Monday, March 18, 2019

Murder on the Sweetwater

Last month, I wrote a little about the early life of Ella Watson and James Averell, and what ultimately put them into the direct sights of the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association, namely the Maverick law and the requirement that no one could purchase a “maverick” without a registered brand. Without a registered brand, any homesteader or small rancher who might brand cattle he bought could be accused of rustling. And, the WSGA controlled who was awarded registration of a brand. It was the perfect Catch-22. The Maverick law blocked any competition to the WSGA the small ranchers and homesteaders might mount. It also put the small ranchers and homesteaders own calves at risk if they were to stray because nothing stopped the WSGA from rounding up those straying cattle and selling them as "mavericks."

There was another practice the large cattle owners employed, which was to illegally file land claims under the Homestead Act. How this was done was through both subterfuge and straight out bribery. Once the claims were made, moveable cabins would be placed on the land, so the cattlemen could claim the property had been "improved" which was a requirement of the Homestead Act. Money crossed the palms of the inspectors, so the "homesteaders" would know well in advance when the inspector was coming, and the moveable cabin was pulled up onto logs and rolled from claim to claim. Jim Averell, as a Justice of the Peace, saw this happen over and over. He began to write letters to the newspaper at Casper, Wyoming, bringing to light this duplicity and in turn, he infuriated the large cattlemen.

On March 23, 1888, Ella filed her official homestead claim with the Land Office in Cheyenne. Between both homesteads, James and Ella now owned more than 320 acres of land. Ella continued to improve her property by building corrals for the livestock and fencing much of the property.
looking northwest from atop Independence Rock toward the LU Ranch and Bothwell's ranch
photo circa 1900

In 1888, under heavy pressure from the small cattle and landowners, the Territorial Legislature repealed the Maverick Law. In the fall of that year, Ella bought 28 head of cattle from a man who was driving them from Nebraska to the Salt Lake basin. But by the time the cattle arrived in the Sweetwater Valley, the animals were footsore and in poor condition.  On December 3, 1888 Ella applied for the WT brand through the Carbon County Brand Committee in Rawlings, but they rejected her application. In March of 1889, she bought a brand from a nearby rancher and since it was already registered this application was accepted. Ella now owned the LU brand.

In 1889, Ella had two teen-aged boys working for her, Gene Crowder and John DeCorey. Averell’s nephew, Ralph Coe, was also working for the LU brand. Another friend who helped Ella and Averell was their neighbor, B. Frank Buchanan. Buchanan helped mend fences and assisted with branding the cattle.

Albert John Bothwell, a wealthy cattleman and member of the Stock Association, lived about a mile from Jim and Ella. Prior to Ella homesteading her piece of land, Bothwell had used the property, as well as other large sections of open range, as pastureland for his cattle. In fact, Bothwell was in the habit of running his cattle through the entire Sweetwater Valley, spreading out some twenty miles.

Though he didn’t own all of the land, he acted as though he did. Bothwell’s main focus was to get the homesteaders off of “his” land. He was furious when Jim and Ella homesteaded the property that he considered his best pastureland. Approaching Ella several times, he tried to by her property but she refused him.

Jim Averell had given Bothwell a right of way through his property so that Bothwell could irrigate his pastureland, but on a few occasions, Jim had threatened to cut off his water supply, which further infuriated the cattleman. Bothwell was determined to run Jim and Ella off their property.

When Jim wrote the letters to the Casper Newspaper, Bothwell sent his cowhands to harass the couple. The men would often just watch the couple to make sure they didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. At other times, the cowhands placed skulls and cross bones on their doorways. Bothwell also had the men fence in areas of land that did not belong to him.

On July 20, 1889, a stock detective named George Henderson rode through Ella’s pasture in the early morning, finding the cattle she had purchased the previous December sporting brand new LU brands. Henderson, a member of the Stock Association, quickly suggested that Ella might be illegally branding cattle. Bothwell saw this as his long sought after opportunity to rid himself of Jim Averell and Ella Watson, even though Ella had had possession of the cattle for more than six months.

Bothwell sent for other cattlemen in the immediate area to meet him for an urgent meeting. Who knows what he actually told them, but by the time the meeting was over the cattlemen were convinced that Jim and Ellen had stolen the newly branded cattle. One of the men rode over to Ella’s pasture to verify the new brands, returning to tell the others about it. The men then decided to take matters into their own hands. Several of the cattlemen wanted no part of the vigilante’s plans and left, but six cattlemen remained. These six ranchers included Bothwell, the ringleader, M. Earnest McLean, Robert “Captain” M. Galbraith, John Henry Durbin, Robert Conner, and Tom Sun.

After the meeting they all decided to ride over to Ella’s homestead and see the evidence for themselves. Arriving in the early afternoon, they found the newly branded cattle and their suspicions were confirmed. John Durbin lost his temper and began tearing down the barbed wire fence and driving the cattle out. Gene Crowder, the boy who Ella had unofficially adopted, watched as McLain and Conners detained Ella outside, keeping her from returning to her house.

The men forced Ella into a wagon, claiming they were going to Rawlins. Then they started toward Jim Averell’s place. The young Crowder tried to go around the men to alert Averell, but Bothwell detained him in the wagon with Ella.

Averell, who was on his way to Casper, was just inside the gate when the men approached. Stating they had a warrant for his arrest, Averell demanded to see the document, at which time Durbin and Bothwell drew their guns. Jim was forced to unhitch his team and climb in the wagon along with Ella, and then the group began to travel north. Crowder was allowed to leave and made tracks back to Jim’s house where he explained to the others what was going on. Frank Buchanan quickly got on his horse and began to follow the vigilantes.

Buchanan followed the group for about two miles as they traveled up the east side of Averell Mountain, then headed southwest across the sagebrush toward Sweetwater River and Independence Rock. Finally, the vigilantes stopped at a gulch on the south side of the river. As Buchanan watched, Bothwell tied a rope to a tree, wrapping the other end around Jim’s neck, while McLain was attempting to put a rope around Ella’s dodging neck. At the sight of this, Buchanan opened fire on the vigilantes, but when the group returned fire, he fled for his life. Returning to the ranch, he told Gene Crowder, John L. DeCorey, and Ralph Coe about the hangings.
Independence Rock
The Sun Ranch, formerly owned by Tom Sun, is still in operation here

Though an investigation into the hangings began almost immediately, the bodies were let hang in the July heat for 2 ½ days. A reporter, who was the first to talk to members of the posse, described it as thus:

“Hanging from the limb of a stunted pine growing on the summit of a cliff fronting the Sweetwater River, were the bodies of James Averell and Ella Watson. Side by side they swing, their arms touching each other, their tongues protruding and their faces swollen and discolored almost beyond recognition. Common cowboy lariats had been used, and both had died by strangulation, neither fallen over two feet. Judging from signs too plain to be mistaken a desperate struggle had taken place on the cliff, and both man and woman had fought for their lives until the last.”
rumored hanging tree

1 comment:

  1. Sad but interesting article, Lynda. Small homesteaders didn't stand much of a chance against the big boys, it seems.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.