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Johnson County War

About sixty-one owners of live stock are reported to have made an armed expedition into Johnson County for the purpose of protecting their live stock and preventing unlawful roundups by rustlers. They are at ‘T.A.’ Ranch, thirteen miles from Fort McKinney, and are besieged by Sheriff and posse and by rustlers from that section of the country, said to be two or three hundred in number. The wagons of stockmen were captured and taken away from them and it is reported a battle took place yesterday, during which a number of men were killed. Great excitement prevails. Both parties are very determined and it is feared that if successful will show no mercy to the persons captured. The civil authorities are unable to prevent violence. The situation is serious and immediate assistance will probably prevent great loss of life.
- telegraph message from Amos Walker Barber, acting Governor of Wyoming to President Benjamin Harrison, April 12, 1892

Also known as the War on Powder River and the inspiration for dozens of films and novels, the Johnson County War a range war which took place in Johnson County, Natrona County and Converse County in the state of Wyoming. It was a battle between an organized group of wealthy cattle barons and small settling ranchers in the area that culminated in a lengthy shootout between the local ranchers and a band of hired killers, eventually requiring the intervention of the U.S. Cavalry on the orders of U.S. President Benjamin Harrison to rescue the invaders.

The Johnson County War has become an iconic illustration of the determination of established wealth and power to maintain its status at any cost, compromising justice and government officials, and employing mercenaries and assasins when necessary. It conflicts squarely with the American ideals of equal opportunity and due process.

In 1892, the the largest ranching outfits in Wyoming were organized as the politically influential Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA), which scheduled roundups and cattle shipments, and employed detectives to investigate cattle rustling against its members.

Although there is little independent evidence, WSGA members claimed that rustling was on the increase
by armed bands of horse and cattle thieves. Its "detectives" apparently killed several alleged rustlers apprehended on small ranches, most notably the double lynching of Ella Watson and storekeeper Jim Averell on the Sweetwater River in 1889, an event that enraged local residents.

Range War by Zabe Grey
Range War by Zane Grey

Newspaper articles about the lynching were swiftly syndicated through papers controlled by the WSGA in the city of Cheyenne asserting that the victims were cut-throat thieves who had threatened the lives of honest ranchers.  "These newspaper articles successfully clouded culpability for one of the ugliest crimes in Wyoming's history," notes attorney John W. Davis, author of Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County. "The people of Wyoming had limited information about the event, so the version out of Cheyenne was generally accepted, although with skepticism. People were right to be skeptical; a fair view of the facts tells quite a different story from the one out of Cheyenne."

A group of smaller Johnson County ranchers led by a local settler named Nate Champion began to form 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 but the NWFSGA refused the WSGA's order to disband and instead made public their plans to hold their own roundup in the spring of 1892. This would lead to the Johnson County War.

The WSGA hired 23 gunmen from Texas to assist detectives led by
Frank Canton - a former Johnson County Sheriff-turned-gunman - in eliminating alleged rustlers in Johnson County and breaking up the NWFSGA. Canton carried a list of dozens of "rustlers" to be either shot or hanged and a contract to pay the Texans $5 a day plus a bonus of $50 for every rustler killed.

The first target of the WSGA was Nate Champion at the KC Ranch, which they surrounded the night of Friday April 8 1892. 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 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 was headed north toward Buffalo when the posse caught up with them early Monday morning  and besieged them at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek.

The gunmen took refuge inside a log barn on the ranch. A group of 10 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.

The 6th Cavalry from Fort McKinney arrived at the TA ranch at 
6:45 am on April 13 take custody of the WSGA expedition just before the posse was about to set fire to the log barn.

Members of the WSGA mob were soon released on bail.
Many fled to Texas and were never seen again. Charges of aiding and abetting the invasion, and arrest warrents for more than 20 prominent stockmen, were never filed or issued. Members of the WSGA mob went free after the charges were dropped on the excuse that sparsely populated Johnson County refused to pay for the costs of prosecution.

 Wyoming Range War
Wyoming Range War
The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County
by John W. Davis

University of Oklahoma Press, 2010 

While many histories and accounts of the Johnson County War have been published, most rely heavily on sources from outside the area where the events occured. This fresh analysis of the event relies, instead, on the experiences and perspective of local residents in Johnson County, Wyoming, during the early 1890s.

Author John W. Davis, a Wyoming attorney, gave special credence to "admissions against interest" -- statements made by involved parties that are contrary to their interests -- and turned a skeptical eye on accounts of witnesses with a motive to distort as he compiled his research from local newspapers, land records, trial transcripts, diaries and other contemporaneous documents. His findings lead to a definitive conclusion:

"The only supportable facts are that the cattle rustling problem in Johnson County was a small, local problem. The 1892 view of the Johnson County Commissioners that the cattle barons carried out their actions against Johnson County residents in order to drive smaller stockmen off the range, was well founded. All the objective information is that the people of Buffalo and Johnson County in 1892, far from constituting a rogue society, were hardworking, ambitious, decent people - if anything, a moral cut above the usual run of human beings then in Wyoming."

The justification of intimidation, terror and outright murder by the WSGA's operatives as necessary to control cattle rustling comes across as blatantly contrived and baseless.

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