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Johnson County War

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Nate Champion (first from left) is destined to meet a brutal end in the Johnson County War of 1892.

Of all the violent clashes among western stockmen, the most spectacular and most publicized was the Wyoming cattlemen's war, also known as the Johnson County invasion. This conflict, which erupted in the spring of 1892, was the culmination of bad feeling that had been building up for several years. On one side were the big Wyoming cattlemen, who had come in early and without authority claimed much of the best land. On the other side were the small stockmen and farmers who arrived later and obtained free land under the homestead acts.

The cattle barons resented having small fry homestead their vast grasslands and tried to tag all of them as rustlers, even though most of them were honest. Conversely, the newcomers, whether small stockmen or grangers, resented the big operators, whom they viewed as monopolists. They accused the wealthy cattlemen of having acquired the best pastures and streams by trickery, of poisoning water holes, of allowing their stock to trample crops, of stealing calves from the small herds.

The rift had been made worse by several acts of violence beginning in the summer of 1889. That year ten cattlemen seized two homesteaders who lived on adjoining claims. They were James Averill, a justice of the peace who ran a small store and saloon but had no cattle, and Ella ("Cattle Kate") Watson, who owned a few young cattle. The cattlemen accused the two of stealing and ordered them to leave the region. When they refused, they were hanged, without trial, from a pine in Spring Canyon.

Nathan D. Champion was born near Round Rock, Texas, into a large and respected family. Champion became a cowboy, and after accompanying a herd up the Goodnight-Loving Trail in 1881, he and his twin brother, Dudley, decided to stay in Wyoming. The Champion brothers became top hands on several Wyoming ranches and began to side with Johnson County homesteaders and small ranchers in the growing feud with wealthy cattle barons of the area.

Like most cowboys, Nate occasionally appropriated stray cattle for his own use, and the big ranchers began to call him "King of the Rustlers." In the fall of 1891 Nate fought off a personal attack, but a few months later he was gunned down after a courageous fight against more than fifty "Regulators." Two weeks later his martyred remains were retrieved and buried at Buffalo. In May, 1893, Dudley was murdered by Mike Shonsey, a range detective who had feuded with Nate.

Joe Elliott's chief notoriety as a gunman came during the Johnson County War of the 1890's. Elliott was a range detective and stock inspector for the Wyoming Cattle Growers' Association, and he fought vigorously for the interests of the cattle barons. Elliott was banished from Wyoming in the aftermath of the conflict, and despite his threats to come back and kill his enemies, he did not return.

Of Irish and Canadian extraction, Mike Shonsey migrated to the cattle country of Wyoming from Ohio. Beginning as a cowboy, he soon worked his way up to foreman and served several outfits in that capacity. When the Johnson County War broke out, Shonsey sided with the big cattlemen and hired his gun to the Wyoming Cattle Growers' Association. On one occasion he had a fist fight with small rancher Jack Flagg, and twice he was forced to back down in clashes with Nate Champion; therefore, he willingly spied for the association and also killed Dudley Champion, Nate's twin brother. He left Wyoming for a few years, but eventually he returned and lived to an old age, one of the last survivors of the Johnson County War.

Tom Smith was a Texan who entered law enforcement. He wore a badge in both Texas and Oklahoma, and at one time he held an appointment as a deputy U.S. marshal. In the late 1880's he was employed as a range detective by the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association, and he vigorously pressured area homesteaders and small ranchers on behalf of his cattle baron employers. On one occasion he killed a "rustler" and was indicted for murder, but the political connections of the association (which ultimately included the acting governor and both senators of the state) were sufficient to secure Smith's release.

During the spring of 1892 Smith was dispatched to Texas to recruit gunfighters for an all-out range war in Wyoming's Johnson County. He was authorized to offer five dollars per day and expenses, a three-thousand-dollar accident policy, and a bonus of fifty dollars to each gunman for any enemy shot or hanged. Smith enlisted twentysix men in and around Paris and headed north. Frank Canton had recruited a similar number of hard cases, and Major Frank Wolcott was appointed to head the expedition, with Smith in charge of the Texans.

A one-hundred-thousand-dollar "extermination fund" had been raised to pay for the invasion, and the "Regulators" were given a list of seventy troublemakers to kill. The plan fell apart, however, and the Regulators were arrested in Buffalo. Strings were pulled, and the Regulators were finally released, but most of them immediately left Wyoming. Smith returned to Texas, where he was killed within a short time.

Two years later Tom Waggoner, a thrifty homesteader with a reputation for honesty, was taken from his home near Newcastle and left dangling from the limb of a cottonwood several miles away. A few months later, two armed cattlemen tried to kill Ross Gilbertson and Nathan D. Champion as they slept in a cabin, but Champion, a cow hand from Texas, awoke and fired at them.

In November, 1891, Orley E. ("Ranger") Jones, a young broncobuster for the C Y Ranch, was driving home from Buffalo in a buckboard. As he crossed Big Muddy Creek, an assassin hiding under the bridge shot and killed him. A few days later John A. Tisdale, who had ridden for Theodore Roosevelt, was driving from Buffalo to his ranch on Powder River with groceries for his family and Christmas toys for the children. As he crossed a small stream, he was ambushed and killed.

These killings aroused the people of Johnson County, but no one was punished for any of them. Meanwhile, in Cheyenne the big stockmen were preparing an expedition to Invade Johnson County, wipe out the rustlers and put fear into the hearts of all small cowmen and grangers. As their leader they chose Major Frank Wolcott, a ranchman and former army officer, who had come from Kentucky.

Wolcott sent Tom Smith to Texas, where he recruited more than a score of mercenary gunmen to bolster the force. The cattlemen chartered a special train in Denver and loaded it with horses and supplies. It arrived in Cheyenne on the afternoon of April 5, 1892. There it took on more passengers and supplies such as army tents, bedding, rifles, ammunition, dynamite and strychnine. A suspicious onlooker tried to telegraph Sheriff W. G. ("Red") Angus of Johnson County, but the wires had been cut. He mailed a note instead.

The invaders, being backed by men of wealth and prominence, told Acting Governor Amos W. Barber their plans. He apparently approved because the adjutant general of the Wyoming National Guard instructed all units to obey no orders to assembIe unless received from state headquarters. This nullified the state's constitutional provision which permitted sheriffs to call them out. The Invaders, sure of their questionable rights, took along two war correspondents, one from the Cheyenne Sun and the other from the Chicago Herald.

After an overnight trail trip to the outskirts of Casper, the invaders unloaded their horses and equipment, including three Studebaker wagons for bedding and supplies. With the horses saddled, the party rode north and spent the night at a friendly ranch on the South Fork of Powder River. There Mike Shonsey, a "big outfit" foreman who had ridden in from the north, reported that two of the men they wanted, Nick Ray (sometimes spelled Rae) and Nathan D. Champion were at Nolan's K C Ranch, fourteen miles farther north.

A little after daybreak on April 9, the invaders reached and surrounded the three-room cabin where the two men were staying. When two trappers who had spent the night there went out for water, the cattlemen captured them and learned that Ray and Champion were in the cabin.

A few minutes later, Nick Ray stepped out of the house and was met with shots from a dozen Winchesters. Falling with a bullet in his head, he tried to crawl back but was downed by another shot. Then Nate Champion darted out and dragged Ray in with one hand while firing his pistol with the other.

During the hours that followed, Champion held off his attackers, comforted the dying Nick, and with pencil and paper wrote about the uneven siege as it progressed. "Me and Nick was getting breakfast when the attack took place," he started. Later in the morning he told of Nick's death, and wrote that the Invaders had chased travelers who happened to come down the road. He further recorded that the attackers "have just got through shelling the house like hail" and had set it afire by pushing against it a blazing wagon that they had loaded with hay and pitch pine. Champion's final words were, "Goodbye, boys, if I never see vou again." As flames raced through the rooms, Champion rushed out with his Winchester. After a few steps he stumbled and fell - his body riddled with twenty-eight bullets.

A traveler who had been chased, galloped on to Buffalo and informed Sheriff Angus. The sheriff had already received the warning mailed from Cheyenne. After being refused help by the National Guard and the army unit of nearby Fort McKinncy, he and several deputies started south to the K C Ranch.

When the invaders learned that the people of Buffalo were aroused and were preparing to defend their town, they decided to stop at the T A Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek, owned by Dr. Harris, a big cattleman in sympathy with the expedition. His large house was built of solid hewed logs. His barn was of ample size and Wolcott found a pile of heavy timbers which he and his men used to make a barricade.

In Buffalo, meanwhile, excitement was rising by the hour. Robert Foote, owner of the biggest store there, invited citizens to take the guns and other equipment they needed, without charge. On his black stallion he rode up and down the main street, calling for recruits.

Forty-nine men started out from Buffalo. Their leader was Arapahoe S. Brown, a homesteader who ran a small flour and feed mill. The next day, Sheriff Angus returned from his mission and followed Brown with forty more men. At the T A Ranch the citizens from in and around Buffalo dug rifle pits, besieged the invaders and captured their wagons. In two days, Sheriff Angus had a force of more than two hundred and fifty men. They put the captured dynamite on a load of hay and prepared to push it against the ranchhouse.

But before this plan could be carried out, the invaders from Cheyenne sent out a plea for help. At night a cowboy whom they had captured on their way north slipped out through the picket lines and, from Hathaway's Crossing, sent a telegram to the governor, who immediately sent frantic wires to both of Wyoming's senators, as well as to President Benjamin Harrison and Brigadier General John R. Brooke of Omaha. The senators routed the President from his bed and persuaded him to order the War Department to send the aid sought. From Fort McKinney, Colonel James J. Van Horn, with three troops of cavalry, arrived at the T A Ranch just in time to save the besieged men from the threat of fire and dynamite. By the time he rescued the invaders, they were surrounded by 320 angry homesteaders and Buffalo townsmen.

Two days later, elaborate funeral services for Nate Champion and Nick Ray were held in Buffalo. Great banks of flowers were arranged in a vacant store building. Women filled all the seats available, while men stood outside. A Baptist minister prayed for justice, and a Methodist eulogized the two slain men as law-abiding citizens. Five hundred mourners marched to the cemetery. Jack Flagg led the horses of Ray and Champion, with empty saddles.

From the T A Ranch the prisoners were escorted by cavalrymen to Fort Fetterman, then taken by special train to Fort D. A. Russell, near Cheyenne. Although supposedly confined, they were able to spend most of their time in Cheyenne. Their lawyers, with threats and with checks that later turned out to be worthless, induced the two star witnesses for the prosecution - the two trappers - to leave the state.

Indignant homesteaders held meetings in Buffalo, Glenrock and Casper to protest the unlawful invasion. But when the invaders came to trial on January 21, 1893, minus the Texans, who had gone home, the court proceedings were a farce. One of the spectators, John Clay, a cattle baron who had been in Scotland during the raid, later remembered watching Judge Richard R. Scott on the bench. Clay pronounced him "slow, solemn, impartial, a little embarrassed, knowing that the trial was a mere puppet show." When no witnesses appeared against the defendants, the charge was dismissed.

Later some of the big cattlemen claimed that the invasion had succeeded because it discouraged cattle rustling. But the homesteading farmers and small stockmen had a more convincing claim to victory. They won the 1892 election and established their rights.

Jay Monaghan. Range Wars. The Book of the American West. Simon & Schuster New York, NY 1969.


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