The Johnson County War
 
"Me and Nick was getting breakfast when the attack took place."
 
Thus begins the 'diary' of Nate Champion on April 9, 1892. Before the day was done, Nate and Nick (Ray) would both be dead - the first official victims of the Johnson County (Wyoming) War.
 
What caused the Johnson County War? A simple answer would be "greed", but even getting to that simple conclusion requires quite a bit of background information.
 
Perhaps a portion of the blame can be attributed to Walter Baron von Richthofen, who published a small book in the early 1880's, titled "Cattle-Raising on the Plains of North America". In this book, the Baron expounded on the riches to be made raising cattle, especially in the area that would become the state of Wyoming. In the book, he also mentioned the mild climate of the plains states - obviously he hadn't spent a great many winters on those Wyoming plains. His book attracted the attention of many men with money, especially in England and Scotland, men who would become, for the most part, absentee 'Cattle Barons'.
 
These moneyed men invested fortunes in cattle ranches, especially in the eastern portions of Wyoming Territory - one of the largest operations was known as The Swan Land and Cattle Company. By the mid-1880's there were probably several hundred-thousand head of cattle grazing on the plains of eastern Wyoming Territory. An accurate count is hard to find, as most ranch managers submitted a 'book count' to the absentee owners. The 'book count' was based, mainly, on each heifer having one calf - with no allowance for predation, still-born calves, and rustling - which was perpetrated by both cowboys and local homesteaders.
 
Then came the droughts and then the harsh winter of 1886-87. During that winter, some ranching operations lost 75-90 percent of their herds. Again, it is hard to establish hard numbers, as some ranch managers used this opportunity to 'square-up' the numbers. Many of the cattle barons were driven out of the business overnight, forced to declare bankruptcy. Those cattle ranching operations that did survive began to aggressively defend against losses, especially those losses caused by rustling. The Wyoming Stock Grower's Association was able to get a law passed that stated only members of the WSGA could own a brand and participate in the spring round-ups or 'gathers'. This completely shut-out all the small ranchers and homesteaders, many of whom owned legitimate cattle herds.
 
Two people who came up hard against the WSGA were Ella Watson ('Cattle Kate') and Jim Averell. Both were lynched in July of 1889 - their primary 'sin' was to have homesteaded some nice bottom land, land desired by local cattle barons for grazing cattle. No one was ever brought to justice for the killing of Watson and Averell - a pattern that we will see repeated, later.
 
Because the law enforcement system, and the courts, in the Johnson County area, were friendly to the local homesteaders and local small-time ranchers, the WSGA was unsuccessful in obtaining a single conviction for rustling in that area. By 1892, the cattle barons decided to take matters into their own hands. They hired a large group of 'regulators', mainly gun-toughs from outside the area, many from Texas.
 
The group surrounded the small cabin at the KC ranch on the morning of April 9, 1892. Besides Nick and Nate, there were also two trappers inside the cabin. The two trappers were 'kidnapped' when one went for water, and the second went to look for his partner when he did not return. Nick was shot when he went to look for the two trappers. Nick died, inside the cabin, several hours later. Nate was able to hold-off the 'regulators' for several more hours, until they set fire to the cabin. When he was finally forced out of the cabin, he was cut down by a hail of gun-fire; 24 bullet wounds were found in his lifeless body.
 
The 'posse' of regulators then started towards Buffalo to complete their 'work'. But, they were discovered by Sheriff Angus and others. The posse retreated to the friendly TA Ranch. They were soon surrounded by local small-time ranchers, homesteaders, and townspeople sympathetic to the 'rustlers' cause. The situation was looking bleak for the 'regulators' when the locals began building rolling breast-works which would have allowed them to approach the ranch buildings, perhaps close enough to fire the buildings.
 
One of the 'regulators' was able to escape and rode 100 miles to find a working telegraph station. Word was sent to Cheyenne, where Territorial Governor Barber was able to convince President Harrison to send troops from Fort McKinney to rescue the regulators. The regulators, along with the two trappers, were escorted to Fort McKinney under military guard.
 
The two trappers, being the principal witnesses to the murders of Nick and Nate, were spirited out of Wyoming, given passage East, and their pockets stuffed with more money than they had likely ever seen in their lives - they were never seen again.
 
No one was ever tried for the murders of Nick and Nate, once again the killers were never brought to justice - a legacy of ruthlessness hangs over the early days of cattle ranching in Wyoming, perhaps not even ending with the hanging of Tom Horn in 1903.
 
Suggested Reading:
 
♠Baber, D. F.
  THE LONGEST ROPE: THE TRUTH ABOUT THE JOHNSON COUNTY CATTLE WAR - AS TOLD BY BILL WALKER
 
♠Brisbin, Gen. James S.
  THE BEEF BONANZA
 
♠Burroughs, John Rolfe
  GUARDIAN OF THE GRASSLANDS
 
♠Canton, Frank M.; Dale, Edward Everett (Editor)
  FRONTIER TRAILS - THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF FRANK M. CANTON
 
♠Curry, Peggy Simson
   RED WIND OF WYOMING
 
Frink, Maurice
   COW COUNTRY CAVALCADE
 
♠Gage, Jack R.
  THE JOHNSON COUNTY WAR
 
♠Hanson, Margaret Brock (Editor)
  POWDER RIVER COUNTRY: THE PAPERS OF J. ELMER BROCK
 
Heald, George D. (Compiler)
   WYOMING FLAMES OF '92
 
♠LeFors, Joe
  WYOMING PEACE OFFICER
 
♠Mercer, A. S.
  THE BANDITTI OF THE PLAINS
 
♠Mercer, A.S.; Boots, John Mercer
  POWDER RIVER INVASION - WAR ON THE RUSTLERS IN 1892
 
♠Murray, Robert A.
  THE ARMY ON THE POWDER RIVER
 
♠Penrose, Charles B.
  THE RUSTLER BUSINESS
 
♠Rickards, Colin
  BOWLER HATS AND STETSONS: STORIES OF ENGLISHMEN IN THE WILD WEST
 
♠Smith, Helena Huntington
  THE WAR ON POWDER RIVER: THE HISTORY OF AN INSURRECTION
 
♠Unknown
  ALIAS: THE JACK OF SPADES
 

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