Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Cattle Kate

Ella Watson, dubbed “Cattle Kate,” by newspapers of the day, was described as a prostitute, outlaw and cattle thief. On July 20, 1889, near the Sweetwater River in Wyoming, she and James Averell were hanged by vigilantes for the crime of cattle rustling. Newspapers carrying the story claimed Ella was a holy terror the equal of any man on the range, and the cattlemen who lynched her acted in self defense to preserve land rightfully theirs. 

Who was the infamous Ella Watson?


Ellen Liddy Watson was born on July 2, 1861 to parents Thomas Lewis Watson and Frances Close Watson. Known as Ella, she was the oldest of ten children.  In 1877 Thomas moved his family from Ontario, Canada to Lebanon in Smith County, Kansas, where the family homesteaded the land. 

When Ella was eighteen she married William A. Pickell, a young man who lived on a neighboring farm.  Ella soon discovered that her new husband was not only a heavy drinker, but a violent, abusive man. When she could no longer endure, she escaped to her parent’s home. To put even more distance between herself and her husband, Ella moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, and filed for divorce.

Looking for better opportunities, she moved to Denver and stayed with her brother for a short time before moving to Cheyenne and then to Rawlins in 1885.

There she worked as a cook at the Rawlins House for two years.

In February 1886 Ella met James Averell, a widower ten years older than Ella. He was in town to file a claim on his homestead sixty miles east of Rawlins near the Sweetwater River.  Because his land was so close to the Oregon and Mormon trails James started a general store and a tavern. He was later appointed postmaster and Justice of the Peace.

James convinced Ella to move to his homestead. She worked in his general store and cooked for his customers at the tavern.  He also thought she should buy the land next to his and homestead her own place.

In March of 1886, Ella’s divorce was final and a few months later, she and James applied for a marriage license, though it isn’t clear if they married or not.

She  settled on her land, built a cabin, and purchased cattle with the money she’d saved. She tried to register for a brand, but the Maverick Law, which was passed in 1884 denied her that right.

Basically Maverick Law said that no one could brand calves unless they received a registered brand from the state. Unbranded calves found on open range had to be branded with an M, making them the property of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA). These young calves were auctioned off to the highest bidder, but the only people allowed to bid were those who were appointed by representatives of the WSGA, and no small rancher or homesteader was allowed to bid on one of these mavericks unless they had a registered brand.

So not only did the WSGA block smaller ranchers from bidding, if one of these ranchers had a calf wander off, the WSGA would round it up, brand it and sell it to one of its many powerful rancher members.

At the same time these big cattle owners filed illegal claim on much of the land. Outraged, Jim Averell as Justice of the Peace started writing letters to the newspaper.

About a mile away from Ella and Jim’s homestead lived Albert John Bothwell, a wealthy cattleman and prominent member of the WSGA. Before Ella and Jim purchased their land Bothwell grazed his cattle all over their land and through the Sweetwater valley. He didn’t own the land, but he acted as if he did and wanted homesteaders and small ranchers off his land. Furious when Ella and Jim bought their land he tried many times to buy it, but was refused.

After Jim wrote his letters to the paper, Bothwell had his hands ride over to watch the couple. Sometimes they put a skull and cross bones on the doors or put up fences where they weren’t allowed.

In 1888, after pressure from the smaller ranchers and homesteaders, the Maverick Law was repealed. Ella bought 28 head of cattle from a man driving them up from Nebraska. In March 1889, she bought a brand from a neighbor that had already been registered.

On July 20, 1889, a stock detective and member of the association rode through Ella’s pasture and saw her now forty-one cattle, recently branded. He told Bothwell that he suspected Ella of illegal branding. Though Bothwell knew that the cattle had been on her property for a year, he saw it as a way to finally get rid of Jim Averell and Ella Watson. He called a meeting and encouraged other cattlemen to ride over to Ella’s and see the evidence for themselves.  One of the men, John Durbin, tore down Ella’s fence and drove away her cattle.

Gene Crowder, the eleven year-old boy Ella had adopted, watched as the men kept her from going into her house and forced her into a wagon.  When she asked where they were taking her, they told her, Rawlins. Gene tried to go with her, but Bothwell forced him to stay behind with Durbin.

Next they went to Jim Averell’s place just as he was getting ready to go to Casper. They told him they had a warrant for his arrest and when Jim asked to see it, they pulled their guns and made him get in the wagon with Ella.

B. Frank Buchanan, a friend and neighbor learned from Gene what had happened and followed the vigilantes on horseback for two miles to a gulch on the south side of the Sweetwater River near Independence Rock. When Frank saw them try to put ropes around Jim and Ella’s neck he opened fire on the men. The vigilantes returned fire and Frank fled for his life.

Jim and Ella put up a desperate struggle, but in the end they were hung. Since ordinary cowboy ropes were used instead of a clean neck break, they were slowly strangled to death.

Though an investigation was begun, the bodies were left hanging in the hot sun for 2 ½ days. They were buried together on Jim’s ranch. He was thirty-eight and Ella twenty-seven.

Bothwell and the rest of his vigilantes were arrested by Deputy Philip Watson. They were taken to the sheriff of Carbon County. They were all arraigned the following day and bail was set at five thousand dollars, and each man was allowed to post bail for the other.

The Grand Jury was set to convene August 25, 1889, but before that could happen, Gene Crowder disappeared. John DeCory, the fourteen year old boy who worked for Ella allegedly went to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, but he was never called to testify.  Frank Buchanan also disappeared while in protective custody in Cheyenne. Ralph Cole, Jim’s twenty-year old nephew, who was visiting at the time of the lynching died from possible poisoning on the day of the hearing.

Without witnesses, the charges were dropped and Bothwell and the other men went free. No investigations were made into Ralph Cole’s death or into the disappearance of Frank Buchanan and the two young boys.

Rumors circulated that Bothwell’s men rode to the small ranches and threatened to burn them out or do to them what they did to Ella and Jim if anyone testified against him or the other cattlemen.

Newspapers began to circulate stories about Ella being a whore and a cattle rustler. Jim was portrayed as an outlaw, a murderer and Ella’s pimp, but most of the newspapers  were,  at that time, strongly linked to the WSGA.

In 1891 Jim and Ella’s land was sold for back taxes to Albert Bothwell.

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He made her fall in love with him, then he took it all away


  1. Well my goodness, how depressing! It's horrible to think people could get by with so much back in those days but obviously some still can. Very interesting story. I learned several things I didn't know--about the rope and about the WGA.

  2. What a sad tale. I'm with Linda. I had no idea about the ropes. Good job.

  3. Hi Linda,
    Thanks for stopping. It was depressing for the poor lovers, but at least history as vidicated them. Bothwell was the true villian.

  4. Hi Tanya,
    There is so much to the story, that I couldn't really fit it all in this blog. Ella was wearing moccasins when she was taken and they fell off when she was hung. Days later someone found them. They were sold some time later, but I forget the details.
    This hanging was the beginning to the famous Johnson County War. Great fodder for story ideas.

  5. Boy, life was tough in those days. You can't help but get angry at the way the small ranchers were treated, but guess that was life in the old west. Very interesting post, Kathy.

  6. This is so sad and so unfair. I can't believe they did this to them.

  7. Kathy--jiminy! Whew, what a tale. I thought with all that happened, Ella was surely an older woman...but so young to die by hanging. I thought women were not hung, but I see now that some were. What a horrible way to die.
    The wild west, the open range--all true where violence and vigilantes ruled. Poor Ella. She worked and tried so hard. I hate that she died so young and in such a cruel way.
    This was a new one--I've never heard of her.
    Nicely done...thanks so much.

  8. Hi Paisley,
    It's easy to see from history where all the classic westerns got their story lines. And history really hasn't changed much. Which I suppose is why we all like to root for the little guy. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Hi Quilt Lady,
    When I first heard about Cattle Kate many, many years ago, I thought she was a cattle rustler. The bad publicity generated by the Stock Growers Association's ability to influence the newspapers of the day, really had some long reaching effects.

  10. Hi Celia,
    It was also sad the way her first husband beat her. I suppose it was good she had Jim for those few years. He was supportive and they loved each other. They died together and when the posse found them, their arms were touching.

  11. Fascinating story. I wonder how many books have been written base on this tale about Ella.

  12. Hi Charlene,
    Thanks for stopping by. I don't know how many stories were created. Countless cattle baron vs small rancher western movies and books, but I can't think of any where a woman was hung as part of a plot.

  13. I couldn't help but associate big cattle owners of those days with big bankers of today. It just seems like there's no way to win. Great article, Kathy.


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