The Johnson County War, also known as the War on Powder River and the Wyoming Range War, was a range war that took place in Johnson, Natrona and Converse County, Wyoming in April 1892 and became so brutal and disruptive that the US Cavalry was ordered by President Benjamin Harrison to intervene. This range was fought between small ranchers and the large, wealthy, and much longer established ranchers and culminated in a lengthy shootout between the local ranchers, a group of hired killers, and a sheriff’s posse.
Conflict over land was a somewhat common occurrence in the development of the American West but was particularly prevalent during the late 19th century and early 20th century when large portions of the west were being settled by Americans for the first time. Historian Richard Maxwell calls this time period the “Western Civil War of Incorporation” and Johnson County seemed to be the epicenter. Early in Wyoming’s history most of the land was public and open to both raising stock on the open range and for homesteading.
Large numbers of cattle were turned loose on this open range by the large ranches. Ranchers would hold a spring roundup where the cows and the calves belonging to each ranch were separated and the calves branded. Before the roundup, calves (especially orphan or stray calves) were sometimes surreptitiously branded. Many of the ranchers owning large swaths of land tried to defend against rustling by forbidding their employees from owning cattle and lynching (or threatening such) suspected rustlers—often without benefit of a trial. Heaven help the cowboy found with a branding iron in his saddle bags. Property and use rights were usually respected among big and small ranches based on who was first to settle the land (the doctrine is known as Prior Appropriation) and the size of the herd. Nonetheless large ranching outfits would sometimes band together and use their power to monopolize large swaths of range land, preventing newcomers from settling the area.
It was against this backdrop that the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) was formed with a membership comprised of some of the state’s wealthiest and most popular residents. Socially, the group met at the Cheyenne Club in Cheyenne, Wyoming. As the membership was made up of the elite, the organization carried a great deal of political sway in the state and even in the region. The WSGA carried so much political clout that they were able to set a schedule for roundups and shipments of those beeves East. They also created a detective agency to investigate cattle rustling.
The often uneasy relationship between larger, wealthier ranches and smaller ranch settlers became steadily worse after the winter of 1886-1887 when a series of blizzards and temperatures of 40-50 degrees below 0 °F (-45 °C) had followed an extremely hot and dry summer. It started snowing in October of ’86 and didn’t stop until late May of ’87. When it wasn’t snowing, the weather complicated matters with freezing rain, creating a crust so thick on the snow that the cattle couldn’t paw through to get to what there was of the drought stricken grasses. Thousands of cattle died and while many large ranches went belly up, others of the large land and cattle companies began to appropriate land and control the flow and supply of water in the area. Some of the harsher tactics included forcing settlers off their land and setting fire to settler buildings as well as trying to exclude the smaller ranchers from participation in the annual roundup. The justification for these strong armed tactics was the catch-all allegation of cattle rustling.
In Johnson County, with emotions running high, agents of the larger ranches killed several alleged rustlers from smaller ranches. Many were killed on dubious evidence or were simply found dead while the killer(s) remained anonymous. Frank M. Canton, Sheriff of Johnson County in the early 1880s and detective for the WSGA, was rumored to be behind many of the deaths. The double lynching in 1889 of Ella Watson and storekeeper Jim Averell (who never owned a cow in his life) enraged local residents. A number of additional dubious lynchings of alleged rustlers took place in 1891. At this point, a group of smaller Johnson County ranchers led by a local settler named Nate Champion formed the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers' Association (NWFSGA) to compete with the WSGA. The WSGA “blacklisted” the NWFSGA and told them to stop all operations. The NWFSGA refused the WSGA's order to disband and announced their plans to hold their own roundup in the spring of 1892.
The WSGA, led by Frank Wolcott (WSGA Member and large North Platte rancher), hired gunmen with the intention of eliminating alleged rustlers in Johnson County and break up the NWFSGA. Twenty-three gunmen from Paris, Texas and four cattle detectives from the WSGA were hired with Idaho frontiersman George Dunning who later turned against the group. Some WSGA and Wyoming dignitaries also joined the expedition including State Senator Bob Tisdale, state water commissioner W.J. Clarke, W.C. Irvine and Hubert Teshemacher, both instrumental in organizing Wyoming's statehood four years earlier. They were accompanied by surgeon Dr. Charles Penrose as well as Ed Towse, a reporter for the Cheyenne Sun, and a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Herald, Sam T. Clover, whose lurid first-hand accounts later appeared in eastern newspapers. A total expedition of 50 men was organized. To lead the expedition the WSGA hired Canton, a former Johnson County Sheriff-turned-gunman and WSGA detective. The group became known as “The Invaders”, or alternately, “Wolcott's Regulators”.
The first target of the WSGA was Nate Champion at the KC Ranch (of which today's town of Kaycee, Wyoming is a namesake), a small rancher who was active in the efforts of small ranchers to organize a competing roundup. The “Regulators” traveled to the ranch late in the night of Friday April 8, 1892, quietly surrounded the buildings and waited for daybreak. Three men besides Champion were at the KC. Two men who were evidently spending the night on their way through were captured as they emerged from the cabin early that morning to collect water at the nearby Powder River, while the third, Nick Ray, was shot while standing inside the doorway of the cabin and died a few hours later. Champion was besieged inside the log cabin.
During the siege, Champion kept a poignant journal which contained a number of notes he wrote to friends while taking cover inside the cabin. “Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once.” The last journal entry read: “Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It's not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.”
With the house on fire, Nate Champion signed his journal entry and put it in his pocket before running from the back door with a six shooter in one hand and a knife in the other. As he emerged he was shot by four men and the invaders later pinned a note on Champion's bullet-riddled chest that read “Cattle Thieves Beware”.
Two passers-by noticed the ruckus that Saturday afternoon and local rancher Jack Flagg rode to Buffalo (the county seat of Johnson County) where the sheriff raised a posse of 200 men over the next 24 hours and the party set out for the KC on Sunday night, April 10.
The WSGA group then headed north on Sunday toward Buffalo to continue its show of force. The posse led by the sheriff caught up with the WSGA by early Monday morning of the 11th and besieged them at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek. The gunmen took refuge inside a log barn on the ranch. Ten of the gunmen then tried to escape the barn behind a fusillade but the posse beat them back and killed three. One of the WSGA group escaped and was able to contact the acting Governor of Wyoming the next day. Frantic efforts to save the WSGA group ensued and two days into the siege Governor Barber was able to telegraph President Benjamin Harrison a plea for help late on the night of April 12, 1892.
Harrison immediately ordered the U.S. Secretary of War Stephen B. Elkins to address the situation under Article IV, Section 4, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which allows for the use of U.S. forces under the President's orders for “protection from invasion and domestic violence”. The Sixth Cavalry from Fort McKinney near Buffalo was ordered to proceed to the TA ranch at once and take custody of the WSGA expedition. The 6th Cavalry left Fort McKinney a few hours later at 2 am on April 13 and reached the TA ranch at 6:45 am. The expedition surrendered to the Sixth soon after and was saved just as the posse had finished building a series of breastworks to shoot gunpowder on the invader's log barn shelter so that it could be set on fire from a distance. The Sixth Cavalry took possession of Wolcott and 45 other men with 45 rifles, 41 revolvers and some 5,000 rounds of ammunition.
The WSGA group was taken to Cheyenne to be held at the barracks of Fort D.A. Russell as the Laramie County jail was unable to hold that many prisoners. They received preferential treatment and were allowed to roam the base by day as long as they agreed to return to the jail to sleep at night. Johnson County officials were upset that the group was not kept locally at Ft. McKinney. The General in charge of the 6th Cavalry felt that tensions were too high for the prisoners to remain in the area. Hundreds of armed locals sympathetic to both sides of the conflict were said to have gone to Ft. McKinney over the next few days under the mistaken impression the invaders were being held there.
The Johnson County attorney began to gather evidence for the case and the details of the WSGA's plan emerged. Canton's gripsack was found to contain a list of seventy alleged rustlers who were to be shot or hanged, a list of ranch houses the invaders had burned, and a contract to pay each Texan five dollars a day plus a bonus of $50 for each person killed. The invaders' plans reportedly included murdering people as far away as Casper and Douglas. The New York Times reported on April 23, that “The evidence is said to implicate more than twenty prominent stockmen of Cheyenne whose names have not been mentioned heretofore, also several wealthy stockmen of Omaha, as well as to compromise men high in authority in the State of Wyoming. They will all be charged with aiding and abetting the invasion, and warrants will be issued for the arrest of all of them.”
Charges against the men “high in authority” in Wyoming were never filed. Eventually the invaders were released on bail and were told to return to Wyoming for the trial. Many fled to Texas and were never seen again. In the end the WSGA group went free after the charges were dropped on the excuse that Johnson County refused to pay for the costs of prosecution. The costs of housing the men at Fort D.A. Russell were said to exceed $18,000 and the sparsely populated Johnson County was unable to pay.
Emotions ran high for many years following the “Johnson County Cattle War” as some viewed the large and wealthy ranchers as heroes who took justice into their own hands in order to defend their rights, while others saw the WSGA as heavy-handed vigilantes running roughshod over the law of the land.
A number of tall tales were spun by both sides afterwards in an attempt to make their actions appear morally justified. Parties sympathetic to the invaders painted Nate Champion as the leader of a vast cattle rustling empire and that he was a leading member of the fabled “Red Sash Gang” that supposedly included the likes of everyone from Jesse James to the Hole in the Wall Gang (of which the most famous members were Butch Cassidy and The Sundace Kid). These rumors about Champion have since been discredited. Parties sympathetic to the smaller ranchers spun tales that insinuated the Regulators hired some of the west's most notorious gunslingers such as Tom Horn and Big Nose George Parrot (whose skull was later used by the warden at the prison in Laramie as an ash tray). Horn did briefly work as a detective for the WSGA in the 1890s but there is no evidence he was involved in the war.
As many historians as there are is as many theories as to why this dispute over land and resources turned into a shooting war, but one thing remains consistent and that is the popular image depicts the Johnson County War as an act of vigilantism by aggressive foreign-owned land and cattle firms against small, individual settlers defending their rights.