The Johnson County War: How Wyoming Settlers Battled an Illegal Death Squad
Foreword by David E. Petzal As we learn in school, European feudalism died out more or less in the 14th...
Foreword by David E. Petzal
As we learn in school, European feudalism died out more or less in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was, not, however, really dead. It was merely lying dormant, waiting for the American West to open, and in particular the Territory of Wyoming. There, the descendants of the Englishmen who lived in castles, carried lances into battle, and hired bands of heavily armed thugs called knights to enforce their will, took up that way of life once more. Now they lived in ranch houses, not castles. The lances were replaced by Colts and Winchesters and Sharps. The knights were now called “regulators.”
These new feudal lords were highly educated–men of taste, culture, and sophistication. They played polo. They established “gentlemen’s clubs” where they could socialize with others of their class. But if you had the gall or the bad luck to let your stock eat their grass or drink their water, or–most heinous of all–homestead on what they had stolen fair and square, they would have you killed or burned out or both. Honest men and rustlers alike decorated the end of a rope or took a bullet for incurring the displeasure of a cattle baron.
These were rip-roaring times, and they make rip-roaring reading, especially when given the talents of Hal Herring, who is a careful researcher, a fine writer, and a lover of the Old West. You’re in for a treat, pardner, and keep your cows the hell away from my stream. –DEP
“An insurrection exists in Johnson County, in the state of Wyoming, in the immediate vicinity of Fort McKinney, against the government of said state…I apply to you on behalf of the state of Wyoming to direct the United States troops at Fort McKinney to assist in suppressing the insurrection.”
–Telegram from Amos W. Barber, Acting Governor of Wyoming, to President Benjamin Harrison, April 12, 1892 (from the book “The War on Powder River” by Helena Huntington Smith)
Setting The Stage
The Powder River country of Wyoming is known these days as a wide open country of antelope and mule deer, jackrabbits, rattlers, and alkali flats. In recent years it has yielded millions of dollars in coal and methane natural gas production. It is sparsely inhabited, and the men and women who live here for keeps–the ranchers and a smattering of those Americans who crave solitude above all else–have learned to roll with the punches of a harsh land and weather far more suited to nomads than settlers.
There was a time, though, when the Powder River country was viewed as a lush treasure house of grass and free, open land there for the taking and the running of tens of thousands of cattle. On the always-growing list of booms, scams, and get-rich-quick schemes for the globally wealthy, the Powder River cattle rush of the 1880s ranks high. As Helena Huntington Smith wrote in her classic book “The War on the Powder River,” “far to the north of the territorial capital the magnificent reaches of not-yet-organized Johnson County were an empty paradise of waving grass; a cowman’s paradise with the Indians out but the cowmen not yet in.”
The cowmen would arrive soon enough: the black sheep sons of European noblemen and wealthy youngish adventurers from New York, businessmen from Paris and Edinburgh, Scotland. The Anglo-American Beef conglomerate, one of the world’s largest cattle companies, was formed in an office in foggy London, its investors toasting the vast profits sure to come from an unimaginably raw land across the Atlantic.
It was a boom mostly of foreign money, and foreign dudes, some of them as cruel and tough as any plainsman, but with strange ideas of class and privilege. The English referred to cowboys as “cow servants,” and the classic Western tale was born of the English Lord, a newly arrived landowner, who rode up to a neighboring ranch and asked the ranch foreman if his “master” was at home. “The son-of a b**** hasn’t been born yet,” was the reply.
Books driving the boom were in every gentleman’s club in the eastern U.S. and in Europe’s major cities. “The Beef Bonanza, or How to Get Rich on the Plains” by James S. Brisbin, was published in the U.S. in 1881. Baron Walter von Richthofen, a Prussian nobleman and Colorado real estate developer, wrote his “Cattle Raising on the Plains of North America,” targeting the international frenzy of would-be cattle kings. All the books promised explosive returns on investment, expounded upon the boundless fertility of the Texas cows that would be occupying the range, and described the climate as “mild and genial.” Baron von Richthofen wrote what all wanted to hear: “There is not the slightest amount of uncertainty in cattle raising.”
The Powder River in Johnson County, Wyoming as it looks today.
The champagne flowed, mansions were built of rough-hewn cottonwood logs, and the cattle moved north from Texas, huge herds, almost as many as the buffalo that they replaced, and pushed by real cowboys, many of whom chose to stay on and file homestead claims along the creeks and rivers.
From the beginning it was an unlikely boom. Profits never equaled the promises. A scorching summer in 1886 was followed by the raging blizzards of the famous slate-wiping winter of ’86-87, forever remembered as one of the great disasters in the history of man’s efforts to raise livestock.
By 1888, the Cattle Barons were in disarray. Their opulent Cheyenne Club, with its world-famous wine selection and imported servants and chefs, was a place of deep gloom. Many of the Englishmen had left the region, either already bankrupt or trying to cut their losses. The Wyoming Plains were not the bonanza that the nobility had imagined, and worse, the vast potential of all that open space was being ruined by the settlers, many of them the very men whom the Cattle Barons had brought in to work for them. These rough and independent souls had learned from the Barons how to build cattle herds by branding “slicks” (unbranded calves found on the range) and claiming any wandering cow as a maverick, and even changing the brands on cows that were obviously owned.
The Cheyenne Club circa 1890. Photo from WyomingTalesandTrails.com.
They knew from experience where the grass grew lush, and where the good water stayed long in the summer, and they laid claim to those crucial parts of the range, through the Homestead Act. It was an intolerable situation. In Europe, the native land of many of the barons, the working people knew their place and punishment for those who didn’t was swift and merciless.
In the 1880s, to them America must have seemed completely out of control. In the teeming cities of the Eastern U.S., where the American cattle kings had been born into families who were among the nation’s most prosperous industrialists, the class war was fierce. The Knights of Labor, a group fighting for factory workers’ right to, among other things, an eight hour work day, claimed 700,000 members. In May of 1886, over a half million American workers took to the streets, with massive demonstrations in every major city.
On May 4th of that year, laborers and factory workers fought alongside bomb-throwing anarchists in the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago; four policemen and at least seven rioters were killed, along with dozens of wounded on all sides. The settlers of the Wyoming plains were not like those factory workers, but they shared with them a serious lack of respect for class and power and the discriminatory laws made by those who had the advantage of both.
Wealthy cattlemen like Major Frank Wolcott (who attained his rank in the Union Army during the Civil War) and Elias Whitcomb, men who had survived the winter of ’86-’87 and were organized into the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association, thought they knew exactly how to handle the situation: clear out these thieves and upstarts, and get the ranges open again. It is said that the Death List drawn up in the Cheyenne Club the winter of 1892 included 70 Wyoming inhabitants, including the Johnson County Sheriff, his deputies, and three of the county commissioners. A newspaper editor and a prominent local merchant from the town of Buffalo were on there. And high on the list was the head of the newly formed Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stockgrowers Association, a hard-as-nails gunfighting cowboy named Nathan D. Champion.
The New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol, as it was called when it first appeared in October of 1873. We know it as the Colt Single Action Army. Just about everybody on both sides of the Johnson County War had one.
By 1892, Johnson County was on the verge of war. The big ranchers in the Wyoming Stock Growers Association reported tremendous losses to rustlers during 1890, and there were few among the general population who felt sorry for them. Shootings of suspected rustlers became common. As professional “stock detectives” (the most famous being Frank Canton) found employment with the big ranches, hangings were added to the mix. The settlers were infuriated and terrified by the lynching murders of Ella Watson, a good natured prostitute and homesteader, and her partner, James Averill, who kept a primitive but popular saloon and store frequented by cowboys and wolfers. Nate Champion, spending the winter of ’92 in a cabin up the Middle Fork of the Powder River, was attacked by assassins, whom he fought off with a Colt single action revolver, and then pursued using one of the assassins’ own Winchesters which had been left behind in the battle. He survived with only powder burns to his face. Two of Champion’s friends, small time cattlemen Orley “Ranger” Jones and John Tisdale, were found shot to death not long after. The Powder River country was a powder keg, with a lit fuse.
But only the leaders of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and their political accomplices who planned it all winter knew what the explosion would look like.
The Pullman Car and Gun Thugs Arrive
On April 2, 1892, a train came into Cheyenne from Denver, towing a special Pullman car, all its windows shaded. Inside were Major Frank Wolcott and 22 gunmen recruited from around Paris, Texas. They had been told they’d be paid to “serve warrants” on the “murderous outlaws” that plagued the region. The pay was $5 a day, plenty of food and ammunition, plus $50 per “warrant” served, or “rustler” killed (average pay for a cowhand in 1892 was around $25 a month). There were no warrants. The actual plan was to scour the country between Casper and Buffalo, checking off the names on the Death List, and then to invade the unruly town of Buffalo, and remove all those who opposed the rule of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
Winchester 1886, in .40-82, as carried by Texas gunman G.R. Tucker, one of the regulators. Tucker also carried an extra Winchester Model 1876 in .40-60 and a Colt SAA, .45.
After the Pullman car was unloaded, Frank Canton and four other “stock detectives” helped arm and equip the fighters with Colt revolvers and 1886 Winchester lever guns bought from a Cheyenne dry goods store. A doctor, two newspapermen, and a small band of wagon drivers and packers filled out the war party, which was 52 men strong and, wrote one witness, “carrying enough ammunition to kill all the people in Wyoming.”
The train left Cheyenne and carried the men and horses and wagons north to Casper, where they unloaded in the pre-dawn cold and darkness. The hunt for rapscallions was on. Except that it wasn’t. The ground was thawed enough to be the purest gumbo mud, and the wagons bogged, the horses floundered. The expedition was traveling extraordinarily heavy–the Stock Growers were in no mood to rough it as they cleaned house on rustlers and malcontents–and it showed. As it slowly lurched across the sagebrush steppe, settlers, wanderers and cowboys watched. Some were taken prisoner and released. Rumors flew.
Last Stand at the KC Ranch
On April 8, advance scouts, probably Canton, reported that Nate Champion and “other rustlers” were staying at the KC Ranch, not far away. A plan was made to attack them, even as a howling blizzard descended upon the plains, and darkness fell. Although a minor mutiny was brewing in the miserable conditions, most of the regulators made it to the high cutbank above the KC Ranch at dawn. They set up firing positions and settled in for a long, freezing wait, made longer because the boys at the KC were still on winter hours, rising late, and in no hurry to face a sloppy spring snow.
The regulators had expected a party of 14 armed thieves to be at the KC. In reality there were only four people, including an old cook and an unemployed cowboy who had stopped to rest and get a bite to eat. Both of them rose early to get water from the creek for coffee, and were taken prisoner. Nick Ray and Nate Champion, the only men at the ranch who were on the Death List, were sleeping in a small log bunkhouse. Nick Ray was the first to rise, and as he stepped outside, he was shot down by regulator D.E. Booke, a young man who went by the name of the Texas Kid, and who was shooting a newer Winchester Model 1886, in 38 WCF. (38-40). As Ray staggered back to the bunkhouse, the regulators opened fire on him, knocking him down. He managed to crawl to the doorstep, where a thoroughly awakened Nate Champion dragged him inside, while returning fire. One of the most one-sided battles in Plains history had commenced.
“They are shooting at the house now. If I had a pair of glasses I believe I would know some of those men. They are coming back. I’ve got to look out.”
“Well, they have just got through shelling the house again 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. I think they will fire the house this time.”
“It’s not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.”
–Nate D. Champion, written while under fire from 22 armed regulators at the KC Ranch.
Nick Ray died at around 9 o’clock. Champion fought all day, duly recording his efforts and thoughts in his journal (above). The regulators were surprised at mid-day by Jack Flagg, a newsman from Buffalo who had a ranch in the area, and was riding to Douglas to attend the Democratic convention as a delegate. Flagg had no idea what was going on at the KC, but he recognized some of the leaders of the regulators, and rode over for a chat. Flagg had no idea that his name, too, was on the Death List.
One of the regulators fired at him with a Winchester and missed. Flagg spurred his horse and fled as if the devil were behind him. Over a series of small hills, a youngster (identified only as “Alonzo”) was driving Flagg’s wagon, with his luggage, camping gear, and a Winchester. Flagg reached the wagon with bullets flying all around him. He and Alonzo dove for cover, and with his Winchester, he began a methodical defense that sent his attackers running back to the less challenging siege of the lone Nate Champion. Flagg and the boy mounted their horses, left the wagon behind, and took off to help raise a force to save whoever was at the KC Ranch.
There was never any doubt about the outcome of that siege, even though Champion made one of the West’s greatest last stands, keeping up a steady fire, and taking cover in a pit he’d dug out in the dirt floor. The regulators used Flagg’s abandoned wagon to seal Champion’s fate. Loaded with hay and old fence posts, the wagon was set afire and pushed against the bunkhouse while Champion was kept down by a rain of lead from two dozen rifles. The bunkhouse burned hot and fast, but Champion did not emerge for so long that it was assumed he’d taken his own life. The regulators stayed behind cover, rifles trained on the doorway. Just before the structure collapsed, a blackened figure appeared, walking calmly in sock feet through the fire and smoke, and holding a Winchester at the ready. His Colt was in his waistband. The regulators opened fire with abandon, and killed him. They later took his Colt, and his notebook, which they gave to the newsman with them. Champion and Ray were left where they fell.
The expedition retired to a nearby ranch run by a sympathizer, and rested and ate heartily. Wolcott and W.C. Irvine were optimistic that the expedition, despite the loss of the entire day spent killing Champion and Ray, would be successful. The weather was clearing, the regulators blooded. Frank Canton, though, was furious, demanding that they ride on Buffalo, which would be roused by now if Jack Flagg had reached it. Wolcott tarried. It would not have mattered if he had listened to Canton, anyway. Flagg was already in Buffalo. And Buffalo, as Helena Huntington Smith writes it “went wild.”
“The streets were filling with armed men from the nearer ranches, while riders were sent to distant parts of the county for help to repel the murderers. In town, the leading merchant, a venerable old Scotsman named Robert Foote, ‘mounted his celebrated black horse, and with his long white beard flying to the breeze, dashed up and down the streets calling the citizens to arms…'” –Helena Huntington Smith, “The War on Powder River”
Smith also notes that less “flowery” press reports of the day in Buffalo record Foote as riding the streets and yelling, in more simple terms, “Come out you so-and-so’s, and take sides!” Poetry or plain-spoken command, the result was dramatic. Foote opened his store so that the fighters could supply themselves with weapons, ammunition and warm blankets and clothes. Smith writes, “‘Come in and help yourself’ was the order of the day. Churches and schoolhouses were opened as headquarters for the incoming recruits, while the good women of the town rallied to cook and bake for the home forces, with the sure and ancient knowledge of women that in any crisis the first need of men is to be fed.”
Jack Flagg’s Band
An army rode out from Buffalo, rag tag but well-equipped and with a terrifying fury that drove them across the 100 miles of sagebrush to the KC Ranch. They rode fast, under the command of Jack Flagg, Johnson County Sheriff Red Angus, and an unkempt wildman named Arapahoe (Rap) Brown, a flour mill operator who had been elected to lead the combat forces. Businessman and pioneer Elias U. Snider would handle negotiations, if any were required. But none were planned. Jack Flagg and a band of armed riders had already been to the KC and found the burned houses and the bullet-flayed and coyote-gnawed bodies of Champion and Ray. For the rest of his life, Flagg would refer to the regulators only as “the murderers.”
The regulators, warned by their outriders that armed bands were gathering to attack them, set up defenses at the TA Ranch, owned by a member of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and located on a wide bend of Crazy Woman Creek. On the hills above the Crazy Woman, looking down on the TA and slowly assembling in a determined but decidedly un-military manner, were between 350 and 400 armed men. As Smith writes “The invaders (regulators) were dumbfounded….They seemed to have supposed that a private army could march through the countryside at will, burning and shooting, without arousing opposition.”
And now, the settlers–newspaper accounts later would say the Buffalo army was comprised of “citizens and rustlers” though there were probably no more than 30 professional rustlers in Johnson County at the time, according to Smith and other sources–were laying full siege to the regulators. The frying pan was on the fire.
At dawn on Monday, April 11, the bullets began to strike the big TA ranch house, ice house, and stable, all of which were made of logs and well-fortified by the desperate regulators. A breastworks was built outside the stable, with pits dug and logs piled for a forward defense. Between the hard work, no water, and the incessant gunfire, arguments and fury reigned among the regulators. Defections began in earnest, first the teamsters (one of the teamsters, H.W. “Hard Winter” Davis had fled the regulators after the KC murders; a friend said that H.W. was suffering from ‘gunnarrhea’) escaped, then the newsman. The Texas gunmen demanded to see the warrants that they had been hired to serve. There were, of course, no warrants. A plan was made by Wolcott and other leaders to try and make a break for it, leaving the Texans behind. None could agree on the best way to escape, so they hunkered down in the rain of lead.
Assorted late 19th century ammunition. Photos courtesy of James D. Julia Auctions.
Lead Rain, Dynamite, and The Ark
Arapahoe “Rap” Brown and his men kept the firing pressure on the house and the stable–hours and hours of rifle fire from three sides and from the high ground. The chinking between the logs in the house fell away and the windows were all gone. An old buffalo hunter among the citizens kept up a deadly accurate and near constant fire for over two days, shooting some kind of unidentified, big bore muzzleloader that could punch off door hinges and send splinters flying from the breastworks.
Sheriff Angus ordered his men to shoot the regulators’ horses to prevent any escapes. A Texas gunman in the house shot himself, fatally, in the groin with his own Colt while crawling for safety. Regulator leader and ranch mogul W.C. Irvine was shot in the foot. Rap Brown said that what they needed were cannons. A rider was sent to the US Army’s Fort McKinney with a request for cannon but was turned down. Brown, a tinkerer and blacksmith, tried to build his own cannon, but his creation exploded when he touched it off. Undeterred, Brown and his men built what they called the “Ark of Safety,” a little fort of bunkhouse logs, perched on a wagon chassis. While the citizens suppressed the regulators with concentrated firepower, others would push the Ark close enough to the ranch house so that the men inside could hurl dynamite against the walls. On Tuesday at first light, the Ark began to move.
A .40 cal Sharps rifle, as carried by Elias “Pops” Whitcomb, the oldest of the leaders of the Regulators. Whitcomb was a true pioneer, rather than a wealthy investor and cattleman, as were many of the other leaders of the expedition. He continued to run his cattle ranches after the Johnson County War, and was killed by lightning on the Belle Fourche River in 1915. Photo courtesy of James D. Julia Auctions.
Friends and supporters of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association were hurtling across the plains, trying to drum up a rescue force. No one, not even those who had blustered so loudly in support of the expedition in the safety of the Cheyenne Club, would lift a finger. Someone managed to ride the 100 miles to Gillette, where the telegraph lines were intact, and sent an urgent message to the Wyoming Governor, who in turn telegraphed President Benjamin Harrison: “An insurrection exists in Johnson County….Open hostilities exist and large bodies of armed men are engaged in battle… no relief can be afforded by state militia… I apply to you on behalf of the state of Wyoming to direct the United States troops at Fort McKinney to assist in suppressing this insurrection. Lives of a large number of persons are in imminent danger.”
Hardworking repairmen on the telegraph line cut by the regulators saved the regulators’ lives. By telegraph, President Harrison wired Fort McKinney to order Colonel Van Horn to move the 6th Cavalry to the TA Ranch and stop the siege. The President seemed to be under the impression that it was a “rustler disorder” that the troops were going to suppress, but Van Horn set Harrison straight with his reply: “ENTIRE COUNTRY IS AROUSED BY THE KILLINGS AT THE KC RANCH AND SOME OF THE BEST CITIZENS ARE IN THE POSSE.”
On April 13, Van Horn and his troops arrived at the TA Ranch, and met with Arapaho Brown and Sheriff Angus. Van Horn, it is reported, treated Brown, Angus, and the rest of the armed citizenry with the utmost respect, while making it clear that the fighting had to stop. To the surprise of the cavalry, as soon as Van Horn assured the citizens that the regulators would be arrested and taken to Fort McKinney, the impromptu militia swiftly disbanded. Some whooping and hollering and taunting of the ranch house ensued, but most of the armed men drifted away, to the saloons of Buffalo, to camps on the prairie, to homesteads and ranches and families.
Major Frank Wolcott was the first to emerge, waving a cloth in surrender. He addressed Colonel Van Horn, rather than Sheriff Angus, saying the he would surrender to the U.S. Army, but would fight to the death rather than surrender to the Sheriff. The regulators came forth from the destroyed ranch house and the stable, and out of their hiding places. Van Horn put Wolcott in charge of disarming both himself and his dispirited and frightened followers, and recording the confiscated arms and ammunition in a ledger. The cavalry troops watched them closely; it was, according to historian Helena Huntington Smith, no secret that the soldiers of Fort McKinney were on the side of the “citizens and rustlers.” That hotbed of upstart sentiment and lowbrow entertainment, Buffalo, was only a few miles or so from the Fort, after all. But the regulators were in no mood and no condition to cause any more trouble. The Johnson County War was over.
The Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association held enough political power to have Wolcott and the Regulators released without charges for the invasion and violence. But the WSGA had taken a serious loss, and the losses kept coming. Hordes of sheep and sheepmen replaced their cattle and cowboys on the open ranges. Elections that year turned out badly for them, with the settlers’ candidates elected in a landslide. It was said that no jury in Johnson County would convict a settler of rustling, no matter the evidence.
Defeated on the battlefield, deprived of the courts, ignored in the halls of power they had so dominated, many of the cattlemen who had participated in the Invasion gave up, returning to Europe or the Eastern U.S.
Wolcott left ranching, and Wyoming, and became a Justice of the Peace and agent for the Omaha Stockyards. Other Wyoming cattlemen, hardbitten and unrepentant, stayed on. The day of trainloads of well-armed Regulators and invasions was over. In their place, cattlemen sought out a new solution: covert assassins to rid the range of the most blatant rustlers and the most annoying sheepmen.
John Coble, of the WSGA, told his friends that he had the ideal man for taking care of such malefactors in the Chugwater country. This man, Coble explained, was a veteran of every kind of fighting from Apaches to deadly range feuds. He lived out for weeks with nothing but a bedroll and a Winchester 1894 30-30. This man was a marksman who killed for money, and knew how to keep his mouth shut.
The man’s name was Tom Horn, and he would solve their problems for a minimal fee. So a new tale unfolds.
Field & Stream contributing editor, Hal Herring, is the author of “Famous Firearms of the Old West: From Wild Bill Hickok’s Colt Revolvers to Geronimo’s Winchester, Twelve Guns That Shaped Our History,” widely available in bookstores or through Amazon.