Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Johnson County War / Buffalo Wyoming

The Powder River area of northeastern Wyoming has been the scene of many historical events during America's move west. It's a beautiful part of the United States and was home for many years to the Lakota Sioux.

Red Cloud's War along the Bozeman Trail during the mid 1860's helped keep this area in Sioux control for another ten years. Control of this region eventually fell to the U.S. government in the 1870s following the end of the Great Sioux Wars of 1876-77 which included Custer's Battle of the Little Bighorn in June of 1876. After the successful completion of the Sioux War the area was opened to white settlement. This area of northern Wyoming and southern Montana is one of the most historic areas of the old west and one the most scenic. The picture below right is of The Medicine Wheel located in the Bighorn National Forest.

Buffalo Wyoming

medicine wheel
Courtesy USDA
Buffalo Wyoming  is nestled in the foothills of the beautiful Bighorn Mountains and is conveniently located at the intersections of Interstates 25 and 90, about 100 miles north of Casper

Today, Buffalo is a tourist destination and there are more than a dozen historic buildings found in Buffalo which makes it a great addition to your Wyoming vacation planner. 

Just a short drive from Buffalo are several excellent historic sites that make good side trips. They include Fort Phil Kearney along the old Bozeman Trail, Fetterman's Massacre Site, the site of the Wagon Box Fight and the "Hole in the Wall"- the hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and their gang. The Bighorn Mountains and the Bighorn National Forest just a few miles west of Buffalo Wyoming also offer several scenic byways for a picturesque road trip.

Buffalo Wyoming and the Johnson County War

One of Buffalo Wyoming's more historic events concerned a range war which truly demonstrated how law and order was often a very local affair. 

Range wars during the old west days were nothing new. In fact, what happened in April of 1892 in and around Buffalo Wyoming was nothing short of an invasion of Johnson County by the large cattle operations. Their targets were the smaller cattle growers who the big operators referred to as simple rustlers. The smaller operations opened up in the area as a result of the end of the Sioux hostilities. The entire region was wide open to settlement and it was only a matter of time before the two sides would come to conflict. Some of the western ranches were extremely in size such as the 3 million acre XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle area.

cattle kate
Ella Watson
This controversial range war of 1892 named the Johnson County War, and sometimes referred to as the War on Powder River, had it's origins really many years previous. 

To demonstrate how bad the tensions had been, in 1889 a female by the name of Ella Watson, sometimes referred to as "Cattle Kate" was lynched in Wyoming for alleged cattle rustling. 

Actually, between 1885 and 1909 some fifteen suspected cattle rustlers were killed in the area. The Johnson County War is said to have taken place in 1892 but sporadic fighting had been going on for some time therefore the name could easily be called the Johnson County Wars

The pot had been boiling for some time. Before the area of Wyoming was open to mass migration, the cattlemen essentially used all the land necessary for grazing. There were no fences. The land was in the public domain but the large cattle operations used it as a sort of monopoly. 

Cattle were put on the open range in what was public domain land.  The cattlemen would hold a spring roundup where the cows and the calves owned by several ranches were separated and the calves branded. This was the standard way of doing business. The large cattle operations banded together and formed the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. While the initial intent may not have been to monopolize the industry, as what often happens when large interests join together, monopolization is what did occur.

The tenuous  relationship between larger, wealthier ranches and smaller ranches became even worse when the 1886-1887 season was a disaster for the large ranchers due to extremely low temperatures and blizzard conditions. There was also a shortage of feed. A great number of livestock were lost. In addition to this it was a known fact that organized bands of rustlers operated in the Wyoming and Montana areas which really had nothing to do with the small ranchers and settlers but contributed to the ill will nonetheless.

In this atmosphere many smaller ranchers were killed by hired gunmen working for the larger outfits on the pretext of rustling but with very little real evidence. Lynch law was the rule when it came to rustlers. In regards to Buffalo Wyoming, the large cattle barons simply believed that the town was a haven for rustlers. In fact, they considered the entire town to be a rogue society of rustlers and decided to take action. History shows that this wasn't the case at all in the town of Buffalo and that the settlement really was a place of young settlers who had been arriving steadily in the area. The picture below right is of the Johnson County Courthouse built in 1884.

Johnson County is Invaded

johnson county wyoming courthouse
Courtesy WY St. Hist. Preservation Office
The invasion of Johnson County Wyoming in April of 1892 was nothing short of a war carried out by hired guns.

About 52 men fully armed rode on a special train from Cheyenne Wyoming up to Casper.

They had a long list of names they were after. Starting in Casper the group traveled by horseback. The supposed leaders of this group sent by the large cattle barons was a man named Frank Canton and a Major Frank Wolcott, an ex-Union soldier, rancher and member of the Stock Growers Association.

Canton was employed by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association as a range detective and once became sheriff of Johnson County Wyoming in 1885. The tale is that the two Franks bickered quite a lot as to who was the leader of the group. Interestingly enough, Frank Canton had at one time earlier been considered on the list of old west outlaws. Wolcott and Canton led the group known as the "Regulators" to a small ranch called the KC. This was their first target. Staying at the ranch was Nathan Champion and Nick Ray. After two others came out from the house and were arrested, a general gun battle ensued. Nick Ray was shot and killed shortly after the fight started. Nathan Champion held the group of Regulators at bay for several hours. During the almost day long standoff, Champion managed to kill four of the Regulators. Finally near the end of the day Frank Canton decided to set the house ablaze. The standoff ended when Champion came running out of the house shooting at which time he was cut down by no less than 24 bullets.

With their work completed at the KC, the Regulators mounted up and headed to the town of Buffalo to complete their mission. This is the point where things changed drastically.

frank canton johnson county war
Frank M. Canton
Not long after the killings at the KC Ranch, the current Johnson County sheriff along with friends of Champion's from the town of Buffalo started on the trail of the Regulators. The sheriff and his posse were successful and  they surrounded the gang of Regulators at the TA Ranch, which was considered to be friendly to the Cattle Association. There, Wolcott and Frank Canton and their party were essentially trapped by the locals. They were totally on the defensive.

The hunters now were being hunted. With Sheriff Angus were a large group of small ranchers, homesteaders and Buffalo town folk. They had the TA Ranch surrounded and the Regulators feared they would get close enough to set the ranch buildings ablaze, similar to what the Regulators themselves did at the KC.

Canton and his group were hiding in the barn. The Regulators however got real lucky. One of their group managed to escape from the Buffalo posse and reached a telegraph station where a wire asking for help was sent to the Wyoming governor. The governor in turn made a request to then President Harrison to send a rescue party of federal troops. This shows just how ill planned this expedition and/or invasion was. As a result, Harrison ordered his Secretary of War to send troops under a Congressional Act allowing the use of troops during domestic violence.

The use of the old west military in civilian matters was not unheard of. The Sixth cavalry out of nearby Fort McKinney were sent to the scene at the TA Ranch. The cavalry reached the ranch just in the nick of time as the Buffalo posse was getting ready to fire on the hay filled ranch barn which would probably have started the structure on fire. All of the Regulators in effect surrendered to the cavalry which ended the standoff and saved the Regulators.

What started as a purely offensive operation for the Regulators and their cattlemen sponsors ended in near disaster. This federal intervention on behalf of the trapped Regulators illustrates the influence the large cattle barons had with both the local and federal government.

Justice and the Regulators

ta ranch barn johnson county war
TA Ranch barn
The arrested Regulators were taken to a military post back down in Cheyenne since it was thought holding the men locally was too risky. In fact, people from Buffalo stormed Ft. McKinney thinking the Regulators were taken there.

The men were eventually charged but a trial never occurred. After being let out on bail most hit the road with many returning back to Texas. Also nobody in authority at the Wyoming Stock Growers Association was ever brought to trial.

All charges were eventually dropped with the excuse given that Johnson County refused to pay the costs involved with a trial. Tensions did not evaporate however and the Ninth Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers were eventually sent to the area in place of the Sixth Cavalry to try and maintain law and order. To illustrate how tensions remained long after the cattle baron invasion, one Buffalo Soldier was killed during this tour of duty. The state of Wyoming also experienced political repercussions as a result of the federal intervention. Having been known to be a Republican voting state, Wyoming voted largely Democratic for years afterward.

Nate Champion has been hailed as one of the bravest men in Johnson County for his one-man stand against an army of the Regulators on April 9, 1892. Historians have differed a bit about whether Champion was involved in rustling or not. Most research points to Champion being a very small rancher who may have had some other cattle mixed in with his at various times. The large cattlemen using the public domain land as they did believed that any calf born on "their range" belonged only to a rancher who was an Association member. Using this reasoning, a man could be accused of rustling livestock which were lawfully his. This circumstance goes a long way in explaining much of the conflict.

The Johnson County War has been depicted in both a movie and a song. The conflict became a lasting part of old west lore.

A Buffalo Wyoming road trip, side trip or weekend outing offers a good look at the old west during the era of the cattle barons.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from the public domain)

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