Land promoters had spread the news that fortunes could be made by homesteading free land and raising cattle in the American West. The wealthy and privileged in the East, Britain and Europe heard about it and rushed to cash in. So too did small-time American settlers looking for a new life.
With more and more homesteaders coming in and competing for the same resources, trouble was inevitable at a time when there was little law and order. Courts were unsophisticated; judges and lawyers often had little or no legal training, and there weren’t enough lawmen to handle the law enforcement needed.
In 1872, about a hundred of the big ranchers — the Cheyenne-based cattle barons — established the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) to protect their interests. Those interests were mainly acquiring more land, access to water, grazing rights on the open range, and protection against cattle rustlers and horse thieves.
The small ranchers and farmers had little protection for their interests, and their law and order increasingly became the bullet, vigilante justice and the hangman’s noose. But some of them were rustlers too.
Sadly, the big cattle owners had no problem defending their interests with unapologetic violence, greed, chicanery and corruption. All of that would lead to the Johnson County War in 1892 — a range war in north-central Wyoming that lasted only two days but now is famous in Western lore — with similar conflicts happening throughout the Wild, Wild West of the 1800s.
Troubles in Johnson County may have started with the bitterly cold winter of 1880-81, when cattle couldn’t dig for grass through the deep snow and died — and another freezing winter five years later. Ranchers addressed the problem by growing hay — which made water rights worth fighting over.
Acquiring those rights brought out the worst in ranchers — big and small. The big boys were quick to label the small ranchers as rustlers if they got in their way — and dealt with them accordingly.
There was little doubt that the locals were on the side of the small ranchers, with juries routinely acquitting accused rustlers. However, one report said later evidence showed many of those cases were motivated “by huge reward money and a frantic determination by owners of big herds to punish owners of small herds who claimed rights to grazing on public land.”
Then the sheep ranchers moved in, eating up more of the grasslands and further enraging the cattle barons. The WSGA decided it was time to punish anyone that got in its way.
They did it with hired guns, bullets, ropes, political influence and corrupt courts.
Ellen “Ella” Watson (“Cattle Kate”) and her husband Jim Averell controlled a mile of water along Horse Creek and fenced off about 60 acres with barbed wire.
When they wouldn’t sell out to cattle baron Albert John Bothwell, their neighbor, he and five others hanged them the hard way: With nooses around their necks and hands and feet left untied, they were simply pushed off a boulder and allowed to dangle — struggling and gasping for air until they tired and choked to death.
Hanging a woman in the Old West was an event to remember.
“In the 1880s, the cattle barons in Johnson County and across Wyoming Territory ruled their customary ranges like private fiefdoms,” wrote Wyoming Historical Society writer John W. Davis, and one of those barons was Alexander Hamilton Swan.
He came to Wyoming from Pennsylvania in the 1870s and established the Swan Land and Cattle Company, raising 110,000 head of cattle on more than a million acres from 90 miles east of Cheyenne to 90 miles northwest.
He sold that company to Scottish investors for $2,550,825, and then started four more.
Further plaguing the cattle ranchers was the freezing winter of 1886-87 that struck Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, western Nebraska, and western Kansas, killing 300,000 to 400,000 cattle in Wyoming alone. The scorching hot and dry summer that followed killed thousands more.
Beef prices nosedived as tension on the open range mounted. Alexander Swan’s days as a cattle baron ended when he was sued by his own corporation and thrown out for mismanagement. He died in obscurity in Ogden, Utah in 1905.
With water rights a big issue, the WSGA for years cleverly homesteaded odd numbered plots of land and fenced them off — effectively blocking owner access to even-numbered parcels and often to water.
Further flexing their muscles, the big stockmen introduced rules that required all ranchers to have their brands registered and approved by the WSGA. Then they blocked small cattlemen seeking to comply.
That made it nearly impossible for many small ranchers to participate in the annual cattle roundups when all the herds co-mingling on the open range were sorted out by brands and shipped to market. (Ella and Jim were denied registering brands five times over three years.)
The WSGA also had a law passed that gave them ownership of unbranded cattle called “mavericks,” and calves that had been orphaned or separated from their mothers and mixed in with other herds. They could be bought at auction, but only by Association members.
Next on the WSGA hit-list was Tom Waggoner, another small rancher who got in their way.
He was accused of stealing horses from Elias Whitecomb’s Standard Cattle Company. Suspicion arose when he was said to have made up to $70,000 while still living in a two-room cabin — one room being a stable. Then he put up money to help his pal “Jimmy the Butcher” start his meat business. Jimmy was arrested for rustling and Waggoner bailed him out of jail.
In 1891, vigilantes murdered both of them. Tom Waggoner “was hanged and his body left for the maggots.”
Finally, the little ranchers fought back and in 1892 established their own group called Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association, led by a tough gun-totin’ cowboy named Nathan D. Champion who was considered an honest businessman. He was voted their leader without his being there.
It was his death warrant.
He owned the KC Ranch near Buffalo in Johnson County. It was a small operation with only about 200 head of cattle and eight pack horses. But he was a thorn in the side of the WSGA because he was president of the rival ranch and farm Association. The cattle barons decided he needed to be removed.
What followed would be called the Johnson County War.
The Johnson County seat was Buffalo — a rowdy frontier town where Nate Champion lived.
The cattle barons organized an army made up of 52 landowners and hired gunmen that included known killers from Texas. Commanded by (Civil War) Major Frank Wolcott, they were called the “Regulators” or “Invaders.”
On April 5, 1892, they left Cheyenne and headed for Buffalo. Their mission was to shoot or hang 70 men on a list carried by Frank M. Canton, a former Johnson County sheriff. The list included W.E. “Red” Angus, the current county sheriff, who was sympathetic to the small ranchers.
Along the way, they cut the telegraph wires so that no one could spread the alarm that they were coming.
Four days later, they attacked Nate Champion’s ranch cabin. Two passing trappers were captured at the nearby creek, and in a shootout at the cabin, cowboy Rueben “Nick” Ray was killed. Nate held out for hours — killing four gunmen and wounding several others.
He knew the end was near and wrote his last thoughts down in an old notebook. Then the Invaders torched the cabin, and he was shot and killed trying to escape.
The next day, Sheriff Angus and a posse of 200 trapped Wolcott’s gunmen at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman’s Creek. During the standoff, Territorial Acting Governor Amos W. Barber — who supported the cattle barons — wired President Benjamin Harrison that an insurrection was taking place.
After some communication delays, the nearby 6th Cavalry rescued the Invaders and took them to Cheyenne.
In Cheyenne, the Texan killers jumped bail and disappeared. The rest never were brought to trial as history repeated itself by witnesses mysteriously disappearing — and the county claiming it had no money to continue legal action.
The Johnson County War was over, but Wyoming rustling and hangings continued into the 20th century and the WSGA remains to this day.
Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The terrible winter of 1886-87…
The animals knew it was coming—their fur was thicker than usual, beavers collected more wood, and birds flew south early. Temperatures dropped to as low as 63 degrees below zero, with snow sometimes falling an inch per hour for 16 hours.
The freeze swept across the northern ranges in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Some people froze to death close their front doors, and spring thaws revealed dead cattle everywhere.
“Starving cattle staggered through village streets and collapsed and died in dooryards.” In Great Falls, 5,000 cattle invaded the outskirts “bawling for food” and eating up gardens.
Value of frost-bitten surviving cattle plummeted and many ranchers went bankrupt.
Nate Champion’s last words…
While he was being attacked, Nate Champion made notes in his journal: "Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once."
His last entry said, "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."
His body was riddled with 28 bullets.
Johnson County War’s last casualty…
Nate Champion was attacked once before but fought off the assassins, killing one of them as the others escaped. Later he had an altercation with rancher Mike Shonsey whom he suspected of being one of the attackers and demanded he reveal the names of the others.
The hatred that followed played out the year after Nate Champion was murdered, when his brother Dudley came to Wyoming looking for work—or to avenge his brother’s death (according to some sources). While walking across Shonsey’s land fifteen miles from town, he was shot and killed in cold blood.
A coroner's inquiry called it self-defense and Shonsey was acquitted of murder.
Dudley Champion was the last person killed associated with the Johnson County War.
Witness to the hanging…
Jim Averell’s foreman Frank Buchanan saw the hanging of his boss and wife Ella but couldn’t stop it. He was ready to testify at a trial, but before the six killers were to face justice in court, he disappeared and was believed murdered. Other potential witnesses feared for their lives and refused to testify, and several died under mysterious circumstances. The killers got away with it.
The original wire for help to President Harrison didn’t go through, so Wyoming Acting Territorial Governor Amos Barber contacted Wyoming Republican senators Francis E. Warren and Joseph Carey to contact the President, which they did—rousting him out of bed.
Johnson County locals didn’t like Harrison sending federal troops to stop their sheriff from going after the lawless Invaders and their sponsors, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
The cattle barons were mostly Republicans, so the irate locals tossed the two Republican senators out at the next election. Democrats took over the Wyoming House, in the days when state legislatures elected their federal senators, and were able to block GOP candidates.
Their joy didn’t last long, however. The election of 1894 brought ousted Republican Senator Warren back to Washington, D.C. and he stayed there another 34 years.
Legacy of print and movies…
Range wars like the Johnson County War pitting competing interests against each and resulting in violence happened many times across the Old West. The Wyoming war or parts of it appeared in many Hollywood movies, including:
The Banditti of the Plains book by Asa Shinn Mercer (1894)
The Virginian novel by Owen Wister (1902)
The Rustler novel by Frances McElrath (1902)
Shane novel by Jack Shaeffer (1949)
True Grit novel by Charles Portis (1968)
The Redhead from Wyoming starring Maureen O’Hara (1953)
Heaven’s Gate starring Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken (1980)
Johnson County War, starring Tom Berenger and Burt Reynolds
Johnson County WY rancher Nate Champion (1857-1892).
Johnson County War “Invaders” that included killers from Texas (1892).
Frank M. Canton, former Johnson County sheriff was part of "Invaders" gang of killers.
KC Ranch, Johnson County, WY where the "Invaders" surrendered to 6th Cavalry.
PUBLIC DOMAIN PAINTING BY CHARLES M. RUSSELL
Overgrazing and two harsh winters in Wyoming during the 1880s played role in causing the Johnson County War.
BUFFALO, WYO., CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
Johnson County, Wyoming today.