Jim Averill & Ella Watson
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Jim Averill & Ella Watson (Cattle Kate)

Cattle Kate

The bloody Johnson County War in Wyoming was largely precipitated by the gruesome fates of gunman-rancher Jim Averill and his buxom paramour, Ella Watson, better known as Cattle Kate. Averill's background is sketchy, though it was claimed by contemporary historians that he was either a graduate of Yale or Cornell. He arrived at Sweetwater, Wyo., in late 1887, just when the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers' Association was planning to wipe out the newly arrived hordes of immigrant settlers who had streamed into the area to cultivate the rich land for farms. The ranges were soon fenced off with barbed wire, and the classic battle for land was waged between settlers and small ranchers lined up against the cattle barons.

Shortly after arriving, Averill bought a small ranch and established a combination store-saloon-post office. The approximately eighty residents of Sweetwater soon elected him justice of the peace and Averill's reign over this little frontier dynasty led him to believe that he could defy the ruthless cattle barons headed by Albert Bothwell. He began complaining to authorities about the encroachments of the cattlemen and was bitterly opposed to the Maverick Act which the Association had forced into existence. The wealthy cattlemen, who owned Wyoming's governor and most of its state senators, ordered the new law which allowed all unbranded calves to become the property of the Association. Thus, the thousands of stray cattle, no matter who rightfully owned them, went into the pens of the cattle barons. Men like Bothwell also coveted the entire Wyoming range and those who refused to sell their claims to the cattlemen were either run out of the territory or murdered by gunmen like Frank Canton, a glorified stockman's detective who was nothing more than killer for hire.

While the range battles expanded, Averill was besieged by his saloon customers to provide some female companionship for their amusement. He remembered a voluptuous woman named Ella Watson whom Averill had met in Rawlins. Watson was the daughter of a wealthy farmer in Smith County, Kan., and by the time she was eighteen she had already been married and separated from her husband. (Whether or not she was ever divorced is still unanswered, but she later claimed that her marriage was ruined because of her spouse's "infidelity.") Ella Watson was known to many men other than Averill, having earned her living as a prostitute in Denver, Cheyenne, and Rawlins. Averill penned her a purple-prosed letter, asking her to join him, ostensibly as his lover. She replied that she was on her way. It was later suggested that Watson was lured to Sweetwater by Averill on the promise of marriage and that when she arrived, penniless and with nowhere else to go, he made her his concubine and then the communal sexual property of the small ranchers who supported his store and saloon. Watson soon established a claim for a spread adjoining that of Averill's and she ordered stock pens built on her land since she took as pay for her sexual favors in the form of cattle. Thus this statuesque, tough woman earned the sobriquet of Cattle Kate.

Kate was a tall, big-boned woman whose stamina with her cowboy lovers was legendary. She rode horses as would a man, never side-saddle, and was quite frank in her spoken ambitions to amass a cattle fortune, believing that Averill, whom she truly loved, would marry her and they would together establish a powerful cattle empire on their own. Watson remains somewhat of an enigma to this day, described as feminine and demure by her relatives and friends and as a hellion by the press and her enemies. The Cheyenne Mail Leader, for instance, reported that she was "of a robust physique, a dark devil in the saddle, handy with a six-shooter and a Winchester, and an expert with a branding iron:" This unflattering profile was written following Kate's brutal demise as a way of supporting the cattlemen's claim that Kate rebranded and penned the cattle Averill stole from the cattle barons in preparation for resale. Watson's father described her in a contradictory statement, "She was a little girl, between one hundred and sixty to one hundred and eighty pounds:"

Averill's attitude toward Watson was one of economics. He considered Kate a good investment, and the maverick cattle he and his men, including foreman Frank Buchanan, rounded up on the range, were brought to Kate's pens and there branded with Averill's own brand before being shipped to eastern markets. The cattlemen in the area were incensed with Averill's free-and-easy ways with their livestock, but they took little direct action. Averill was usually surrounded by several gunmen and Buchanan, an expert with rifle and shotgun, seemed always to be at his side. He was himself an expert gunman and had shot several men in the past. One of these, a man named Johnson, quarreled with Averill and the rancher shot him dead. Before turning himself in for this shooting, Averill wrote the local judge a flowery letter in which he claimed self defense, a missive that caused his later release. It was Averill's talent with pen and paper that eventually brought about his demise. In the spring of 1889 he began to write to several local newspapers, venting his spleen on the cattlemen and branding them thieves and killers, after the Association made claim to his own spread. He also expresseA indignant anger over the stockmen's claim that his partner Kate was running a "hog ranch." Kate was a highly respected cattle rancher, Averill insisted.

The cattlemen suffered greatly during the 1888 blizzards which depleted their herds but the cattle in Kate's pens seemed to increase and she and Averill were growing rich. Averill began buying expensive clothes, gold cufflinks, and watch chains and he even sent off for imported cigars while he took Kate on shopping trips to Denver where she bought new dresses by the dozen. Kate thought to make her burden less by returning from Denver with another girl who was to satisfy her crude customers. Instead the poor girl almost died at the hands of a drunken Jim Averill who attacked her, then tied her to a wagon and left her to the savage elements. She was found the next morning half frozen to death. Sobering, Averill apologized (some said only after Kate leveled a shotgun at him) and gave the girl a generous amount of money.

Meanwhile, Averill and his men kept rounding up range strays, branding them, and shipping them off to market. At the same time, Averill kept up his barrage against the Association by writing letters to local papers. The Cheyenne Weekly Mail published his most bitter attack on the stockmen on Apr. 7, 1889, a letter that caused gunman Frank Canton to insist that Averill and his prostitute partner be eradicated. Adding fuel to this idea was an incident occuring in early June of that year. A cattleman rode to Watson's pens and identified some of his own cattle, asking Kate where she obtained them. Averill gave his usual laconic reply, "I bought them." The cattleman accused her of buying stolen cattle and Watson raced into her cabin and returned with a Winchester. The cattleman promised he would return and lay claim to his calves, then rode quickly away while Kate resolutely aimed her rifle in his direction.

A short time later a herd of cows belonging to Bothwell was raided by Averill, Buchanan, and others and the calves cut out and driven to Kate's pens (or so the story was later related by Association supporters). To keep the mothers from trailing behind the calves, Averill and his men slew the cattle and this bloody trail was followed almost to Watson's pens by cowboys working for Bothwell. When informed of this raid, Bothwell exploded, declaring that he would take the law into his own hands. First, Bothwell sent a spy to the Averill-Watson ranches and this man reported that he watched the pair get drunk at Kate's house. Thinking the couple would be suffering from hangovers and be easily caught off-guard, Bothwell, on July 20, 1889, ordered twenty of his best gun hands to follow him to the Sweetwater claims. The cattlemen first stopped at Watson's ranch. One report had it that both Watson and Averill were found in drunken stupors, "sitting next to a crude fireplace, the room clouded with tobacco smoke, a whiskey bottle and glasses on the table and firearms within easy reach." The facts are otherwise.

The cattlemen found Watson alone, returning from the outhouse in a skimpy nightgown. She tried to run into the ranch house but gunmen stopped her and dragged her before Bothwell who motioned to a wagon the posse had brought along. "You're going to Rawlins," he said, indicating that Watson and Averill would be brought before the law in that town and charged with rustling. Cattle Kate's reply was typically female, "I can't go to Rawlins. I don't have a new dress." Bothwell ordered her into the wagon and the big woman was lifted up and tossed onto the rough planks of the wagon which was then whipped on to Averill's place. There gunmen surrounded Averill's store-saloon and ordered him to step outside. He stepped outside, blinking at the bright sunlight. Bothwell lied in telling Averill that a warrant for his arrest had been posted and he was being taken to Rawlins. Unarmed, Averill, in his shirtsleeves, was grabbed and thrown into the wagon. Averill and Cattle Kate sat together wholly unconcerned about their fate, joking and laughing, making fun of the men who rode silently next to the wagon.

The taunting by Averill and Watson only seemed to strengthen the resolve of the possemen who rode to a small canyon through which snaked the Sweetwater River. Ropes were placed around the necks of the two captives and they were led over rocks to the water's edge. One of the possemen told Kate that they intended to drown her and Averill in the river. She looked at the shallow stream and laughed; it was still a joke to her. "Hell, there ain't enough water in there to give you hogbacks a bath!" she snorted. While the possemen hesitated, Averill's foreman, Frank Buchanan, who had followed the posse's trail, stood on a cliff looking down on the party. He began firing at the possemen but the return fire was so withering that he was forced to flee.

This attack bolstered the possemen and they quickly led Averill and Watson to a split cottonwood tree, threw the ropes over the limbs and then ordered them to jump from rocks on which they were perched. An idiotic grin clung to Averill's face; he believed the vigilantes were continuing their joke. Watson, however, suddenly realized that this grim exercise was real. They were about to be hanged. She punched out wildly at the men around her and tried to remove the tightly drawn noose from around her neck. Two men held her arms while a cattleman stepped forward and casually kicked Averill's legs out from under him, sending him into space. Watson screamed and was then pushed off the rock where she stood. So eager were the cattlemen to lynch the pair that they had forgotten to tie the hands of their victims and both Averill and Watson clawed at the nooses that slowly strangled them. According to a report appearing in the Casper Mail, "the kicking and writhing of those people was awful to witness."

It took quite a while for the couple to die. Finally, their bodies went limp as their eyes bulged hideously and bloody foam dripped from their mouths. The cattlemen left them dangling from the cottonwood tree and slowly rode away. Some of the members of this posse later regretted the double lynching, saying that they only meant "to frighten" Averill and Watson but the charade went too far. Others claimed that had Buchanan not fired on them the couple would have been taken to authorities and charged with cattle rustling. But these were merely tales designed to absolve the guilty, others claimed and that the whole incident was nothing more than premeditated murder, that Averill and Watson were respectable ranchers and had stolen no cattle at all. They were murdered because they would not give up their land to the covetous cattlemen.

Two days later the bodies of Averill and Watson were cut down and opinion quickly turned against the Association and its lynch-bent members, the Casper Mail demanding retribution and angrily asking in an editorial, "Is human life held at no value whatever?" Kate's father, Thomas Watson, arrived in Rawlins to claim his daughter's body, telling reporters that the cattlemen were liars, that his child was incapable of cattle rustling. "She never branded a hoof or threw a rope," he insisted. A dark stranger wearing two guns rode into Rawlins and buried Averill. He was identified as Averill's brother, and he busied himself for some time in rounding up witnesses against the possemen. Six of those who had been part of the lynch mob were subsequently arrested, but the process was a farce from the beginning. Rawlins authorities were in the pockets of the Association, and these six defendants were permitted to sign each other's bail bond. None were convicted. The deaths of Jim Averill and Cattle Kate did serve, however, to inspire homesteaders and small ranchers to stand up to the Association and a full-scale bloody range war erupted in Johnson County. Inside that death-filled turmoil, Frank Buchanan disappeared, presumed murdered by Frank Canton on behalf of the cattlemen. One of the more intriguing stories concerning the legends that gathered about Averill and Watson is that the couple produced a son, Thomas Averiil, or so one Thomas Averill later claimed. He stated that he was five when the possemen arrived at his mother's cabin and that they shot him in the throat and left him for dead. He was raised by Indians and went on to work in many Wild West shows where he was known as Buffalo Vernon. When the Johnson County War ground down, Cattle Kate's small cabin was sold at auction for a mere $14.19, purchased by one of the possemen who had put the nooses around the necks of Jim Averill and Cattle Kate Watson.

Jay Robert Nash. Encyclopedia Of Western Lawmen & Outlaws . Da Capo Press. 1989.

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