Johnson County War


The Johnson County War took place in northern Wyoming in April 1892, a short and bitter page in United States history. Hollywood has immortalized the event, but the real facts are found in the Big Horn Mountain country. Back in 1868 when Wyoming became a territory in 1868, and later, a state in 1890. It was settled with peace loving, honest and God-fearing people. This didn’t stop a fierce battle to break in 1892 between the cattlemen and the homesteaders.

Cattlemen came in first, setting up ranches, and becoming quite wealthy in the process. The educated entrepreneurs from the East as well as those from England were drawn to the promises of the territory. Most of the land was free government land and cattle were not fenced in but allowed to graze freely. The cattlemen formed the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association. When Wyoming became a State in 1890, the Governor joined this association adding to its power.

Homesteaders began to move in along the Bozeman and Oregon Trails in the late 1880s claiming the land. The cattlemen accused the homesteaders of taking their watering holes and rustling their cattle which was a hanging offense. The homesteaders said they had not rustled the cattle and had the support and protection of Sheriff ‘Red’ Angus.

The 1880s eventually brought hardships for everyone. Cattlemen did not keep an accurate count of their herds and this would have disastrous results after the blizzards of 1886-87, which just wouldn’t stop. The cattlemen who survived these years bitterly resented the farmers who had supposedly taken over their land. The losses and lack of records caused many of the ranchers to go bankrupt, thus leaving more land for the taking. Every time a farmer claimed land, especially near a water hole, and often fencing it off, the cattlemen’s anger and resentment grew. The fences and the ownership of water holes led to two fiercely diverse factions.

It was actually the accusations of cattle rustling, more than the homesteaders’ fences, that festered as a sore spot for cattlemen and their rift with the farmers. The ranchers’ charge of rustling done by the farmers was probably unjust. Most of the farmers were hardworking folk who just wanted to make an honest living. Yep, it’s possible though, that they might have needed a cow now and then.

The pot was boiling in 1889 when a rancher, A. J. Bothwell, wanted to take over some land that belonged to James Averill, a saloon owner. Averill lived on the land with a prostitute, Ella Watson, who was alleged to frequently receive payment in stolen cattle. James Averill accused Bothwell of being a land grabber. Bothwell accused Averill of rustling cattle. Averill and Watson were taken by force and hanged without trial. The men who lynched them were not brought to trial either.

The accusations exploded in 1892 when Wyoming cattlemen attempted to sort out the rustlers and were sponsored by some of the most powerful men in the state and the Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad people offered to transport a load of gunmen up from Texas. These regulators attacked the KC Ranch, killing two alleged rustlers, Nathan Champion and Nick Ray. They then headed for Buffalo, to the cattlemen friendly TA Ranch.

In the meantime, Sheriff Angus had been tipped off and the regulators found themselves under attack. The mission backfired and two of the Texans were killed. Governor, Amos W. Barber, supporter of the regulators, interceded and cabled President Harrison for help. Army troops rescued the Texas invaders and at the trial all were released under the pretense that the county was not able to pay for their keep. After receiving pay from the cattlemen they skipped back to Texas.

Governor Barber and Senators Carey and Warren, were later implicated as supporters of the raid. The invasion by the regulators had been a direct violation of the Wyoming State Constitution. Cattlemen remained, often living in fear of retribution, and the end of free range ranching. The Panic of 1893 followed and the Union Pacific Railroad folded. The fences continued to go up.

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