The entire purpose of European exploration and settlement/colonization was to discover new lands and harvest their resources toward the accumulation of wealth, power, and prestige. The world’s colonial empires were humongous, and like the vast expanse of the Roman Empire two-thousand years ago, they became much too large to govern from a central location. To solve this problem, Great Britain, France, and Spain appointed governors to control these lands. Even so, after hundreds of years, the colonists sent to populate these vast regions developed new identities. British colonists in North America became Americans, the British and French in the extreme northern part of North America became Canadians, and the Spanish in Mexico became Mexicans. Colonial revolutions, when they came, had less to do with pursuing liberty than it did shifting wealth and power from old to new political bodies.
In the wake of the American Revolution, the US Congress passed the Ordinance of 1785, a protocol for the development of the western territories, all of which “belonged” either to native Americans or were claimed by European competitors. The fight had been going on for some time before the Revolutionary period. In the newly created United States, western territories were to be settled and incorporated as townships. The protocol specified that townships were to be accorded 640 acres of land. The expectation was that no one farmer would be able to afford all 640 acres and that groups of farmers from the same region would join together to form new political entities and then everyone would live happily ever after.
The problem was, however, that not everyone supported the underlying philosophy about how this should work. In the 1790s, the federalist party favored selling large tracts of land to wealthy speculators, who bought up parcels of land, paying in cash, with the expectation that the rising value of land would bring them massive profits. For the most part, it did. The law back then established the minimum purchase of land would involve 640 acres at a minimum price of $2.00 per acre. This is how the early governments filled their treasuries.
Thomas Jefferson didn’t agree. He reversed the law in 1800 to provide the minimum purchase of land at 320 acres; slashed again to 160 acres in 1804, 80 acres in 1820, and 40 acres in 1832. By then, the cost of an acre of land was one dollar. This also explains the interest people developed in relocating to Texas, where an acre of land only cost around sixty-five cents, payable in six years. Despite the efforts of American politicians, land speculation remained an influential aspect of westward expansion. Between 1815 and 1819, greed caused an explosion of speculative activity, not all of it aboveboard. The sale of public land increased 1,000 times over what it had been between 1811 and 1814.
There were other problems beside land fraud and the outright theft of land, such as was stolen from the Cherokee nation in Georgia and the Carolinas. One problem had to do with squatters —people who just settled on land without ever purchasing it, and then, after several years, assuming that they were entitled to it. Squatters even formed associations to prevent speculators from bidding up the price of land and petitioned Congress to grant them the right to purchase land they already occupied —at a minimum price, of course. The Preemption Act of 1841 addressed the issue of squatters but settlers continued to suffer high prices and high interest on credit at the hands of speculators. This in turn pushed farmers into commodity farming and, some argue, helped to establish the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Kansas and Nebraska territories were largely settled through pre-emption claims.
All of this was pure politics, of course. The government needed revenue, and land was how they intended to obtain it. Land acquisition is what motivated Jefferson to make the Louisiana Purchase. It is impossible for a country, like the United States, to claim territory that its people do not occupy. Land acquisition not only put money into the federal treasury, it was also the catalyst for westward migration, which placed Americans in conflict with French/Spanish colonies, native Indians, British interests in the American northwest, and finally, fighting among themselves.
Conflict over land was a common occurrence in the Old West, but it was particularly prevalent in the late 19th century when large tracts of land were squatted upon by wealthy cattle barons who sought to deny access to these public lands by migrating families —despite the fact that the government encouraged western expansion through homestead acts and the so-called land rushes. In the early days of its settlement, Wyoming was a US territory; its land was in the public domain. Ostensibly, it was a vast range open to common use for livestock and subsistence farming.
The people who acted as though the range belonged to them, and who controlled it for many years, were members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA), a cattlemen’s association. Through mutual agreement, cattlemen would loosen their vast herds (horses and cattle) for grazing on the open range. In the spring, the cattlemen would round up their cattle, organize them according to ownership (determined by unique brands) and lead them off to stockyards for profit. To be clear, these cattlemen didn’t own title to the land, and they never paid a dime in taxes for the use of it. They were squatters who controlled the land, and access to water, by force of arms.
To put this into perspective, Wyoming is the 10th largest state in land area and the least populated. After Wyoming gained statehood in 1890, the number of homesteaders (also called grangers) increased. Competition for access to the range (and its water resources) evolved into open conflict when cattle barons organized against homesteaders (farmers and small ranchers). The fear of an encroachment by outsiders was so great that the cattle barons even prohibited their employees from owning cattle.
Over a short period of time, three competing interests evolved in Wyoming: large ranchers, small ranchers, and grangers. The situation grew worse in 1886-87 when a series of winter blizzards and sub-zero temperatures were followed by an extremely hot and dry summer. Thousands of cattle perished, and large ranches began appropriating land and water resources for their exclusive use. The cattlemen’s associations did this by resorting to such harsh tactics setting fire to homesteader’s houses and barns, trampling their crops, threatening their lives, and denying the range to small ranchers. They justified these activities by claiming that small ranchers and farmers were rustling cattle and stealing horses.
Unfortunately, the state legislature and courts were firmly aligned with the cattle barons, evidenced by the Wyoming Maverick Act. The act stated that all unbranded cattle discovered on the open range automatically belonged to the cattlemen’s association. Thus, any small rancher found with an unbranded calf was regarded as a cow thief. Even worse, the stock grower’s associations excluded small ranchers from association membership, thus achieving power over the “have nots.”
Generally, small ranchers were not cattle rustlers, but such men and organizations did exist in both Wyoming and Montana. On an open range, people were able to help themselves to unattended cattle and well-armed outfits of horse and cattle rustlers roamed across portions of Wyoming and Montana. Outlaws taking refuge in the Hole-in-the-Wall also participated in rustling activities.
Vigilantes, range detectives, and professional gunslingers were hired by cattlemen’s associations to protect their stock against rustlers beginning in the early 1880s. It was convenient to the associations to classify small ranchers and homesteaders as rustlers as a means of clearing the range of all such persons. One of the men who played a prominent role in this campaign was Johnson County Sheriff (and county judge) Frank Canton. Frank Canton was one of the old west’s more dangerous gunman that few people have ever heard about —a man who played fast and loose on both sides of the law over many years and one of a very few of such men that actually died from old age.
On 20 July 1889, a range detective named George Henderson accused Ellen Watson, one of the small ranchers, of stealing cattle from Albert J. Bothwell. Bothwell was a wealthy neighbor who owned no land beyond where his home was situated but had pestered Ellen about selling her spread. In any case, the cattlemen’s association sent gunmen to seize Watson before capturing her husband, Jim Averell. Both Ellen and Jim were found hanging from a tree (it was one of the few times in the old west when a woman was lynched). Local residents were appalled by the hanging, which served as a catalyst for future violence. US Marshal Frank Hadsell arrested six men for the lynching, including Bothwell, and a trial date was set. Before the trial convened, however, witnesses started received threats. One of these witnesses, a man named Gene Crowder, mysteriously disappeared. Jim Averell’s nephew, Frank Buchanan, who served as Averell’s ranch foreman, also disappeared. Another Averell nephew, Ralph Cole, died on the day of trial from poisoning.
The cattlemen’s association soon learned that violence was a two-edge sword because local (small) ranchers began fighting back. Ranch detective George Henderson was murdered near Sweetwater Creek in October 1890. Among the cattle barons, this was a sign that they needed to tighten their grip on these interlopers. Tom Waggoner, a horse trader from Newcastle, was lynched in June 1891. Waggoner’s friend, a fellow everyone knew as Jimmy the Butcher, was found murdered. When range detective Tom Smith killed a suspected cattle rustler, local authorities charged him with murder, but the Cattlemen arranged to have the charges dropped.
For a time, violence subsided and the cattlemen’s prominence on the Wyoming range continued undisputed. Then, small ranchers created the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Grower’s Association (NWFSGA) under a cowboy named Nate Champion. Upon learning of this, the WSGA focused their attention on Champion as a threat to its state-wide hold on stock interests. The WSGA declared every member of the NWFSGA blacklisted and excluded its members from WSGA sponsored roundups.
Rather than disbanding, the NWFSGA announced its plan to hold their own roundup in the spring of 1892. Shortly after, the WSGA sent gunmen to kill Nate Champion. The assassins found Champion and Ross Gilbertson asleep in a cabin at the Middle Fork of the Powder River. Two or three of these men quietly entered the cabin with revolvers in hand. Champion awoke, grabbed his six-shooter from under his pillow, and a firefight erupted. Champion shot two of these men, one of them, a fellow named Billy Lykins, mortally wounded. The other gunmen, however many there were, fled from the scene. Champion and Gilbertson escaped injury, but a week later, two local ranchers and members of the NWFSGA named John A. Tisdale and Orley “Ranger” Jones were ambushed and killed by persons unknown.
The head of the WSGA was a North Platte rancher named Frank Wolcott. Early in 1892, Wolcott sent agents to Texas and Idaho to recruit gunmen. Wolcott and the WSGA did not intend to intimidate the grangers of Johnson County; Wolcott intended to eliminate them —and the NWFSGA. Prominent Wyoming men began taking sides. Governor Amos Barber, in supporting the WSGA, blamed the small ranchers and farmers for the increase in rustling and assassinations. Barber was joined by his friends and fellow Republicans State Senator Bob Tisdale, Water Commissioner W. J. Clarke, and William C. Irvine and Herbert Teshemacher, both of whom had been instrumental in organizing statehood for Wyoming in 1890. These men were joined by surgeon Charles B. Penrose and Ed Towse (a reporter for the Cheyenne Sun), and a reporter for the Chicago Herald named Sam T. Clover. Clover’s account of the Johnson County War later appeared in eastern newspapers. In total, the WSGA paid fifty mercenaries with Frank Canton appointed to lead them.
The Canton expedition targeted 70 of Johnson County’s “lesser” residents for murder, whether lynched or shot didn’t matter. Meanwhile, in Cheyenne, Wolcott organized a second group of assassins that he brought in from Idaho. They proceeded by train to Casper, Wyoming and then by horse to Johnson County. En route, they cut telegraph lines to isolate Johnson County from the rest of the state.
On the side of local deplorables was Johnson County Sheriff William G. “Red” Angus. Angus supported homesteaders because he was convinced that the WSGA was engaged in a campaign to steal their land.
Because Wolcott’s assassins had failed to kill Nate Champion in WSGA’s first attempt, Wolcott marked Champion as the first mark in his murderous campaign. Champion was located at the K C (Kaycee) Ranch. The Wolcott’s gunmen arrived at the ranch late on Friday, 8 April 1892. They quietly surrounded the buildings and grounds and waited for daylight. As it happened, three other men were at the Kaycee Ranch besides Nate Champion. Two of these men were travelers, who had stopped over for the night. When they emerged from their cabin to collect water the next morning, WSGA gunmen captured them. The third man was Nick Ray, who gunmen shot and mortally wounded while he was standing just inside the doorway of the cabin. Champion dragged him back inside the building and closed the door. Nick Ray died a few hours later.
The gunfight at Kaycee Ranch lasted for several hours. Four WSGA gunmen lay dead and three others were seriously wounded. Homesteader Jack Flagg and his stepson heard the shooting and went over to Kaycee Ranch on his buckboard to investigate. When the gunmen spotted Flagg, several men were sent after him. Flagg made a hasty withdrawal through a hail of gunfire, returning fire with his rifle and beating back his attackers. Flagg and his son made a beeline for Buffalo.
Nate kept a journal throughout the siege of Kaycee Ranch, noting that the killers were getting ready to fire the house. When Champion made his break from the back door of the house, a rifleman shot him dead. When his body was discovered later, a note had been pinned to his vest stating simply “Cattle Thieves Beware.” Champion was still holding his six-shooter in one hand, and a hunting knife in the other.
Arriving in Buffalo, Jack Flagg reported Champion’s situation to Sheriff Angus. Over the next 24-hours, Angus raised a posse of two-hundred men. He led them to the Kaycee Ranch on Sunday night, 10 April.
The WSGA planned to take over the town of Buffalo on Monday, 11 April but warned of the approaching posse, Wolcott’s gunmen rode instead to the TA Ranch near Crazy Woman Creek. In the excitement of setting up a defensive perimeter, Jim Dudley’s horse bucked, causing him to drop his rifle. When the weapon hit the ground, it discharged a bullet into Dudley’s knee. Dudley was transported to Fort McKinney for treatment, but he died several days later from gangrene poisoning.
After discovering Champion’s body, the Angus posse pursued Wolcott’s gunmen to the TC Ranch. Angus directed his deputies to surround the ranch. He ordered the Wolcott gang’s corralled horses shot to prevent their escape. The siege lasted three days. According to an article that appeared in the New York Times, the Sheriff’s posse prevented an escape attempt by twenty gunmen, seven being killed in the effort. As Texas gunman Alex Lowther attempted to belly-crawl out of the line of fire, his own weapon accidentally discharged, shooting him in the groin. His death, within a few hours, wasn’t an easy one.
While the siege was underway, one of the deputies rode to Fort McKinney and asked to borrow one of their field cannons. The army turned him down. The request must have alerted the soldiers that something was going on, but there was no immediate reaction by the Army to intervene. With their request rebuffed, local blacksmith Rap Brown attempted to build his own cannon. His first test fire ended Brown’s interest in any second attempt. His next brainstorm involved the construction of a siege engine —a large bullet resistant wagon that he believed would help the posse get close enough to the barn to throw sticks of dynamite. Judging from the picture (at right) of the barn at the TA Ranch, which remained after the siege, Brown’s dynamite plan must not have worked out very well, either.
Gunman Mike Shonsey managed to slip away. He contacted Governor Barber, who pulled out all stops to save the WSGA. Late on the night of 12 April, Barber telegraphed President Benjamin Harrison with a plea for federal intervention. Harrison granted Barber’s request and ordered the Secretary of War, Stephen B. Elkins, to employ the army. Elkins in turn ordered the Sixth Cavalry from Fort McKinney to take the WSGA into custody.
Fort McKinney’s commander, Colonel J. J. Van Horn, led elements of the 6th Cavalry to the TA Ranch, arriving at 0645 on the morning of 13 April. After negotiating with Sheriff Angus, the siege was lifted with the understanding that the gunmen would be turned over to civil authority. Van Horn then arrested Wolcott and 45 other men, confiscated their weapons and 5,000 rounds of ammunition, and escorted them back to Fort McKinney. Eventually, Wolcott and his men were transferred under guard to Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne because the Laramie County jail was of insufficient size to hold all the accused.
The Army’s treatment of these men became a source of irritation to the Johnson County authorities. Wolcott and his gunmen were granted on-post liberty so long as they promised to return to the stockade at night before Taps. One concern for the Army Commander at Fort Russell was the number of partisans who began forming in Cheyenne and gathering outside Fort Russell’s gates.
As Johnson County officials began the task of investigating the incident, details of the WSGA assassination plan emerged in the press. Frank Canton’s valise contained a list of seventy citizens who were targeted for murder, a list of ranch houses that Walcott’s gunmen had burned, and the contract that offered to pay the gunmen their wages. Twenty prominent stockmen in Cheyenne, the State Capitol, were implicated in the conspiracy along with men from Omaha, Nebraska.
One might assume that these men were in serious legal jeopardy, but it also emerged that these accused persons had highly placed friends and sympathizers in Wyoming’s state government. Charges against the most prominent cattlemen were never filed, the Texans and Idaho men were offered bail on condition that they promised to return for trail. None of those fellows were ever seen in Wyoming again. When Johnson County officials refused to pay the costs of prosecution, state attorneys dropped all charges against the WSGA.
Tensions remained high in Johnson County, however. While en route to Buffalo with two companions, US Marshal George Wellman was ambushed and killed by unknown assailants on 9 May 1892. Wellman’s death received national press coverage because it was an assault on the federal judiciary. Wellman, however, was later identified as one of Wolcott’s mercenaries. The violence prompted the Army to assign elements of the 6th Cavalry to Buffalo to maintain the peace. What made this a bad decision was the fact that local residents suspected the Army of being in cahoots with the WSGA. Soldiers on patrol were frequently shot at by unknown persons. At Fort McKinney, someone set fire to the post exchange and planted a bomb in the enlisted men’s barracks. An officer was seriously injured when the bomb went off.
Realizing that the 6th Cavalry had failed in its mission, the Army ordered in elements of the 9th Cavalry, which only made matters worse owing to the fact that the town harbored racial biases toward black soldiers. In one incident, a gunfight erupted between the Buffalo Soldiers and townspeople. Only after the Army sent in an additional two detachments did the violence subside. Still, it wasn’t over.
In late September 1892, two alleged horse thieves were shot and killed by range detectives east of the Big Horn River. The detectives managed to evade the law with the help of Otto Frank, a rancher affiliated with the WSGA. Then, on 24 May 1893, Dudley Champion, Nate’s brother, went to Wyoming looking for work. He was murdered by Mike Shonsey, who in claiming self-defense, was exonerated by a coroner’s inquest. There was never any evidence that Dudley Champion went to Wyoming looking for revenge. In any case, he was the last man killed in the Johnson County War.
Hatred is a difficult thing to cure —and so it was in Wyoming. Emotions ran high for many years after the Johnson County War and there appeared to be only two groups: those who believed that the WSGA were heroes, and those who suffered the result of the WSGA’s campaign of murder, arson, and mayhem —who knew it wasn’t so.
Several myths arose from the Johnson County War that had the effect of defending both sides of the conflict. The WSGA attempted to paint Ellen Watson as a prostitute (which is something men do whenever the find themselves confronted by a female adversary), and Jim Averell, her husband, as her pimp. They were no such thing. It is true that men frequented the Watson home, but the reason was that Ellen earned extra money as a seamstress mending the torn or tattered clothing of local stockmen. Another myth was that because Nate Champion wore a red sash, he was likely associated with outlaws. Champion did wear a red sash, but this was common in the late 1800s and he had no affiliation with criminal gangs.
There were also allegations that the WSGA and its members were Democrats who sought to diminish the homesteaders in the way that Democrats have always denigrated racial or economic minorities. Others claimed that the WSGA were a group of out-of-control Republicans and pointed to President Harrison’s involvement as proof. The hatred among these groups could not have been more palpable. In Wyoming, as with other states, political dominance is a regional phenomenon. Overall, however, Wyoming has been predominantly Republican since 1890. Johnson County, on the other hand, as remained an enclave for Democrats for many years.
Civil War reconstruction ended in 1877 but even in the early 1880s, cattle prices remained low, there being less demand for beef than for pork. The 1880s was also a time when “range management” was beginning to emerge as a solution to over-grazing. Large ranches did suffer the effects of “mavericking” and rustling. The WSGA did, of course, get out of hand in the 1890s, but the organization did have a legitimate concern about lost revenues through horse and cattle theft. Likewise, small ranchers had good reason to fear or resent the political and economic power of the cattle barons.
The events associated with the Johnson County War resulted from (by then) the age-old debate between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. The situation pitted the wealthy against the modest, the settled and self-important against the migrant, the influential against the obscure, and the powerful against the powerless. The cattle barons didn’t own the land, but they controlled it and did not accept the notion of they might have to share the “open range” with inferior Johnny-come-latelies.
The short-term economic result of the land rights dispute in Wyoming as the end of the open range and the emergence of large cattle corporations (which continue to exist today), now joined by corporate farming, both of which control the price of food sold in local supermarkets.
There is no shortage of examples of class warfare in American history, including recent examples. Differences in race, gender, education, wealth, sexual orientation, religion, and geographical or regional attitudes continue to divide Americans. Our politicians, low creatures that they are, never fail to seize the advantage of these differences for themselves. One day, the American people will come to terms with this reality and refuse to play into the hands of unscrupulous politicians. At least, that is my hope.
- Davis, J. W. Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010
- Sandoz, M. The Cattlemen. New York: Hastings House, 1956
- Smith, H. H. The War on Powder River. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967
- O’Neil, B. The Johnson County War. Austin: Eakin Press, 2004
 The Preemption Act of 1841 provided for the appropriation of proceeds from the sales of public lands and granted pre-emption rights to individuals who were living on federal lands as squatters. A pre-emption right (also, first option to buy) is a contractual right to acquire certain property newly coming into existence before it can be offered to any other person or entity. This act was repealed by Congress and replaced by the Land Revision Act (1891), reversing previous policy initiatives in which land fraud was readily accessible on the behalf of wealthy individuals and corporations.
 One popular film depicting these conditions was the 1976 production of The Missouri Breaks, which took place in the north central region of Montana where the Missouri River cut breaks into the land. These isolated and hard to reach areas were used by rustlers to hide their stolen goods. Starring in the film were Marlon Brando (a range detective) and Jack Nicholson (a rustler).
 Frank Canton (1849-1927) (born as Josiah Horner) was an old west outlaw. As a young man, he worked as a cowboy in Texas. In 1871 he began a career in robbery and cattle rustling. According to historians, Canton/Horner was a merciless cold-blooded killer believed to have killed ten men. Canton had served as a deputy United States Marshal under an alias. In the 1880s, he worked as a stock detective for the WSGA and was easily elected as the chief law officer of Johnson County. Sheriff Canton and his associates were accused of operating an assassination campaign against small rangers, which eventually elicited a public outcry. Canton directed Frank Wolcott’s imported gunmen in their planned vigilante campaign, which became known as the Johnson County War.
 Nate Champion (1837-92) was born in Leander, Texas, one of 18 children, who grew up in Round Rock. His father John Champion served as the Sheriff of Williamson County, but the family prospered in the cattle industry.
 Major Frank Wolcott was an officer in the union army during the American Civil War. After his discharge in 1866, Wolcott worked for the US Land Office in Kentucky until he received an appointment as a United States Marshal. Wolcott passed away in 1910.
 According to the testimony of cowboy John J. Baker, Texans ambushed and killed nine trappers, whom they mistook for rustler in Big Dry Creek, Wyoming. They were paid a $450 bonus for the killing. Wolcott ended up hiring 23 shooters from Paris, Texas and four “cattle detectives” from the WSGA. The Texas shooters were paid $5.00 a day plus a bonus of $50.00 for every “rustler” they killed.
 A native of Ohio, Angus worked as a teamster in Kansas and briefly served as a volunteer in the Kansas State Cavalry. After serving with Custer in his Black Kettle Campaign, he returned to driving supply wagons through Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In 1880, he joined a cattle drive from Texas to Wyoming and decided to put down his roots there. In Wyoming, he owned a liquor store in Buffalo. He won the election for sheriff in 1888 and with the outbreak of hostilities in the Johnson County War, aligned himself with the small ranchers/farmers. After losing his bid for reelection, Angus remained in Buffalo until his death in 1922.
 Buffalo, Wyoming is the seat of Johnson County.
 We aren’t sure how Shonsey contacted the governor given that Wolcott’s men cut the telegraph lines.
Throughout my reading of this very informative and entertaining article, I kept thinking that the Johnson County War mirrors in many respects what is going on in society today. The final paragraph confirmed what I was thinking all along.
“One might assume that these men were in serious legal jeopardy,” The Swamp.
“One day, the American people will come to terms with this reality and refuse to play into the hands of unscrupulous politicians. At least, that is my hope.” When the Swamp goes to jail.
I am reminded of “Open Range” with Costner and Duval.
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Open Range was a great movie. The Johnson County War wasn’t the first, or last of its kind. At your age, you probably remember a few of them.
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