"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
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
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
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.
♠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
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
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
BOWLER HATS AND STETSONS: STORIES OF ENGLISHMEN IN THE WILD WEST
♠Smith, Helena Huntington
THE WAR ON POWDER RIVER: THE HISTORY OF AN INSURRECTION
ALIAS: THE JACK OF SPADES
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