourche operated from 1899 to 1927, but long before that the coal mines had begun to play out coal transport was rare after 1910. Aladdin became a loading point for cattle bound for Omaha, Neb., markets.

After the turn of the last century, bentonite mining also became important in Weston and Crook counties. Demand for this clay mineral grew dramatically over the decades, as it came to be used in cement and plaster, cosmetics, insecticides and textiles.

Colony, Wyoming’s northeasternmost community, was established April 7, 1908. There was never a town there – just a post office, store, telephone exchange and gas pump – but the Baroid Bentonite Plant was located in the area and later American Colloid Company (in the 1920s) and Archer-Daniels-Midland (in 1964) plants were built there.

Cattle, sheep and farming

Texas cattle had been coming into northeastern Wyoming since the late 1870s along the Texas Trail, which ran north along the eastern edge of the Territory and then turned northwest along a route followed in 1890 and 1891 by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Once they reached the Wyoming end of the trail, some Texas cowboys from the trail herds stayed, settled in Crook County and went to work on large ranches a few built thriving ranching operations of their own.

The Burlington crossed Crook and Weston counties through the new towns of Newcastle, Upton, and Moorcroft, a settlement 20 miles northwest of Upton. Moorcroft, in the southwest corner of what’s now Crook County, soon became a shipping hub for cattle. Before then, cattle in the northeastern ranges of the Territory were trailed to Rock Creek on the Union Pacific, in southern Wyoming, or after 1881 to Miles City, Montana for shipment to market. Now it was a much shorter trip for local herds to the Burlington Railroad at Moorcroft.

During the 1890s Moorcroft became the largest cattle-shipping point in the U.S., and remained an important shipping point until soon after the end of World War II.

Sheep followed the cattle industry to the area, and sheep significantly outnumbered cattle in Wyoming by the turn of the last century.

Over time, ranching and agriculture became the real successes for Crook County. With relatively mild winters and an average 24 inches of annual precipitation, the place was well suited for farming. Early day farmers cultivated wheat, oats, rye, corn, garden vegetables and small fruits for profit.

Current industry

Ranching and farming continue to be significant in the county economy. The oil and gas industry provides steady employment in Crook County, with Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Merit Energy Company Co., Strata Energy Inc., Citation Oil and Gas Corp., T Roustabout, Flying J Oil & Gas, Rex A Brown Pumping Inc., Sterling Oil & Gas Company and True Oil LLC all operating here.

Coal mining has left its traces in Crook County, with abandoned mines in the area and some structures, like the remarkable coal tipple at Aladdin, remaining from the early days. Some county residents find employment in the coal mines near Gillette and Wright, Wyo., in Campbell County just to the west.

Logging has long been a big industry in Crook County. Neiman Sawmill Inc., founded in 1936 and using timber from U.S. Forest Service timber sales on the Black Hills National Forest, still operates in Hulett. In 2005, the county provided 58 percent of Wyoming’s timber, with more than 38,000,000 board feet produced.

Uranium was discovered in 1949, and the Homestake Mining Company opened north of Hulett to take advantage of this growing industry. The mine is still in operation.

County characteristics

Crook is Wyoming’s second smallest county in population.

The population soared between 1880, when 239 people were listed, and 1890, when there were 2,338. This dramatic increase was most likely caused by an influx of ranchers. The population continued to rise, but more slowly. By 1900, there were 3,137 people. By 1910, the number more than doubled and 6,492 residents were counted. Following that year, and for several decades, the population remained between 4,500 and 5,000 until 2000, when it jumped to 5,887, and 2010, growing to 7,083.

The lowest elevation in Wyoming, 3,125 feet above sea level, is located north of Aladdin where the Belle Fourche River flows into South Dakota.


Early life Edit

Nate Champion was born 29 September 1857 in Leander, Texas. His parents were John and Naomi Champion. One of eighteen brothers and sisters, he grew up in the Round Rock area. His father served as sheriff of Williamson County for while his Aunt Hattie Cluck drove her own cattle to market in Abilene, Kansas in 1871. With the money she and her husband George purchased the land that would become Cedar Park. Like most footloose cowboys of that area he worked his way north to Wyoming where he worked for several ranches before building his own spread.

The Johnson County War Edit

The dramatic events of 1892 took place against a background of violent conflict over land use that stretched from 1889 to 1909. Historian Richard Maxwell Brown refers to the events in Wyoming as part of a wider "Western Civil War of Incorporation."

In the early days in Wyoming, most of the land was in the public domain, open both to stockraising as open range and to homesteading. Large numbers of cattle were turned loose on the open range by large ranches, sometimes financed by other investors. In the spring a roundup was held and the cows and the calves belonging to each ranch were separated and the calves branded. Before the roundup, sometimes calves, especially orphan or stray calves, were surreptitiously branded, and thus taken. The large ranches, concerned about this practice, forbade their employees from owning cattle and aggressively defended against rustling.

The situation became steadily worse after the poor winter of 1886. The large companies began to aggressively appropriate land and control the flow and supply of water in this area they justified these excesses on what was public land by using the catch-all allegation of rustling, and vigorously sought to exclude the smaller ranchers from participation in the annual roundup apparently agents of the larger ranches killed several alleged rustlers. A number of lynchings of alleged rustlers took place in 1889, including the double lynching of innocent homesteaders and ranchers Ella Watson and Jim Averell. [1]

The large ranches were organized as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (the WSGA) and gathered socially as the Cheyenne Club in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In April 1892 the WSGA hired killers from Texas an expedition of 50 men was organized, which proceeded by train from Cheyenne to Casper, Wyoming, then toward Johnson County, intending to eliminate alleged rustlers and also, apparently, to replace the government in Johnson County. Major Frank Wolcott led the Regulators into Johnson County. To prevent an alarm, the telegraph lines out of Buffalo were cut. The expedition was accompanied by two newspaper reporters whose lurid accounts later appeared in the eastern newspapers. [1]

Attack on Champion Edit

The first target of the WSGA was Nate Champion at the "KC Ranch". Champion was a small rancher who was active in the efforts of small ranchers to organize a competing roundup. Three men besides Champion were at the KC. Two men, evidently trappers, who had taken shelter for the night, were captured as they emerged from the cabin early that morning to collect water at the nearby Powder River, while the third, Nick Ray, was shot while standing inside the doorway of the cabin and died a few hours later. The fourth, Nate Champion, was besieged. Two passers-by noticed the ruckus and rode to Buffalo, where Johnson County Sheriff William "Red" Angus raised a posse of 200 men and set out for the "KC Ranch". [1]

Champion held out for several hours, killing at least four of the vigilantes, and wounding several others. During the siege, Champion kept a poignant journal which contained a number of notes he wrote to friends while taking cover inside the cabin. "Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once." he wrote. The last journal entry read: "Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It's not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again." [1]

With the house on fire, Nate Champion signed his journal entry and put the journal in his pocket before he emerged, running from the back door with a Colt revolver in the left hand and a Winchester rifle in the right. He was gunned down by four men firing simultaneously, hit by 28 bullets. The invaders later pinned a note on Champion's bullet-riddled chest that read "Cattle Thieves Beware". They also carefully removed entries from the diary which named some of the attackers. [1]

Aftermath of death Edit

The following day the posse led by the sheriff besieged the invading force at the "TA Ranch" on Crazy Woman Creek. After two days, one of the invaders escaped and was able to contact the acting Governor of Wyoming, Amos W. Barber. Frantic efforts to save the besieged invaders ensued, and telegraphs to Washington resulted in intervention by the President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison. The Sixth Cavalry from Fort McKinney was ordered to proceed to the "TA Ranch" and take custody of the invaders and save them from the posse. As part of the surrender, the invaders turned in all their arms and equipment to the Army. Major Wolcott, as unofficial leader of the group made a list of these arms and provided it to the government.

In the end the invaders went free due to cunning legal maneuvers by the defense attorneys. Although many of the leaders of the invaders, such as W. C. Irvine, were themselves Democrats, and their opponents were mostly Democrats. A scandal was caused by the rescue of the Invaders at the order of President Harrison, and the failure of the courts to prosecute them. As a result of the scandal, Wyoming voted Democratic in the elections of 1894.

Murder: “Acting for the general welfare”

An ominous killing in the northwestern Colorado Brown’s Hole region struck the area in mid-1900. Even more sinister was the plot that lay behind it.

Two small cattlemen, Matt Rash and Isam Dart, had been in Brown’s Hole in northwestern Colorado for a number of years. In July and October 1900 both were killed. Their previous actions, along with those of other small ranchers, had led to conflict and a conspiracy on the part of three prominent ranchers to eliminate them. Tom Horn was their agent.

The prologue of their murders was the developing cattle business as the new century began.

By the mid-1890s the cattle business in Wyoming and Colorado was changing in major ways, in large part because consumer tastes had started to gravitate toward more tender and flavorful beef from breeds other than longhorns. And while longhorns are hardy and calve easily, they do not add weight as rapidly as other breeds.

Another major reason for the changes in the range business was an influx of homesteaders. The homesteaders, “nesters” or “grangers” as they were referred to disdainfully by the big operators, had moved over a period of time into some of the best bottomlands. By doing so they decreased the availability of water for the herds of the dominant, larger ranchers, or “cattle barons,” as they became known.

One major operator was Laramie’s Ora Haley, who had enormous holdings both in northwest Colorado and southeast Wyoming and who acted to adjust to the changing conditions.

Ora Haley (American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming)

Bernard, a Texan who had driven cows to northern reaches as a young man, observed that as cattle operations evolved, overheads increased. It became necessary to purchase or lease land from the railroads, to fence bull pastures in order to produce summer calves of uniform weight, and raise hay to feed stock. Bernard purchased several large hay ranches for Haley in Colorado’s Routt County area, which comprised Brown’s Hole. It was enormously profitable in spite of the depredations of locals. Bernard described the range and Haley’s success. He commented,

These ranches extended over a wide scope of the county, with both winter and summer ranges on all sides. It was open public domain, all choice range, and with few fences to hinder the movement of cattle for a distance of about 100 miles in all directions. That constituted a pretty layout, and easy to handle.

It proved to be good. Haley made over a million dollars profit on his Routt County investment in less than ten years. And in that time he never saw the range end of the business but three times. He did not know a thing about it for he was not a range man.

Haley was a smart and lucky financier. He came to Wyoming a bullwhacker, and started in the cow business at Laramie with three old dairy cows. He was smart enough to see opportunities and capitalize on them, lucky to find a sucker to handle a range cattle business better than he could, and he was wise enough to keep from meddling with the range end, where the payoff came from. That is a rare combination of human character.

Ora Haley’s Two Bar Ranch in Brown’s Hole, where Tom Horn stayed (author’s photo)

But there was a difference in the situations between Wyoming and Colorado. In Wyoming, it was the cattlemen who had attempted to keep homesteaders and small ranchers from infringing on lands they felt were exclusively theirs. The Brown’s Hole locals, many of them homesteaders and small ranchers, instead resisted encroachment on their ranges by the cattle barons.

For a time, the Wyoming cattlemen were successful in holding off what they felt was wrongful encroachment of “their” lands. However, the winds of change were against them, and their strong-arm tactics had begun to go too far.

They had had gone as far as to resort to outright murder, lynching “Cattle Kate” Ellen Watson and Jim Averill in south-central Sweetwater County in 1889, and Tom Waggoner in northeast Weston County in 1891. The Johnson County Invasion followed in 1892 with the accompanying murders of Nick Rae and Nate Champion. Over time, however, the homesteaders and small ranchers were bound to prevail, simply because of their sheer numbers.

In northwest Colorado the small ranchers misjudged the changes that would occur in their own region, just as had the barons in Wyoming. In northwest Colorado, the big ranchers, whose holdings included both Wyoming and Colorado lands, were determined to move into the ranges not being put to use. Vacant, valuable land sat unused when they needed it.

The first mistake the Brown’s Hole locals made was failing to acquire ranches that were readily available along their eastern perimeter. Had they done so, they could have resisted further inroads by the large operators. The ranches were owned by Ben Majors and one Sainsbury, and were acquired in 1894 by Ora Haley.

The second mistake was allowing the area to become known as a “safe haven” for outlaws. Bernard remarked that “the reported presence of such characters helped to scare outside stockmen away from the gravy bowl. It was a ‘no trespassing’ sign, and it worked for a long time.” However, their sympathy for and assistance to outlaws inevitably created animosity toward them.
Bernard added that the nesters’ third mistake was “they were range hogs, for they were controlling a greater amount of range than they used or could use. ‘It must be kept that way’ – one of Brown’s Park’s ‘musts.’ Well, time changes things, and it ‘must’ be a hell of a shock to some of them to see things now,” he said. Long-term, the range would not remain open and the big outfits would move in.

Bernard’s further observations brought proof of Tom Horn’s complicity in the murders that were to come.

Late in 1899 or early in 1900, Ora Haley ordered Bernard to meet him at Haley’s Denver office. At the time Haley was fifty-five and married with grown four children living in Laramie. Three other cattlemen were present: Charles E. “Charley” Ayer, Wilfred W. “Wiff” Wilson, and John C. Coble.
Ayer, forty-three, was born in New York, married with five children and lived in the Four Mile area of Routt County, Colorado.

Wilson was born in Utah in 1857 and was living with his wife, three children and mother-in-law near Baggs in southern Carbon County, Wyoming. Both Ayer and Wilson had significant livestock holdings in southern Wyoming and Brown’s Hole.

John C. Coble was born in 1857 in Pennsylvania and was a partner of Frank Bosler in the prominent Iron Mountain Ranch Company of Bosler, Wyoming, north of Laramie. Tom Horn was on Coble’s payroll at the time.

John C. Coble (WY State Archives)

Matt Rash (courtesy Museum of Northwest Colorado, Craig, CO)

Tom Horn was the man chosen by Coble.

Coble continued that Horn was to be paid five hundred dollars for every known cattle thief
he killed….

The Tragedy of Cattle Kate

On July 20, 1889, in a gulch by the Wyoming’s Sweetwater River, six cattlemen lynched a man and a woman accused of cattle rustling. As the purported bodies twisted from the same tree limb: a rider galloped toward the town of Rawlins with the news: cattlemen had exacted revenge on two ruthless thieves, Jim Averell and Ella Watson, the woman they called Cattle Kate.

The story was shocking—it echoed across America like a shot, and only grew more dramatic in the retelling. One newspaper headline read: "Blaspheming Border Beauty Barbarously Boosted Branchward."

An account in the Salt Lake Herald painted Kate as a local legend, "of masculine physique, she was a dare-devil in the saddle quick on the shoot an adept with the lariat and branding iron."  In a story in the National Police Gazette, a man asked Kate a question she didn't like. So she "knocked him down with a stunning left-hander and lashed him with her riding whip till he begged for mercy."

But the truth of the matter was likely much more anodyne. Kate was merely a woman looking to set out a life for herself on the frontier. Even though some local papers put out more accurate accounts soon after her lynching, the mythical version—wild woman meets her just end—is what stuck. Today, experts agree that Watson's greatest crime was probably her willingness to cross boundaries.

In effect, she was murdered for being different.

In the years after the Civil War, author Tom Rea explains in his 2006 book Devil's Gate, railroads had opened the West to the great wealth of the East. Beef, among other resources, could now be shipped long distances. Big ranches, owned by the land barons of their time, thrived in these unincorporated territories, profiting off the free grass on government-owned land and the cheap labor of cowboys. Some cowboys started their own, smaller herds by putting their own brands on mavericks—calves that had slipped unbranded through the roundups—a practice that was, for a time, legal. Some of the land barons paid their cowboys to brand their neighbors’ unbranded calves, which was more like stealing.

But in 1884, when the Wyoming Territorial Legislature outlawed the practice, unbranded calves were instead sold at auction, and cowboys and small landowners were frozen out of the process. To make matters worse, a saturated beef market, overgrazed ranges, a drought and cruel winter in the late 1880s knocked the bottom out of the business. The cattle boom went bust. Out-of-work cowboys looked to start small herds by any means. Barons blamed all their problems on cattle thieves, says Rea. People were shot, horses killed, and haystacks burned.

"Enter Cattle Kate," says University of Wyoming history professor Renee Laegreid. "One strike against her is that she's a small operator, and second strike is that she's a woman." 

Ella Watson—tall, dark haired, sturdy--had a turbulent past. She married in 1879 at 18, and left her abusive husband in her early 20s to work at the railroad hotel in Rawlins, Wyoming. By 1886, she had met Averell and worked with him on the Sweetwater, helping run his store, selling goods like bacon and flour. She was homesteading with a small herd of cattle, and may have standardized her real estate holdings with her partner's understanding of land law—Averell was a postmaster, a notary public and a justice of the peace. Watson filed her own homesteading entry with the government on 160 acres, which meant that by the spring of 1888, she and Averell had claim to two 160-acre claims.

"Everything they were doing was legal," says Rea. "Jim Averell was a land surveyor and would have understood how the land law works, but the custom was that the cattle barons would control large pieces of land." Averell filed a land claim in the cattle barons' range, but then he flipped it, using that money to build his store instead of offering the land to the larger owners.

"The men who did the deed wanted his homestead and desert claim, with his fine water ditch running through it, the results of his five years' hard labor," Averell's brother, R. W. Cahill, told a reporter directly after the killings, trying to set the record straight. The grief-stricken Cahill called the lynching "cruel, and cold-blooded murder."

But Cahill's pleading was largely in vain accounts of the lynching itself only fortified the idea of Watson and Averell deserving their fates. "The man weakened at once," said the Herald, "and began blubbering and whining. Kate was made of sterner stuff, and her blasphemy could not be approached in vileness or variety. She dared her maker to visit punishment upon her and cheat the lynchers. Averill [sic] and Kate were given a horse to ride to the scaffold. The woman jumped from the ground on to the horse straddle fashion, humming the wedding march." 

The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889

The lynching of Ellen Watson and Jim Averell by six prominent and politically powerful Wyoming cattlemen rocked the nation in July 1889.

In reality, Watson wasn't a bar fighter or famous for horsewhipping cowboys. She was only guilty of standing up to a system run by big cattle companies. The newspaper accounts, with their florid, overwritten flair, were likely reflections of how the lynchers wanted the story told. Who could fault them for taking matters into their own hands when Watson was a villain who deserved to hang?

Besides its appealing alliteration—those two hard "k" sounds—Cattle Kate isn't a nickname ever used for Watson in life. It most likely came from confusion of Watson with a possibly fictitious woman named Kate Maxwell. Earlier newspaper stories in 1889 depict Maxwell as a heavy drinker who had allegedly shot a man for calling her "Katie," and would have been a beauty except for the scar on her chin. Brandishing a six-shooter, Maxwell supposedly took back several thousand dollars that cowboys she employed had lost to cheating faro dealers.

Laegreid says that the story that turns Watson into Cattle Kate—a bad woman punished—is part of the mythology of the Wild West as imagined by chroniclers like Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wister, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Frederic Remington. That Ella Watson's story is known—even today--as that of Cattle Kate—shows the power of legend. The Cattle Kate myth resonates beyond its own framework, says Rea. "The fact that these guys on the Sweetwater were so unpunished--a lot of historians read that as the whole state and culture saying, I guess that's a perfectly reasonable way to take care of your problems."

The men who killed Watson and Averell never went to trial. No one could find two key witnesses, and the grand jury was made of 16 people, seven of whom were cattlemen. "The way I think about this lynching," says Rea, "is it's very much a story of law versus custom. And also, it's a story of just land use and neighbors. And it's a gender story too."

Even in Wyoming—famous for being the first state to give women the vote—women owning land and demanding rights irked many.

"Women weren't allowed to own property until the 1840s, and that was still very limited," says Laegreid. "It wasn't until 1862 that they could own it in their own right. That's still fairly new, and it did not fly well for a lot of men. We're still looking at the repercussions of the Civil War, and when women own land it's still seen as stepping outside of their role. And shouldn't they get married? Or shouldn't they give their land over?"

Watson's story illustrates the challenges women faced, even in a state famous for its forward-thinking approach to women's suffrage. "It's not quite as open and welcoming as the license plates might have you believe," says Laegreid. "The frontier may have looked bare and open but it was already part of this corporate dynamic," she says.

Rea agrees that the partners' willingness to step outside society's norms cost them. "Both Averell and Watson were-- just by what little we know of them--they were unafraid to be known for their opinions. He wrote letters to the newspaper accusing these guys of trying to sell lots in this fictitious town, and she seems to have been wiling to file land claims on her own. She also wasn't being timid or secretive." says Rea.

It's also a story of the shaping of history. In 1895, six years after the lynching, W. A. Pinkerton (the head of the Pinkerton detectives) told a reporter the story, calling Watson the "queen of a gang of rustlers." The early misinformation that the Cheyenne Daily Leader published was still being used as fact into the 1920s. Later historians recycled the narrative, too. It wasn't until two amateur historians wrote books on it that the real story gained wider traction for modern readers.

A 2008 article chronicled members of gathering of Watson's family at her grave in 1989. They were still trying to set the record straight. One descendant wanted her ancestor remembered "not as a hellion of a woman but a pioneer who got tangled in corporate power struggles and land rustling on the wild western frontier." 

About Eliza McGraw

Eliza McGraw is the author of Here Comes Exterminator! which is about the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner. She lives in Washington.

The Killing of Willie Nickell “I Think the Intention Was To Get Me In Place Of The Boy” - Kels Nickell, Willie’s father.

Kels Powers Nickell, Willie’s father, had come to Wyoming in the mid-1870s, as part of General George C. Crook’s command. Crook’s force was part of the pincers movement ordered to entrap Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in the ill?fated strategy that led to George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876.

Kels P. Nickell and Mary Mahoney Nickell, Willie’s parents (WY State Archives)

Confederate Army deserters, guerrillas, had murdered Kels’ father, John DeSha Nickell, on February 7, 1863, eight years after Kels was born in 1855. He was killed within earshot of the family on their farm in Licking River, Morgan County, Kentucky. The killer was John Jackson Nickell, a second cousin, who also murdered Logan Wilson. Wilson was shot in his bed while recuperating from wounds. John Jackson Nickell was hanged for the two murders on September 2, 1864, following court martial.

Kels’ mother, Priscilla, and his five siblings remained on the farm in Kentucky for a period until the county circuit court sold it to satisfy a surety bond the elder Nickell had signed for a county elected official, whose name is unknown.

Kels remained in the area and went to work cutting timber that was assembled into rafts to be floated downstream to sawmills. He married Ann Brown of Greenup County, Kentucky, in 1873, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1877. One son was born of the marriage, John DeSha Nickell II, in 1874.

In 1875 he enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry and was assigned to the West. After the Battle of the Rosebud he was one of two men ordered by Crook to the Little Big Horn battle site before the dead were buried.

Nickell was counted as part of the force at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in the census of 1880. After his discharge that year, he moved to Camp Carlin on the northwest outskirts of Cheyenne, and opened a blacksmith and farm machinery repair shop. He married Mary Mahoney, an Irish immigrant then 16, in Cheyenne on December 27, 1881. The daughter of a railway construction worker from Cork, Ireland, she had immigrated to the United States in 1868. Kels was ten years her senior.

Nickell was a hothead with an explosive temper, according to two of his granddaughters who are friends of the author. Testimony in the coroner’s inquest that followed Willie’s murder indicated that he was always in some kind of a “jangle.”
The homes he built both in Iron Mountain and later in Encampment, Wyoming were located close enough to streams to provide his family with running water, a rare convenience in rural country. The Iron Mountain home had water piped into it from North Chugwater Creek, which was a few feet to the south of the structure.

Left, the Nickell home locale sat in a canyon.
Right, rock formation northwest of where the homestead sat (author’s photos).

The Nickell family at the homestead. Willie’s father is not in the photo.
(WY State Archives)

The prologue that resulted first in the killing of Willie Nickell on July 18, 1901, and Kels’ wounding on August 4, was the result of feuds in which Kels had become embroiled as far back as 1890. On July 23 of that year, he tangled with John Coble and Coble’s foreman, George Cross, at the western edge of Nickell’s homestead, over some cattle. He knifed Coble, seriously wounding him in the abdomen.

Nickell continued to display symptoms of paranoia, manifesting itself in a conviction that the Iron Mountain people were out to do him in.

The feud was acutely bitter between the Nickell clan and Jim Miller’s, who lived about a mile south of Nickell. Both fathers and Willie Nickell plus Gus and Victor Miller, the two older boys, were involved to one degree or another.

The Miller home as it looked ca 1900 (author’s photo)

Left, Jim and Dora Miller (WY State Archives)
Gus, Eva, Victor and Maude Miller (author’s photos, courtesy Ruth Miller Ayers)

The 1900 census showed that the household consisted of, in addition to the parents:

Charles Augustus (Gus), born in 1882, described as a farm laborer
Victor Henry, born in 1883, also a farm laborer
Eva Jane, born in 188
Frank, born in 1887
Maude S., born in 1891
Raymond, born in 1893
Ina S., born in 1895
Robert L., born in 1897
Ronald Andrew, born in 1899
Benjamin F., Jim’s brother, who was born in 1858 and was a railroad laborer.
One daughter, Bertha May, was born in May 1889 and died of diphtheria when she was eight or nine years old, in 1898.

Left, center and right: The Miller home sat beyond the remains of this barn, at left-center.
Right, scene where a corral and outbuildings sat at the Miller ranch.
Right, a small grave at the Miller ranch.
(Author’s photos)

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