As with most disputes, both sides in the Johnson County War had some valid points, and perhaps this is the reason the Johnson County War stands as one of the most violent range wars in U.S. history. By the late 1880’s, public lands were being opened up to settlement and the ranges that once fed cattle were being fenced off, leaving those with large herds dwindling places to feed those herds. Then the cattle business took a huge hit from the harsh winter of 1886-87 and large, wealthy ranchers in Johnson, Natrona, and Converse counties began to close ranks. They kept smaller ranchers from grazing on public land, or participating in area round-ups, and barred these smaller ranchers from the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) which met at the famous Cheyenne Social Club. As time wore on and circumstances deteriorated, their tactics got more heavy handed. These large landowners, perhaps due to a misplaced sense of entitlement, forced settlers off their land at gun point, burned settler’s buildings, and began to not only appropriate land, but precious water supplies as well.
These large stockmen had also become targets of bands of rustlers who stole cattle and mavericked their herd (taking unbranded cows and calves and branding as their own). The members of the WSGA tried to get local law enforcement involved, but their previous tactics had turned local opinion against them setting themselves up as Goliaths to the small rancher’s Davids. Locals looked the other way as rustlers ran loose across Wyoming and Montana, some seeing the rustlers as latter day Robin Hoods, taking from the rich and giving to the poor or, more correctly, selling the stolen cattle at good prices to the smaller ranchers. No doubt, some smaller ranchers indulged in a little rustling themselves as a means of getting back at the high-handed WSGA members who yielded considerable power at the state level. Enough power to get several laws enacted favorable to their interest such as a law stating all unbranded cattle were the property of the WSGA, laws forbidding small ranchers to bid at auction, laws that required all ranches to register a brand and then increasing the cost of registering a brand to a level that was out of reach for most small ranchers.
They also began to label any rancher outside the WSGA as a rustler, perhaps in hopes of turning around national sentiment, and began to mete out their own brand of justice—the vigilante kind. Several small ranchers were lynched or killed at gunpoint including the infamous hanging of Emma (Cattle Kate) Watson and Jim Averell who ran a small ranch consisting of 28 cattle. Jim, as local justice of the peace, had written to Casper newspapers against the anti-maverick laws so he was already a marked man. Despite Averell letting one of the large cattlemen, Brothwell, have access through his ranch so to irrigate his land, Brothwell began to fence in land that belonged to Emma. Subsequently the foreman of Brothwell’s ranch accused Watson and Averell of rustling and took them to be lynched. Locals were outraged at the lynching, particularly the lynching of a woman. Large cattle interests tried to brand Emma as a prostitute to dilute public sentiment, but it was not true. There was no happy ending to this story. The vigilante’s were captured and held for trial but witnesses were intimidated and the case had to be dropped. Watson and Averell’s land was auctioned off and became the property of the WSGA.
The violence would only escalate from here.
Small rancher Nate Champion formed the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association (NWFSGA) to compete with the WSGA. The WSGA ordered them to disband and stop all operations. The NWFSGA refused and instead made known their intention to hold their own roundup in the spring of 1892. This set the stage for the Johnson County War and marked Nate Champion as a dead man.
The large cattle interests hired fifty hard gunmen from Montana to Texas who in turn became known as “the invaders” or “Wolcott’s Regulator’s” after the leader of the WSGA. Many prominent cattle owners and politicians joined the ranks including State Senator Bob Tisdale, state water commissioner W.J. Clarke and others instrumental in organizing Wyoming’s statehood. On Saturday, April 9, 1892 they laid siege to Nate Champion’s KC Ranch (Kaycee Wyoming is named after the ranch).
Champion’s defense is legendary. After they killed his partner, Nick Ray, Champion held off the invaders for several more hours. In that time, he was able to write a surviving account of the siege which is quite moving.
As reported by the Casper-Star Tribune, Nate wrote:
“Me and Nick was getting breakfast when the attack took place. Two men was with us n Bill Jones and another man. The old man went after water and did not come back. His friend went out to see what was the matter and he did not come back. Nick started out and I told him look out, that I thought that there was someone at the stable and would not let them come back. Nick is shot but not dead yet. He is awful sick. I must go and wait on him. It is now about two hours since the first shot. Nick is still alive. They are still shooting all around the house. Boys, there is bullets coming in like hail. Them fellows is in such shape I can’t get at them. They are shooting from the stable and river and back of the house. Nick is dead, he died about 9 o’clock. I see smoke down at the stable. I think they have fired it. I don’t think they intend to let me get away this time.
It is now about noon. There is someone at the stable yet; they are throwing a rope at the door and dragging it back. I guess it is to draw me out. I wish that duck would get out further so I can get a shot at him. Boys, I don’t know what they have done with them two fellows that staid here last night. Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once. They may fool around until I get a good shot before they leave. It’s about 3 o’clock now. There was a man in a buckboard and one on horseback just passed. They fired on them as they went by. I don’t know if they killed them or not. I seen lots of men come out on horses on the other side of the river and take after them. I shot at the men in the stable just now; don’t know if I got any or not. I must look out again. It don’t look as if there is much show of getting away. I see twelve or fifteen men. One looks like (name scratched out). I don’t know whether it is or not. I hope they did not catch them fellows that run over the bridge towards Smith’s. They are shooting at the house now. If I had a pair of glasses I believe I would know some of those men. They are coming back. I got to look out.
When the “invaders” couldn’t kill him by gunfire, they decided to burn the house down to flush him out. It worked and Nate Champion died in a barrage of bullets. They branded him a rustler.
This standoff had not gone unnoticed and a neighboring farmer had ridden to get the sheriff and raised a posse. Over 200 men came together and they set out for Nate’s place the next evening. They caught up with the invaders at the TA Ranch by early Monday morning and began to lay siege. The invaders held up in the barn on the TA Ranch. One of the invaders was able to escape and got a message to the acting Governor who was sympathetic to large cattle interests. The Governor, in turned, beseeched President Benjamin Harrison to send troops to rescue the “sixty-one owners of livestock (who) have made an armed expedition into Johnson County for the purpose of protecting their live stock and preventing unlawful roundups by rustlers.”
President Benjamin Harrison did send troops to take the invaders into protective custody, ostensibly to stand trial but really for their own survival since the invaders were so outnumbered by the locals.
Most of the national newspapers reported the mêlée as combat between stockmen and rustlers. The New York Times announced: “They (stockmen) are going to hang a score of rascals who are awaiting Spring with a large herd of stolen horses…” The reporting referred to Champion and Ray as “freebooters” and the posse as deputized “rustlers.” However, as events unfolded, the Times tempered their tone, particularly when it was learned that the leader of the WSGA invaders had in his “gripsack” the names of seventy “rustlers” that were to be hanged and ranch houses to be burned and that the contract with the Texas contingent gave them “$5 a day and $50 all around for every man they killed.” Further the Times reported that “The baggage of the members of the expedition captured proved, it is said, that the whole party can be indicted not only for murder but for treason and insurrection.”
In the end, as can be expected by the “politics” of the situation, no charges were ever filed against the prominent men of Wyoming, and Johnson County pleaded that it had no funds to bring so many men to trial. To a man the “invaders” walked free.
Public opinion was split, some seeing the wealthy ranchers as heroes defending their rights against anarchy and others seeing the heroes as Champion and the posse, defending their rights against special interests. Those sympathetic to the wealthy ranchers painted Champion as head of a huge rustling operation—which has subsequently been discredited. Those whose sympathies were with the smaller ranchers erroneously placed prominent gunslingers such as Tom Horn among the Invaders.
Regardless, in the next election the Republicans, seen as sympathetic to the wealthy ranchers, lost out to Democrats, who swept the governorship and both houses. Many thought it a scandal that no one was ever held accountable for the lynching and killings that had raged for over a decade, culminating in the bloody battle known as the Johnson County War.
The WSGA is still active today though on their website, under the history of the association, there is no mention of its role in the Johnson County War. To my knowledge the NWFSGA is no longer an association.
Various books and movies have portrayed the conflict. The Virginian took the side of the wealthy ranchers, though it did not use actual events. Shane took the side of the settlers as did the movie, Heaven’s Gate.
The Casper-Star Tribune in its 2007 article commemorating the Johnson County War cited Nate Champion as “one of the bravest men in Johnson County for his one-man stand against an army of invaders on April 9, 1892” as a statue was being dedicated to him. Present day sensibilities apparently favor the small ranchers, at least for the present.
Though my current work-in-progress is a contemporary, the feud between the founding families (one a large cattle owner and one a small rancher) has its antecedents in the Wyoming range wars in the late 1800’s. Lots of fodder for romance and adventure, whatever side you choose.
Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at The Wild Rose Press. Or find her at www.facebook.com/annecarrole, www.facebook.com/lovewesternromances or www.annecarrole.com.
New York Times, April 1, 1892; April 14, 1892; April 15, 1892, April 23, 1892
Photos: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson_County_War Public Domain; available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. The Invaders photo taken May 1892 according to the Wyoming State Library.