Johnson County War
Hole in the Wall country, just outside Buffalo in Johnson County
The late 1800's and early 1900's were a time of violent conflict over land use in the American West. The Johnson County War in Wyoming was one of the worst episodes in the saga.
In the beginning, most of Wyoming was public domain, meaning the land was open to homesteaders and to open range stockraising. British, East Coast and other investors poured a lot of money into huge herds of cattle that were turned loose on the open range. In the spring, the ranchers would have a roundup and separate the cows and calves of each ranch and brand all the new calves. Quite often, before the roundup began in earnest, orphan and stray calves would disappear and be quietly branded. The larger ranches called this "cattle rustling" and were very aggressive against it, going so far as to forbid their own employees to own any cattle and threatening to lynch (and sometimes lynching) anyone else they didn't like. Under the doctrine of "Prior Appropriation" (first to settle the land and the size of their herd), big and small ranchers sorted out and usually respected property and use rights. However, sometimes the largest ranch outfits would "claim" huge chunks of public land and stop newcomers and homesteaders from coming in.
Most of the large outfits organized themselves as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. As these were some of Wyoming's wealthiest and most popular residents, the Association held great political power. They also organized the cattle industry by scheduling roundups and setting up cattle shipments on the railroad. They also employed a detective agency to investigate any cattle rustling against their members.
The winter of 1887-1888 was particularly bad, especially after the previous hot and very dry summer. Thousands of cattle starved to death in the cold and the snow. In the spring, the larger ranches banded together and took control of even larger parcels of land and started to regulate water flows and supplies in the area. They went so far as to chase small homesteaders off their property and then burn down their buildings. During the spring roundup they excluded smaller ranchers in the neighborhood from participating by labeling them all cattle rustlers.
There were well-organized bands of horse and cattle rustlers wandering across Wyoming and Montana in those years. Montana cattle operators declared war on them in 1889, Wyoming followed suit in 1890. That year saw many smaller ranchers in Johnson County killed by agents of the big ranchers who claimed they were cattle rustlers. The evidence for many of these claims was dubious at best, while many others were simply found dead with no evidence of why and no evidence leading to the killers. The Sheriff of Johnson County, Frank M. Canton, was also a "detective" hired by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and was rumored to be behind many of the deaths. In 1889, Ella Watson and Jim Averell, 2 small homesteaders, were lynched by riders working for one of the large cattle ranches. The two were innocent of the claims of "rustling" but several witnesses to the lynching disappeared completely while others were either heavily intimidated or found dead in suspicious circumstances. Several more dubious lynchings happened in 1891. No one was ever tried or convicted of any of the killings.
Then a group of smaller ranchers formed their own Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Grower's Association. They were immediately threatened by the members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and ordered to stop all operations. Instead, they publicized their plans to hold their own roundup in the spring of 1892.
The Wyoming Stock Growers Association then imported 23 hired gunslingers from the Paris, Texas area. They hired 4 new cattle detectives and George Dunning (an Idaho frontiersman who later turned on them). They were joined by a state senator, the state water commissioner, two men who helped organize Wyoming's statehood, a surgeon, a local newspaper editor and a reporter for the Chicago Herald. The expedition was led by Frank Canton, himself a former bank robber/cattle rustler-turned-lawman-turned-gunslinger (he was also a US Marshall several times in his life). Canton carried a bag with a list of 70 people who were supposed to be either shot or hanged, and a list of all the ranch houses they were to burn in their journey. He also had a contract to pay the Texans $5 per day plus a $50 bounty for every "rustler" they killed. The plan also included killing targets as far away as Casper and Douglas. History knows the group as "Walcott's Regulators."
They gathered in Cheyenne, took a specially hired train to Casper and then proceeded to Johnson County on horseback, cutting telegraph lines along the way so that no news could get out. Their first target was Nate Champion, one of the organizers of the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association.
There were 4 people at Champion's log cabin. 2 were captured early in the morning when they went down to the river to get water. A third, Nick Ray, was shot while he was standing inside the cabin door. He died a few hours later. Champion barricaded himself inside the cabin and held them off for most of the day, killing 4 and wounding several others. Then they set the cabin on fire. Champion came out shooting and they gunned him down, 28 bullet holes in his body. They pinned a note on his chest that read "Cattle Thieves Beware," and left. That was Saturday, April 9, 1892.
Two passers-by heard the noise and told local rancher Jack Flagg about it. Flagg rode to the county seat in Buffalo and told the sheriff. On Monday morning, the sheriff, with a posse of 200 men, caught up with the "Regulators" and a long gun battle followed at a log barn on the TA Ranch by Crazy Woman Creek. 3 more of the Texans were killed but someone escaped and got a message to the acting Governor of Wyoming who telegraphed President Benjamin Harrison for help in saving the "Regulators." The Secretary of War ordered the Sixth Cavalry from Fort McKinney (near Buffalo) to go to the TA Ranch and take custody of the "Regulators." The cavalry arrived just as the posse was preparing to burn the barn down with all the gunmen (and WSGA people) inside.
The cavalry took the "Regulators" to Cheyenne where they were held at the barracks of Fort D.A. Russell. The Johnson County attorney started gathering evidence, including what was found in Canton's bag. According to The Times on April 23, "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." It never happened. The charges against the politicians were never filed. The Texans were released on bail and they all disappeared. Then when Johnson County couldn't afford the costs of prosecution, all other charges were dropped.
Frank Canton, self-admitted friend of both Ella Watson and Nate Champion, moved to Oklahoma after all this and became a "respected" U.S. Marshall. About 15 years later he somehow arranged a meeting with the Governor of Texas in which he admitted to being Joe Horner, a fugitive murderer, bank robber and cattle rustler. Taking Canton's years of working in law enforcement into account, the governor pardoned him for his crimes.