Johnson County, Wyoming, April 1892 and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association "Regulators" and their hired hit-men from Texas were about to run into a force of nature named Nate Champion.
|Nate Champion--by most accounts a good hand, cowboy, and gunman|
Champion was the working-class hero in contrast to the cattle barons in Wyoming. He’d been a top hand at several ranches, was good with a gun, said to be a good cowboy, and generally was well respected by most everyone—UNTIL he organized the Northwest Wyoming Farm and Stock Growers Association for the smaller ranches struggling to survive against the cattle barons who composed the WSGA. He helped create a competing spring roundup after the large ranchers wouldn’t allow the small ranchers to join their annual roundup. Champion further incurred the wrath of the WSGA when he grazed his cows on the public range claiming he had as much right as the big ranchers did.
The barons didn’t appreciate his defiance. The newspapers in Cheyenne branded him “King of the Cattle Thieves” and leader of the “Red Sash Gang”, presumably at the behest of the WSGA, as the papers in Cheyenne were controlled/owned/told what to print by the cattle barons. This marked him for death even though WSGA attorney Willis VanDementer told them there was no evidence Champion was a rustler. You can assume VanDementer wasn’t popular for a while with the cattle barons. And there was no Red Sash Gang. Didn’t matter a bit to the cattle barons as they made out their hit list and then recruited more than twenty hired guns out of Paris, Texas to help rid them of their “rustlers.”
The morning of April 9th was cold, with the wind howling down out of the north and bringing snow with it. In the snow, fifty of the most trusted men employed by the barons, as well as the twenty-two Texans, attacked Champion’s ranch. Nick Ray, Champion’s friend, was mortally wounded in the first volley of shots.
Under withering gunfire, Champion pulled his friend to safety, though Ray died shortly afterward. For several hours, Champion held off the hired guns of the WSGA until the gunmen set fire to his cabin. His journal--which miraculously survived the fire--reveals that Champion knew his time was up. He wrote that the gunmen were planning to fire the cabin and they aimed "to see me dead this time." Armed with a knife and his revolver, Champion charged out the door. More than 20 bullets were found in his body when he was finally allowed to be buried several days later. He was only thirty-five years old.
That Champion survived on April 9th as long as he did ranks this gunfight as one of the most amazing fights imaginable. That the cattle barons of the WSGA didn’t realize by killing Champion they’d be creating a hero for the smaller ranchers to rally around was another amazement, or it goes to their arrogance. I never can decide which it is—or if it was both.
The Johnson County war was the stuff that created larger than life heroes, revealed just how villainous greed, money, and power can make people and has provided fodder for Western writers for generations.