Johnson County, Wyoming

Johnson County, in the north-central region of Wyoming, isn’t the biggest county by population or square miles, but it looms large in the history of the state and the West.

Many of the iconic themes in western history were played out on the stage of the Powder River and Bighorn country that makes up the plains, foothills and mountains of Johnson County.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, people in what’s now Johnson County witnessed:

  • Inter-tribal rivalries that epitomized the northern Plains horse culture;
  • Beaver trapping by mountain men in the Bighorns;
  • Military, trapper and trader exploration and the establishment of several trading posts and military forts, as well as use of the Bozeman Trail by wagon trains;
  • Indian attacks on wagon trains and forts;
  • The Fetterman Fight, the biggest Indian victory on the northern plains before the Little Big Horn battle, and predating it by a decade;
  • The rise of the cowboy and cattle baron, and the decline of open-range cattle empires, culminating with the Johnson County War.

Pre-European History

The arrival of the Spanish horse dramatically changed American Indian cultures on the prairies, mountains and even in the forests surrounding the Great Lakes. The hunter and gatherer bands that traveled on foot were replaced by much more mobile groups that could hunt buffalo on horseback.

For the equestrian culture of the Plains, the sweet spot—both culturally and ecologically—was the Powder River country. Farther north, winters were too cold for large horse herds. Farther south, tribes bred horses to excess, straining the ecological carrying capacity of the grasslands and trading egalitarian societies for unequal wealth measured in the size of one’s herd. The Powder River country was prime buffalo hunting grounds for the Sioux, whose horse herds were just the right size for the regional grassland habitat. The Sioux managed to keep their egalitarian traditions as they emerged as the dominant horse culture of the Plains tribes.

Buffalo, 1883, showing an early bridge over Clear Creek and an early version of the Occidental Hotel. Johnson County Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum.

Fur Trappers

Recorded European history in the area largely begins after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Although the Verendrye brothers, French traders and explorers, were in the neighborhood as early as 1742, it is unclear whether they reached the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Bighorns of northern Wyoming or the Laramie Range of central Wyoming, to the south. In all likelihood, the first European to set foot in Johnson County was Francois Antoine Larocque of the Northwest Company, traveling through the area with the Crow in 1805. Later, in 1811, the Wilson Price Hunt expedition, commissioned by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, came through the Powder River Basin and over the Bighorn range. Critically, in 1812 an expedition of some of the same Astorians from the mouth of the Columbia, headed by Robert Stuart , came through the region farther south and discovered the South Pass route over the Continental Divide and down the Sweetwater and North Platte rivers. That route proved so popular, as evidenced by its later use as the Oregon/California/Mormon Trail that the Johnson County area was bypassed by people of European descent—with the exception of a few fur trade parties--for more than two decades.

In 1834, Antonio Montero built a trading post on the Middle Fork of Powder River about 11 miles east of present-day Kaycee, Wyo. The stockade and buildings became known as the Portuguese Houses and served as a center for trade with the Crow for a few years. In 1839, a rival fur company--Jim Bridger and 300 members of the Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick and Company--wintered nearby and harassed the Montero operation—competing aggressively for its Crow customers and nearly eliminating the beaver supply—setting the stage for the post’s ultimate abandonment.

For the remainder of the 1840s and much of the 1850s, trade activity gravitated toward the Sweetwater and Platte emigrant route, leaving what’s now northern Wyoming empty of commerce with whites, with no regular trading post settlements. By the mid-1850s, relations between the northern tribes and the U.S. military were deteriorating, thanks in part to the Grattan Massacre in 1854 near Fort Laramie, when Lt. John Grattan, 29 troops and Brulé Sioux headman Conquering Bear were killed at a Brulé village in a dispute over a strayed cow. That event was followed by subsequent military expeditions to punish the Sioux, and the army at the same time felt the need for better maps of the region.

Indian wars

From the late 1600s to the mid-1850s, the western Sioux advanced westward from the Minnesota River across what are now Nebraska and the Dakotas to the headwaters of the Yellowstone River and south to the Republican River. This westward movement by the Lakota Sioux created a domino effect on the prior residents—the Crow, Shoshone and Cheyenne tribes. In the early 1860s, prospectors and miners were spilling from the California gold fields into Idaho and Montana territories. In 1863, this prompted mountain man John Jacobs and partner John M. Bozeman to promote a new trail based on ancient Indian and trapper trails. This route, named for Bozeman, led north from the Oregon Trail in what’s now central Wyoming to the gold fields around Virginia City, Montana Territory.

The problem with the Bozeman Trail was that it ran through the heart of the Powder River country—the premier buffalo hunting ground for the Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes. The Indians warned of trouble, but throughout 1864 and 1865, some 2,000 pioneers traveled the Bozeman Trail despite escalating attacks by the tribes. In the spring of 1866, officials from the U.S. Army and the Office of Indian Affairs called for a meeting and sought a treaty with the northern Plains tribes at Fort Laramie. In a terrible case of bad timing, a 700-man detachment led by Col. Henry B. Carrington arrived in the middle of these delicate treaty negotiations with the news that he had orders to build three new forts along the Bozeman Trail.

Fullerton Homestead on Shell Creek, west side of the Bighorn Mountains, probably 1890s. Left to right: Abe Marion, Billie Bryant, unknown, Mrs. Fullerton, Nettie Owen, R. W. Fullerton. Johnson County Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum.Oglala Sioux war leader Red Cloud was livid. He stormed out of the meeting, promising death to any whites who dared to cross the Powder River country. Carrington nevertheless carried on, overseeing construction of the three forts, and provoking what came to be known as Red Cloud’s War. Carrington’s troops soon came under escalating hassessment and then siege by Red Cloud and hundreds, then thousands of warriors. Army work parties sent to gather forage for horses or wood for building the forts were regularly harassed.

In November 1866, a brash Civil War hero, Capt. William Judd Fetterman, arrived at Fort Phil Kearny, north of today’s town of Buffalo, bragging that with only 80 men, he could “ride through the Sioux nation.” A month later, he rode with 80 men, mixed cavalry and infantry, to rescue a wood-gathering party two miles from the fort. Fetterman was lured by fleeing warriors over a nearby ridge and into a trap laid by Red Cloud and 1,000 Indians. Fetterman and his command were all killed.

Inspired by this victory and energized by the religious power of the annual Sun Dance, Red Cloud’s warriors continued their attacks into the next year. In August 1867, a final push was launched against Fort Kearny and Fort C. F. Smith. A thousand warriors zeroed in on a wood-gathering party, just north of what’s now the Johnson County line. Capt. James Powell pulled workers and soldiers inside a corral of wagon boxes, and blazed away at the attacking Indians with new breech-loading Springfield rifles. A 110-man rescue column was sent from Fort Kearny, with a howitzer. A single burst of shrapnel from an overhead shell scattered the charging warriors. The Wagon Box Fight was over.

A war-weary nation wasn’t interested in distant Indian wars. Gen. U.S. Grant ordered the forts closed in March 1868. Over the following months the army abandoned the forts, and the tribes burned them. Meanwhile in May and June 1868 the government and the tribes of the northern plains signed a treaty at Fort Laramie, allowing the Sioux the right to continue to hunt in the Powder River Basin. The following November, Red Cloud signed the treaty. He had won the war.

For a few years in the 1870s, Indian-white conflict tapered off in what now was northern Wyoming Territory. In 1874, Lt. Col. George A. Custer led a gold-seeking expedition to the Black Hills of Dakota and Wyoming—land that had been reserved for the Sioux in the 1868 treaty. Custer’s expedition made rumors of Black Hills gold official. The government pressured the tribes to sell, but they refused, and in 1876 the government demanded they abandon the Powder River country and come onto reservations in Dakota Territory and Nebraska.

What followed became known as the Great Sioux War of 1876, and included Custer’s defeat and death on the Little Bighorn in June. In what soon would become Johnson County, Col. Ranald Mackenzie and a force of infantry, cavalry and Indian scouts attacked Dull Knife’s village of Cheyenne people on the Red Fork of Powder River in November 1876.

In 1877 the tribes surrendered and relocated to the reservations.

Buffalo about 1930. Wyoming Tales and Trails.

Johnson County
quick facts

Land Area

4,166 square miles, 10th largest in Wyoming

Land Ownership
in Johnson County

Owner Acres Percent
US Government    
Forest Service 326,784 12.23
Bureau of Land Mgmt. 504.896 18.90
Wyoming    
State Lands Comm. 229,574 8.59
Recreation Comm. 34 0
Game & Fish 12,223 .46
Local Government/Other 8,618 .32
Total Public Lands 1,082,128 40.50
Private Lands 1,589,680 59.50
Surface Water 5,389 .20
Total Area 2,671,808 100

Johnson County Population

8,569 (2010 U.S. Census)
8,642 (2011 State Estimate)

City, Town and
Census-designated Places

Town Population
Buffalo (county seat) 4,585
Kaycee 263

Employment by sector
(2009 state figures)

Sector Population
Farm 382
Forestry, Fishing & Related 157
Mining 580
Construction 647
Utilities 15
Manufacturing 77
Wholesale Trade 96
Retail Trade 497
Transportation & Warehousing 173
Information 49
Educational (D)
Health Care & Social Assistance (D)
Arts/Entertainment/Recreation 180
Accommodations & Food Service 544
Management of Companies (L)
Finance & Insurance 313
Real Estate, Rentals & Leasing 401
Professional, Scientific & Technical 260
Administration & Waste Services 159
Other Services except Public Admin. 248
Fed, state, local gov't 1,032
Total 6,106

D=not disclosed to avoid disclosure of confidential information, but estimates included in totals.

L=less than 10 jobs, but estimates included in totals.

Sources: Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis Equality State Almanac, County Profiles, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/almanac/Page135_183.pdf ; Wyoming DEA summary of decennial U. S. Census data, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/demog_data/cntycity_hist.htm; Wyoming DEA Employment, Income, and Gross Domestic Product Report, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/i&e/Inc_Emp_Report09.pdf; 2010 Census Summary Report for Wyoming, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/
demog_data/pop2010/2010_Census_Summary.pdf
; 2011 county population estimates, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/pop/CO-11est.pdf.

About the Author

Journalist Brodie Farquhar, of Casper, has 37 years of experience covering the West, with public relation stints for the Colorado School of Mines, Crested Butte Mountain Resort and The Nature Conservancy. His specialty is natural resource journalism, buttressed by a master’s degree in natural resource policy from the University of Michigan, where he was a Scripps Fellow for Environmental Journalism. He has covered natural resource issues in the High Plains, Black Hills and Sonoran Desert as well as the Columbia and Snake river drainages and much of the Rocky Mountains. Most recently his work has focused on the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

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