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Johnson County Range War

In 1891, Johnson County, Wyoming, erupted into a war zone when cattle barons attempted to force homesteaders off of land traditionally used as common grazing ground.

In the early years of Wyoming settlement, most of the land was in the public domain, and it was common for ranchers to let their cattle roam free. Pasture and water rights were usually respected among big and small ranches based on who was first to settle the land (a doctrine known as Prior Appropriation) and the size of the herd. Every spring the ranchers held a roundup where the cows and calves belonging to each ranch were separated and the calves branded. It was not uncommon, however, for a few unscrupulous cowboys to brand calves prior to the roundup and claim them for themselves (or for another ranch). Large ranchers usually defended against this practice by forbidding their employees from owning cattle and by lynching rustlers. But, as more and more homesteaders entered the territory, cattle rustling became more common (according to the ranchers), and large ranching operations began banding together to monopolize ever larger swaths of range land, shutting out newcomers. Disputes between cattle barons, whose herds numbered into the thousands, and small ranchers, most of whom ran just enough cattle to support their families, were inevitable, and those disputes became even more intense after cattle prices began falling in the early 1880's. Further tension was brought on by a severe drought in 1886, followed by a harsh winter in 1886-1887.

On July 20, 1889, Ellen Watson and Jim Averell, whose homesteads were smack in the middle of the barons' customary range, were lynched by six men near the Sweetwater Creek in Carbon County. Newspaper articles that appeared immediately after the lynchings portrayed Watson as a prostitute who accepted cattle for her favors, thus making her an accomplice to cattle theft. Those same articles also accused Averell of cattle rustling, despite the fact that no cattle were found on his property. Later that same year, Johnson County juries acquitted suspects in five cattle theft cases. Cattle barons responded by declaring that it was impossible to convict cattle thieves in Johnson County, regardless of how much evidence against them was produced.

left: Ellen Watson
right: Jim Averell

Ellen Watson Jim Averell

In 1891, a group of cattle barons decided it was time for them to solve their problems with the small ranchers. They began by forming the Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association (WFSGA). The Association then hired about 50 men, including former Johnson County sheriff Frank Canton and a number of known killers from Texas, to eliminate all suspected cattle rustlers in Johnson County. This group's first act was to hang Tom Waggoner, a horse trader from Newcastle. It next turned its attention to Nate Champion, who ran a herd of about 200 cattle on the Middle Fork of the Powder River, whom the barons called "King of the Cattle Thieves," despite the fact that he had never been charged with cattle theft. He also happened to be the head of the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association (NWFSGA), which had been formed to compete with the WFSGA.

Frank Canton
Frank Canton

In the early morning hours of November 1, 1891, five members of the Association "posse" burst into Champion's cabin and demanded that he surrender to them. Gunfire erupted, and by the time the shooting was over two members of the posse had been wounded, one of them mortally. One of the posse members was eventually captured and forced to name all of the members before two witnesses, Powder River ranchers John A. Tisdale and Orley Jones. Johnson County authorities then filed attempted murder charges against Joe Elliott, the attacker identified by Nate Champion, and local newspapers pushed for charges against the cattle barons who had hired the men. That push became stronger after Tisdale and Jones were murdered on December 1, 1891. Elliott was arraigned on February 8, 1892 and bound over for trial on attempted murder. The Association was determined not to let the trial proceed, however.

On April 5, 1892, 52 armed men rode a private, secret train north from Cheyenne. Just outside Casper, they switched to horseback and continued north toward Buffalo, the Johnson County seat. Their mission was to shoot or hang suspected wranglers named on a list carried by Frank Canton. The group traveled to Champion's KC Ranch (now the town of Kaycee, Wyoming) late in the night of April 8, 1892, quietly surrounded the buildings, and waited for daybreak. Three men besides Champion were at the KC, two of whom were captured as they emerged from the cabin early the next morning to collect water at the nearby Powder River, while the third was shot while standing inside the doorway of the cabin and died a few hours later. The attackers eventually set the house on fire, forcing Champion to flee out the back door. As soon as he left the house, Champion was shot by four men. The attackers then pinned a note on Champion's chest that read "Cattle Thieves Beware."

Meanwhile, two passers-by noticed the commotion at Champion's ranch and neighbor Jack Flagg had ridden to Buffalo to alert the sheriff, who raised a posse of some 200 men. The "rescue party" set out for the KC Ranch on the night of April 10, and caught up with the attackers at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek the next morning. The WFSGA psrty took refuge inside a barn on the ranch and was immediately besieged by the posse. Three of the attackers were killed trying to escape the barn, but one man managed to escape and contact the Acting Governor of Wyoming, Amos W. Barber, a cattle baron supporter. On April 12, Barber sent a telegram to President Benjamin Harrison asking that troops be sent to end the siege. The Sixth Cavalry was subsequently dispatched from Fort McKinney, near Buffalo, and reached the ranch early in the morning of April 13. The WFSGA men surrendered to the Cavalry soon after.

the barn in which the WFSGA group took refuge
the barn in which the WFSGA group took refuge

The WFSGA men were taken to Fort D.A. Russell, at Cheyenne, where they received preferential treatment and were allowed to roam the base freely during the day, so long as they promised to voluntarily return to their "jail cells" at night. Although Johnson County officials wanted the men kept at Fort McKinney, the General in charge of the 6th Cavalry believed they would not be safe there. Meanwhilem the Johnson County Attorney began gathering evidence against the men in preparation for filing several counts of murder against them. That evidence directly linked a number of prominent cattle barons with the attackers, and the County Attorney intended to file aiding and abetting charges against them as well. No cattle baron was ever formally charged with any crime related to the assault on the KC Ranch, however, and the assaulters themselves were eventually released on bail and told to return for trial. Most of the attackers left Wyoming Territory, and the Johnson County Attorney ended up having to drop all charges because the county was unwilling to pay the costs of hunting down and prosecuting the men.

the WFSGA 'posse'
the WFSGA 'posse'

SOURCES
Legends of America http://www.legendsofamerica.com/wy-johnsoncountywar.html
Wyoming State Historical Society http://www.wyohistory.org/essays/johnson-county-war
Wyoming Tales and Trails http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/johnson.html

SEE ALSO
President Benjamin Harrison

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> The West >> Wyoming

This page was last updated on April 21, 2017.