Johnson County Cattle War
The Johnson County Cattle War and the characters involved are a remarkable convergence of fact and folklore. Even to this day, friendly controversy among families in Johnson County remains as to which characters were heroes or villains. No doubt both sides felt righteous. Tom Horn, Butch Cassidy and Nate Champion were a few notable characters in the evolution of Johnson County. Needless to say, the situations that transpired as a part of the Cattle Wars fed dime novels and molded Johnson County into what it is today - America"s cowboy heartland.
To better understand the nature of the conflict you must understand the values of the time. For the most part, the Powder River region was lawless. What did comprise the law walked a fine line between right and wrong. Some of the areas greatest heroes were lawmen. Likewise, some of the areas greatest villains were lawmen.
After the Civil War, many former soldiers and settlers moved west to search for gold, evade southern persecution, and to seek their fortune in ranching and mining. The Powder River region had long belonged to Native Americans and they would put up courageous fights at such places as Fort Phil Kearny, Little Bighorn, Rosebud and Red Fork in a futile attempt to save their land. These battles, along with the harsh winters and the area"s remoteness, molded settlers into a unique breed. That breed remains evident in the lives and values of the descendants of the original settlers.
"Don"t ask - Don"t tell" was a common theme. As long as those on the run from the law paid their respect to local common laws, no one questioned their activities outside of the state, or region for that matter. Furthermore, posses and lawmen soon discovered that locals would generally not aid in the apprehension of the more lawless element. Ideal hideouts, such as the Hole-in-the-Wall and the Outlaw Cave, provided natural protection that no posse would dare challenge. Such names as Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Flat Nose George Curry were considered valued members and friends in the community. Several owned and maintained local ranches during the "off season". Those that knew Butch Cassidy remarked on his kindness and loyalty to neighbors. No one cared that Cassidy and his kind were wanted men. In the minds of most locals, the outlaws fought the establishment that threatened their way of life.
Wyoming boasts some of the nation"s finest grazing lands. It was this fertile grassland that lured ranchers from foreign countries and back east, who had the capital and investors, to bring in livestock and cowboys. It was not long before the larger eastern and European livestock corporations began to be gobbled up by small ranches and homesteaders. The mix of large ranchers and small struggling homesteaders was to serve as a catalyst for disaster. The winter of 1887 was terrible. Problems arose out of the loss of open range. Larger ranchers attempted to dominate the range by appropriating it for themselves on a "customary use" basis. Fences were raised and water was diverted with little concern for others. Many small ranchers turned to rustling to survive on a 320 acre homestead. The small ranchers thus pushed the big foreign ranchers to a point that they reacted with violence.
The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) sprang up as a membership of large and corporate ranches. The WSGA had much influence on Wyoming territorial government and gained a legal right to set the dates of the spring cattle roundup; they tightly controlled which outfits would be allowed to participate. If you were not a member of WSGA you could not legally brand a maverick - you were a rustler in the laws eyes. But in most cases, the law was the WSGA. It is important to note that the regulations established by the WSGA were later ruled unconstitutional.
Keep in mind that much of the government land was free range for all to use. In the spring, ranchers, large and small, would participate in roundups. Ranchers would attempt to gather their branded cattle and identify their own maverick (unbranded) calves. Small ranchers knew that if the WSGA controlled roundup season that their calves would be captured and branded as an unowned "strays".
Cowboys who were suspected of branding mavericks for themselves were blacklisted and precluded from obtaining employment with any member of the WSGA. Small ranchers found it difficult to participate in the roundups. Each roundup crew was known as a "wagon." In the 1883 Powder River roundup some 27 wagons participated, but by 1887 there were only four, the smaller ranches being eliminated. Regardless of such efforts to stop rustling, the problem continued. In Johnson County, as an example, there was the "Hole-in-the-Wall," wherein resided various outlaws who preyed on cattle interests such as J. M. Carey's CY Ranch. Johnson County ranchers were predominately small growers. In fact, Buffalo was considered the headquarter city for the small cattlemen; Cheyenne was controlled by the WSGA.
In July, 1890 Wyoming became the 44th state - a cattle state. Times worsened for the small ranchers. Ranchers depended on mavericks to replenish sales and to build herds. If ranchers could not participate in roundups then they either folded their ranch or chose to fight back.
In the spring of 1892, two years after Wyoming became a state, a group of small ranchers in Johnson County formed the upstart Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association. They scheduled their own roundup in advance of the official roundup organized and authorized by the WSGA. They appointed Nate Champion, who had a widespread reputation for cattle rustling, as roundup foreman. Keep in mind that any small cattleman was depicted as a rustler even if they only separated their mavericks during roundup.
Losing what was left of their patience, the members of the WSGA decided to settle the matter once and for all. Member Frank Wolcott had been agitating for some type of action and the previous summer had suggested the possibility of having a "lynching bee." Two days after their annual meeting at the Cheyenne Club, about twenty ranch owners and foremen, along with five stock detectives, a reporter for the Chicago Herald, and twenty-two hired Texas gunmen (mostly unemployed sheriffs and U.S. marshals) boarded a train for Casper. The invaders had a hit list of 70 small ranchers/rustlers whose careers they intended to end. They planned to take over the town of Buffalo and administer "justice" from there. After cutting the telegraph line to keep word of their invasion from going ahead of them, they headed north from Casper on horseback, supply wagons following.
Perhaps the most notable gunfight happened at the KC ranch in the current city of Kaycee. The KC was not a large ranch. Nate Champion ran only about 200 head of cattle, far less than many of the large ranchers who belonged to the WSGA. The Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association had been formed by small stock growers in response to the monopoly of the WSGA. Champion had been elected even though he had not attended its organizational meeting. He had the deepest respect for local cattlemen. The small ranchers proposed a spring round up a month ahead of the roundup scheduled by the WSGA. On the morning of April 9, 1892, Rueben "Nick" Ray and Nate Champion were besieged by an army of about 50 cattlemen and Texas "Invaders", gunmen who had come to Johnson County to clean out "rustlers." Champion and Ray were two names of seventy on the invader"s hit list but their actions would serve to stir up a hornets nest.
Outnumbered and surprised, Ray was the first to die. Amazingly, Nate Champion kept a journal of his thoughts and actions while the battle lasted (see below). Late in the morning, after being held off for a number of hours, the invaders torched Champion"s cabin, but not before being seen by locals who raced back to Buffalo with the news. Finally Champion was forced to make a run for it and died in a hail of gunfire. The "impartial" Chicago news reporter, Sam Clover, who had accompanied the invaders wrote a note and pinned it to Champions bloody chest - "Cattle thieves, beware."
As the invaders ate, thinking they would have little trouble taking Buffalo, Buffalo residents began forming a large posse. The following day, on April 10, the Buffalo posse cornered the invaders at the TA ranch. For three days a gunfight ensued. Had it not been for the intervention of the U.S. Army, it is likely the invaders would have encountered the same end as Champion.
The invaders surrendered to the Army and were sent to Ft. Fetterman and later released on their own recognizance. The Texans jumped bail and returned to Texas. In 1893 the case against the invaders was dropped because of an apparently orchestrated lack of witnesses and the County"s lack of funds to prosecute such a large group.
Later, the laws the WSGA enacted along with the governor were declared unconstitutional - but not soon enough to keep Johnson County from a financial catastrophe.
Nate Champion Diary
(He jots down his thoughts while waiting for his death)
On Champion's person was found a diary soaked with his heart's blood, through the center which a bullet had torn its resistless way. Seeing the game was up, the outlaw had calmly jotted down in a memorandum book the passing scenes the last hours of his life, from the time of the attack in the early morning down to the moment the house was fired. It is of thrilling interest and begins:
April 10, 1892
Me and Nick were getting breakfast when the attack took place. Two men were with us, Bill Jones and another man. The old man went after water and did not come back. His friend went to see what the matter was and he did not come back. Nick started and I told him to look out, that I thought there was someone at the stable and would not let them come back. Nick is shot but not dead yet. He is awfully 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 and are all around the house. Boy's, there are bullets coming in like hail. Them fellows are in such shape that I can't get at them. They are shooting from the stable and river at the back of the house. Nick is dead. He died about 9 o:clock. I see smoke at the stable. I think they have fired it. I don't think they intended to let me get away this time.
It is now noon. There is someone at the stable yet. They are throwing a rope out, at the door, and drawing it out.
I guess it is to draw me out. I wish that duck would go farther so that I could get a shot at him, boys. I don't know what they have done with them two fellows that stayed 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 2 o:clock now. There was a man in a buckboard and one on horse back that had just passed. They fired on them as they went by. I don't know if they killed them or not. I have seen lots of men come on horses on the other side of the river after them. I shot at them in the stable just know, don't know if I got any or not. I must go and look out again. It doesn't look like as if there is much show of my getting away. I see twelve
or fifteen men. One looks like (name scratched). I don't know if it is or not. I hope they did not catch them fellows that ran over the bridge toward Smith's.
They are shooting at the house now. If I had a pair of glasses I might know some of these men. I've got to look out.
Well, they have just gotten through shelling the house again like hail. I hear them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes if I live. It's not night yet. The house it all fired.
Good bye boys, if I never see you again.
Nathan D. Champion