(Gillette, Wyo.) Imagine a large corporation vilifying small business owners in “fake news” articles and then bringing in a large group of hired guns and employees to kill those smaller competitors. That’s essentially what happened during a notorious event that became known as The Johnson County War.
On April 5, 1892, a group of 52 armed men, traveling up from Cheyenne, headed toward Buffalo, Wyoming. They carried with them a list of 70 men they planned to shoot or hang.
The war was another incident to come about due to the “tragedy of the commons,” a situation that unfolded in Wyoming over grazing land. The same issues was also part of the causes of the conflicts with sheepherders shortly after.
Wyoming grazing land was publicly owned, meaning it wasn’t owned by anyone. If someone wanted to raise cattle in Wyoming, the ranges were largely on a first-come, first-serve basis. Large cattle interests set up shop and dominated much of the territory. The Homestead Acts, however, were bringing in “mom and pop” ranchers, and the conflicts tensions began to brew.
The decade prior to the 1892 invasion, the cattle baron’s power largely went unchallenged. Beef was a valuable commodity, and the barons were rolling in profits. Their capacity to produce beef, however, flooded the market, and the law of supply and demand sent prices plummeting.
Since no one owned the land the barons grazed upon, the barons had little incentive to care for the land like today’s ranchers do. So, they just brought in more cattle to make up for lost profits, and that forced prices down even further. The already weakened grasslands were further depleted, and then a bad drought hit in 1886, followed by an awful winter. The cattle barons were facing significant financial problems.
Meanwhile, homesteaders who were just trying to feed their families competed for over-grazed public land. Tensions boiled over and in July 1889, six cattlemen lynched two homesteaders, Ellen Watson and Jim Averell, near the Sweetwater River in Carbon County. They were accused of stealing cattle.
At the time, Cheyenne newspapers, which were owned by the cattle barons, portrayed Watson as a prostitute who accepted cattle for her services.
These articles, which are still in the newspapers’ archives, have since been reviewed by historians and proved to have been entirely invented.
The same year, Johnson County juries acquitted suspects in five cattle theft cases. The barons reacted to the acquittals as if the county was a land of lawlessness, where cattle rustler were protected by juries of their peers.
Just as the articles claiming Watson was a prostitute were false, reviews of court documents and newspaper articles from the time show the cases against the alleged cattle thieves were full of holes and motivated by the barons’ interests, as well as the reward money they offered.
A group of assassins in 1891, pushed on by their baron leaders, began killing small players in the cattle trade. They targeted Nate Champion, who ran a herd of about 200 cattle on one of the forks of the Powder River. His cattle grazed on public land.
Even though Champion, under the law, had as much right to the land as did the big cattlemen, the barons resented the competition for the public resource. A newspaper reporter, in the days before libel suits, declared that Champion was the “king of thieves.” The reporter was known for being in bed with the barons. There was no evidence to support the accusations against Champion, and no charges were ever formally filed. The barons simply didn’t want the competition.
The group of assassins broke into Champion’s cabin in Nov. 1891. Unfortunately for the crony barons, Champion was a quicker shot. He shot one of the assassins that entered his cabin and killed the other. The rest of the assassin squad fled but not before Champion got a good look at one of them.
The failed assassination attempt opened the door to the possibility the barons could be tried and possibly convicted in a court of law. All the county needed was to successfully prosecute one member of the assassin squad, who would then probably name his employers to avoid a long prison term.
The man Champion had seen before the assassin squad fled was arrested and his case bound over to district court after a preliminary hearing. With Champion’s testimony and the evidence the county had, the man was likely to be convicted.
The cattlemen resolved to go north and invade Johnson County. Their primary target was Champion, whom they didn’t want to testify against their man. On April 9, 1892, they located the ranch where Champion was staying and surrounded him. Champion held out for hours, but the men set his cabin on fire and shot him down when he came running out.
By then the citizens of the area rounded up a posse of more than 400 men and went after the invaders. They were just about to close in on the invaders when soldiers from Fort McKinney rode into the scene and took the invaders into custody.
The soldiers had been summoned by Gov. Amos Barber, who took control over the invaders and refused to let them be questioned. He did everything he could to undermine the investigation. The state refused to provide Johnson County any assistance for the cost of housing and feeding the prisoners. The county’s budget was exhausted, and there wasn’t enough money to prosecute the invaders. All their charges were dropped.
The cattle barons and their hired guns got off largely scot-free.