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See the extensive bibliography (divided into print, video/audio, and online resources) below the essay.

[1] It’s the early 1890s and tension in Wyoming has reached a dangerous level. What started as a disagreement between the cattle barons and the cowboys has taken a violent turn. War is about to erupt on the plains. But although the two sides had been fighting for years, the cattle barons and cowboys had once existed peacefully.

[2] Settlers from the east coast and Europe began migrating west in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1870s, the West was populated by cattle ranchers and their employees, and the Native Americans and buffalo had been completely eradicated. Settlers in the west generally enjoyed the freedom of wide open spaces, but as Wyoming was less populated than any other state yet had a larger square footage than most, its residents had the opportunities to be completely independent of their neighbors.

[3] Cattle farming became the gold rush of the West (Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, etc.). With the passing of the Homestead Act in the 1880s, a person who traveled to the West could claim a plot of land and keep it for his own simply by tending to it and working to improve its condition. The lush grass of Wyoming coupled with the promises of huge return investments on cattle farming drew many want-to-be ranchers to the plains. The East Anglo-American Cattle Company from England was the first large ranching operation. Moreton Frewen, a British landowner, opened the first big outfit in Johnson County, located in north-central Wyoming near the Bighorn Mountains in the area surrounding Powder River.

[4] From 1881-1885, books such as The Beef Bonanza and How to Get Rich on the Plains contributed to the westward migration. Although some scoffed at the idea of a twenty-five to forty percent return on investment each year, many settlers became starry-eyed at the idea of becoming rich on the life of a cowboy. Although such percentages were inflated, a ranch owner could make a decent profit after only a year in business. The annual cost of herding cattle was $.70/head. Including taxes, loss of interest on funds used for purchasing the land, and so forth, the total cost of raising one cow each year was $1.50. At market, a cow would fetch about thirty dollars, and a steer would bring in more than forty. Because of the speedy expansion of the West, by 1879 the Laramie County Stock Association had outgrown its usefulness as a county organization and reformed as the infamous Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association.

[5] For a number of years, the cowboys, foremen, and ranch owners lived in peace and learned from each other. The experienced shared their skills; the educated shared their knowledge. The winter of ‘86/’87, however, changed the dynamic of the west. Wintertime was always cold on the plains, but none had experienced a winter as unbearable as that in the mid ‘80s. By the time spring rolled around again, thousands upon thousands of cattle had been wiped out by the blistering storms and sub-zero temperatures. The cattle that did manage to survive the conditions were scrawny and worth much less at market, so even ranchers who found their livestock during the spring round-up showed enormous losses on their books.

[6] The term “mavericking” refers to the practice of taking an unbranded calf that has strayed from its herd—or at least its mother—and keeping it for your own. Although the act became illegal in 1884, mavericking was difficult to control on the immense open grazing lands. The cattle barons each instructed their cowboys to try to collect as many new calves as possible during the round-up, so losses to one particular outfit were never very significant. The cowboys understood that this could be a way to improve their own livelihoods, but even when they started keeping the cattle for their own herds, most ranchers looked the other way and decided against making an issue of the situation.

[7] The winter of 1887 changed the ranchers’ response to mavericking. What could once be overlooked became impossible to ignore when each outfit was recording huge losses from the weather. The rustlers were almost never apprehended for their actions (only when they were caught red-handed would the law enforce any sort of retribution), so the cattle barons decided to take matters into their own hands. By the end of the 1880s, tension was mounting in Wyoming.

[8] In 1884, a similar situation had been occurring in Montana, and Granville Stuart, a cattle baron, employed men to kill more than one hundred horse thieves and range squatters. Many of the would-be victims of his attack fled to Wyoming to look for work. Thomas Sturgis, who was secretary of the Stock Growers’ Association (SGA) for over a decade and is credited as the “father of the maverick law,” also pushed through a bill blacklisting all cowboys who owned cattle. No member of the SGA was allowed to employ a cowboy who had cattle or a brand of his own because it was assumed that he must have acquired the herd illegally. In fact, many of the cowboys had saved their money and purchased their livestock using their own money.

[9] One such blackballed cowhand was Oscar “Jack” Flagg. Although Flagg purchased his own cattle and the brand with which he identified them, he was nonetheless accused of rustling his herd. On top of his blacklisting, Flagg was labeled as a ringleader of the rustlers and later became one of the most wanted men in Johnson County.

[10] Despite the tension in the air, no one in Wyoming was actually harmed until the later 1880s. In 1889, James Averell and Ellen “Cattle Kate” Watson of the area of Carbon County along the Sweetwater River were kidnapped from their home and lynched. Although the two were allegedly married, Watson is frequently alluded to as the prostitute of Wyoming who accepted stolen cattle as payment for her services. Averell, a small man, ran a saloon for traveling cowboys on his homestead. Watson, a large woman who was over six feet tall, owned a neighboring plot. In their home, the two also kept Averell’s fifteen-year-old nephew and a boy whom Watson had adopted. The level of their guilt in the cattle theft was questioned because they had upset a local baron by breaking up his pasture with their homesteads and cutting off the water supply from the wealthy man’s herd, and he may have sought his own form of retribution.

[11] Tired of being accused of stealing cattle and having their own small herds compromised by the larger outfits, the cowboys formed the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers’ Association (NWFSGA). Normally the large ranching operations would hold a yearly round-up in April, so the NWFSGA decided to hold their own version a month earlier. Outraged, the SGA began to plot their violent solution to the problem of the cattle thieves.

[12] Tom Smith of the SGA was sent to Texas to round up hired guns to return to Wyoming to “take care” of the rustlers. The SGA offered each man five dollars a day and fifty dollars for every man they killed. The new SGA employees were given copies of the “Dead List” or the “Daisy List.” Seventy names were included on this piece of paper of men to be killed.

[13] Of the SGA members, one of its most vocal leaders was Frank M. Canton. Canton was born Joe Horner in Virginia in 1849 and moved to Texas about twenty-five years later. In 1877, Horner was convicted and sent to jail for robbing a bank, but he soon escaped. Not long after, Frank Canton showed up in Johnson County, Wyoming, where he served as sheriff in 1882. He then began to work for the SGA as a range inspector and was commissioned as a Deputy United States Marshal. Despite his own experiences with the law, Canton was determined to uphold the mavericking law. He made it his mission to rid Wyoming of its cattle thieves, and he had a special need to capture rustler Nate Champion.

[14] Nate Champion was an assumed thief in Wyoming, but he was well-liked and respected for his speed with a gun by both sides of the opposition. Champion was a round-up foreman originally from Texas until he started rustling cattle. If there were a hero of the Johnson County War, Champion would undeniably fill the title role. Cattle barons and cowboys alike would attest to his bravery and determination. Nate’s popularity did not prevent Canton and company from raiding his house at dawn on November 1, 1891. Although shots were fired from the guns of everyone involved, only one man was wounded, and Champion emerged unscathed.

[15] On April 5, 1892, the SGA decided that in order to stop the cattle thieves, they had to take matters into their own hands. Commanded by Major Frank Wolcott, who in addition to his official title was the manager of a large ranching operation, the SGA loaded fifty men, three cars of horses, and a stockpile of weaponry onto a train bound for Buffalo, Wyoming. Part of the executed plan was also to cut the telegraph wires of the town and kill the mayor. The ranchers were about to start the weeklong event known now as the Johnson County War.

[16] Champion and his friend, Nick Ray, who shared the homestead at K.C. cabin were hosting two passing freighters for the night. When the two visitors went to get water for breakfast on Saturday, April 9, they came face to face with the barrel of Canton’s gun. The two freighters were allowed to move to safety, but Ray was shot the moment that he emerged from the cabin. By the time Champion could drag his friend back inside, Ray was dead. Champion spent the next twelve hours occasionally shooting at his attackers, but mostly recording his thoughts and the events of the day in his journal. Some time in the afternoon, Jack Flagg, a friend of Champion’s and a fellow member of the “death list,” drove by the cabin with his seventeen-year-old son and his wagon. When the cattlemen realized who was passing them, they began shooting at Flagg as well. Flagg and his son escaped but had to leave their wagon behind.

[17] Champion’s attackers filled the neglected wagon with hay and dry brush. They then lit the straw on fire and pushed the inferno into Champion’s cabin. Although he held out for several minutes—long enough that his attackers assumed he had died in the blaze—Champion eventually emerged from the house in his stocking feet brandishing a gun in each hand. Despite Champion’s brave stand, it did not take long for Canton and his company of approximately forty armed men to shoot down the rustler. Before leaving, Canton tagged Champion’s bullet-ridden body with the note, “Cattle thieves beware.”

[18] Knowing that Flagg and his son would warn the citizens of Johnson County of their arrival and attack at the K.C. Ranch, Canton and his men decided to take refuge at the nearby T.A. Ranch. Since they had a head start, they were able to fortify the cabin and barn against attack. However, their prior decision to cut the telegraph wires meant that they were trapped within the confines of the homestead. On April 10th, the rustlers arrived at the T.A. Ranch, and for the next two days the opposing forces found themselves at a stalemate outside of an occasional shot from either side.

[19] Since the rustlers had intercepted a supply train to the cattle barons on April 11th, the ill-prepared army inside of the Ranch was quickly running out of food and ammunition. In addition to the new supplies that they stole from the cattle barons, the rustlers received reinforcements on Tuesday. Rejuvenated, the rustlers went to work, led by Sheriff “Red” Angus and Arapahoe Brown, building a moveable shield that would allow them to get close enough to the buildings to properly attack those inside. On Wednesday, April 13th, the cattle barons decided to make a run for it. Fortunately, only an hour before they decided to flee, the cavalry, led by Colonel Van Horn, arrived from Fort McKinney. One of the barons had escaped and reported the situation to acting governor Amos Barber, a friend of the SGA, who had telegraphed President Harrison for assistance. The war was over with only five casualties: Nick Ray, Nate Champion, the county coroner (who was said to have died from a heart attack upon seeing the charred remains of the two cowboys), and two SGA-hired Texans who accidentally shot themselves with their own guns.

[20] On April 13th, forty-one of the wealthy attackers were arrested for the murders of Nick Ray and Nate Champion, although not one ever set foot in jail. The arrested men were moved to Cheyenne, hundreds of miles away at the expense of the relatively poor Johnson County. The invaders were arraigned before Judge Scott, and the jury was almost complete until sheriff A.D. Kelly refused to house the prisoners without payment from Johnson County. The judge was forced to release them on a $20,000 bail. After an $18,000 drain on its citizens, Johnson County went bankrupt, and the prisoners were released until their trial. All of the Texan hired guns returned to Texas, never to be seen again, although some were shot and killed on their way there.

[21] For the next few months, the cattle barons were subjected to lootings and killings, including the murder of United States Deputy Marshal George Wellman. The violence occurred to such an extent that Major C.S. Ilsley and the 9th cavalry were brought in to keep the peace. This period of unrest would forever tag Johnson County as part of the “lawless” West.

[22] The court reconvened on January 21, 1893. Of the original forty-one men, only a few of the cattlemen returned for their trial. Because of the small number of returning convicts, the cattlemen’s lawyer, Alvin Bennett, got the charges dropped. After nearly a year, the cattlemen escaped punishment for the murders of Ray and Champion.

[23] Although it lasted only a few days, the Johnson County War (also called the War on Powder River) inspired the writing of a number of ballads, books, and, later, films. A journey to modern-day Buffalo, Wyoming, in Johnson County yields a number of museums and historic sites dedicated to the events of the 1890s. Visitors can see Will Grove Cemetery where Ray and Champion are buried, Frank Canton’s log cabin that was moved to the T.A. Ranch, and memorial museums.

Print Resources

Atherton, Lewis. The Cattle King. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1961.
As the title suggests, the author sides mainly with the cattle barons. In fact, the book mostly revolves around the hardships the cattlemen faced in developing the West and only briefly mentions the Johnson County War even though it covers events through the turn of the century. Atherton considers the war an overzealous mistake but not a reason for judging the cattlemen harshly.
Baber, D.F. The Longest Rope: The Truth about the Johnson County Cattle War as told by Bill Walker. Caldwell: Caxton Printers Ltd., 1940.
The war is told from the point of view of a rustler. Baber paints the rustlers as honest men trying to make a living in the West and the cattle barons as greedy, violent, and power-hungry liars.
Brown, Richard Maxwell. "Western Violence: Structure, Values, Myth." Western Historical Quarterly 24.1 (1993): 5-20.
This article examines violence in western history and details the era from 1850-1920. From bandits to cowboys to Native Americans to Chinese railroad workers, Brown discusses the unrest in the developing west. He praises Heaven's Gate for siding with the losing team. He appreciates that Cimino steers away from the classic western hero.
Davis, William C. The American Frontier: Pioneers, Settlers, and Cowboys 1800-1899. London: Salamander Books, 2005.
This large book is full of black and white and color photographs depicting the first movements westward to the flourishing cities at the turn of the 20th century. It includes a short section on the Johnson County War but overall gives an entire picture of the West in the 1800s.
"Debellier Goes Mad." New York Times 8 Jul 1892: 1.
Frederick O. Debellier was a Harvard graduate who joined in the murder of Nate Champion and Nick Ray. While sitting in jail waiting for trial, he began to lose his mind. This article suggests that his weakened mental state was caused by contemplation over the horror of their act against the two cattlemen. Debellier was one of the most forward men under Major Wolcott's supervision. He was always the first to volunteer for a dangerous undertaking. It was decided that the only way to prevent declaring him clinically insane was to relieve him of his charges and take him to the seashore.
Gage, Jack R. The Johnson County War Ain't a Pack of Lies: The Rustlers' Side/The Johnson County War Is a Pack of Lies: The Barons' Side. Cheyenne: Flintock Publishing Co., 1967.
Depending on which way you orient the book, Gage gives you accounts of the war from either the rustlers or from the cattle barons. He basically writes two books with a strong bias either way and then combines them into one text in an attempt to produce an even-handed book. Gage gives first-person accounts for each side of the opposition and successfully alters his loyalties depending on which side of the book you are reading.
Gard, Wayne. Frontier Justice. (1949)
Has been described as "one of the best short accounts available"
Gould, Lewis L. "Willis van Devanter and the Johnson County War." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 17.4 (1967): 18-27.
Devanter was the lawyer for the cattlemen who ambushed and murdered Nate Champion and Nick Ray. This article gives perspective from his point of view including correspondence with Senator Warren.
Heald, George D. Wyoming Flames of '92: Official Communications During the Johnson County Cattle War. Oshoto, 1974.
"Photographic reproductions of copies of original telegraphic correspondence from and to the State of Wyoming during a period of the Johnson County Invasion in April of 1892."
Johnson, Marilynn S. Violence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and the Ludlow Massacre. A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009.
This book has a short history on the Johnson County War in Wyoming and the Mining Wars in Ludlow, Colorado. The book also includes a number of historical records from a number of characters in each of the battles.
McFerrin, Randy. "High Noon on the Western Range: A Property Rights Analysis of the Johnson County War." Journal of Economic History 67.1 (2007): 69-93.
This article discusses the property rights of the cattlemen versus the homesteaders—the open range policy versus federal homestead acts. McFerrin manages to stick the economic and legal facts and doesn't take the side of either party.
Mercer, Asa Shin. The Banditti of the Plains or the Cattlemen's Invasion of Wyoming in 1892. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1976.
Mercer, angered by the cattle barons wrote this book in anger, so he has a very biased point of view. In fact, he was so hard on the cattle barons that they had the book banned for a number of years, although much of the information in the book ended up being true.
O'Neal, Bill. The Johnson County War. Austin: Eakin Press, 2004.
This text gives the history surrounding and including the Johnson County War. It includes copies of many authentic photographs from the time period along with modern-day pictures of Wyoming. Along with the historical information is a section regarding the book-writing and film-making process associated with the war.
Sandoz, Mari Cattlemen. (1958)
Has been called the "best retelling of the oft-told Johnson County War that one is likely to find anywhere."
Schubert, Frank N. "The Suggs Affray: The Black Cavalry in the Johnson County War." Western Historical Quarterly 4.1 (1973): 57-68.
After the U.S. Cavalry came to the rescue of the cattle barons at the T.A. Ranch (and subsequently arrested them for the murder of Champion and Ray), Wyoming was in a state of unrest. The general population was out for blood after the slaying of one of their heroes and the 9th and 10th Cavalries—the "Buffalo Soldiers"—were called in to keep the peace.
Smith, Helena Huntington. The War on Powder River. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.
Many authorities consider Smith's book to be one of the most well-rounded and well-researched books about the Johnson County War on the market. Although she clearly sides with the rustlers, her opinions and stories are always supported by facts.

See Also

Annals of Wyoming. Cheyenne: Published by the Wyoming State Archives and Historical Department. 1965.

Associated Press. "Wyomingites Still Haven't Forgotten The Infamous Johnson County War." Rocky Mountain News 12 Apr 1992.

Belgrad, Daniel. "'Power's Larger Meaning': The Johnson County War as Political Violence in an Environmental Context. " Western Historical Quarterly 33. 2 (2002): 159-77.

Burroughs, John Rolfe. Guardian of the Grasslands: The First Hundred Years of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Cheyenne: Pioneer Printing and Stationary Co., 1971.

Carlson, Chip. Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon: Dark History of the Murderous Cattle Detective. Glendo: High Plains Press, 2001.

Champion, Nathan D. The Cattle Barons' Rebellion against Law and Order; First Eyewitness Accounts of the Johnson County War in Wyoming, 1892. [1892] Evanston: Branding Iron Press, 1955.

Chapel, Charles Edward. Guns of the Old West: An Illustrated Guide. New York: Courier Dover Publications, 2002.

David, Robert B. Malcolm Campbell, Sheriff. Casper: Wyomingana, Inc., 1932.

DeArment, Robert. Alias Frank Canton. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1996.

Flagg, Oscar H. A review of the cattle business in Johnson County, Wyoming, since 1882, and the Causes That Led to the Recent Invasion. Cheyenne: Vic Press, 1967.

Godfrey, Marjorie and Susan Willoughby. The American West: Assessment and Resources Pack-Foundation Edition. New York: Heinemann, 1996.

Gould, Lewis L. Wyoming: A Political History, 1868-1896. New Haven: Yale UP, 1968.

Hanson, Margaret Brock, ed. Powder River Country, The Papers of J. Elmer Brock. Cheyenne: Frontier Printing, Inc, 1981.

Hewitt, William L. "The ‘Cowboyification' of Wyoming Agriculture." Agricultural History 76.2 (2002): 481-94.

Horn, Tom. Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter, Written by Himself. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1964.

Hough, Emerson. The Story of the Cowboy. New York: Appleton, 1897.

Krakel, Dean F. The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattleman's War. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.

Manfred, Frederick. Riders of Judgement. New York: Random House, 1957.

Mercer, A.S. The Banditti of the Plains, or, The Cattlemen's Invasion of Wyoming in 1892. Cheyenne: A.S. Mercer, 1894.

Meschter, Daniel Y. Sweetwater Sunset: A History of the Lynching of James Averell and Ella Watson near Independence Rock, Wyoming, on July 20, 1889. Wenatchee: D. Y. Meschter, 1996.

Osgood, Ernest Staples. The Day of the Cattleman. [1929] Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Raine, William MacLeod. Wyoming: A Story of the Outdoor West. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1907.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-century America. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1998.

Video/Audio Resources

Vendettas: Johnson County Cattle War. A&E Home Video, 2002.
It's a standard History Channel reincarnation of the truth. It takes the side of the cattle rustlers but only to tie viewers into the battle scenes rather than trying to elicit support for that side. Emphasizes the "lawlessness" of the West in Johnson County.

Online Resources

"The American West." History Now 9 (September 2006). An overview plus sections on the myth of the the frontier, Indians, the Great Plains, and women.
Teaching resource from the Gilder Lehrman Institute.
Biography of Mike Shonsey, an SGA hireling
Created by his descendents, this site attempts to dispel negative feelings towards Shonsey. (Shonsey was known as a heartless hireling of the SGA.) He was the last (oldest) survivor of the Johnson County War participants. His family admits to his violent acts but makes him appear to be caught up in his duty.
Inventory of the Johnson County War Collection: 1884-1893
Holdings of the Cushing Memorial Library, Texas A&M University: "The Johnson County War Collection (1884-1893) contains financial and legal documents related to the cattle industry and the range war in Johnson County, Wyoming. The financial documents include a bill of sale written in compliance with the Maverick Law of 1884 and a promissory note. The legal documents were produced in connection with the criminal proceedings against the participants of the range war."
Johnson County War: From Wyoming Tales and Trails
Rather detailed narrative history of the conflict.
Legends of America: A Travel Site for the Nostalgic and Historic Minded: Wyoming Legends: Johnson County War
On the Legends site, you can find information about the history of Wyoming. On the Johnson County War page, click on the blue links to find specific information about the characters of the event.
Wyoming Mercantile & The Book Ranch: The Johnson County War
This website gives a short and accurate summary of the war, but what makes it the most useful is its bibliography. It lists a number of books that are either still in print or relatively readily available.
Wyoming Tales and Trails featuring Photographs and History of Old Wyoming
This site gives an overall history of Wyoming flush with photos. To go to a specific event (such as the Johnson County War), refer to the index on the left-hand side of the screen.