The Johnson County War: 1892 Invasion of Northern Wyoming
On April 5, 1892, 52 armed men rode a private, secret train north from Cheyenne. Just outside Casper, Wyo., they switched to horseback and continued north toward Buffalo, Wyo., the Johnson County seat. Their mission was to shoot or hang 70 men named on a list carried by Frank Canton, one of the leaders of this invading force.
The invaders (as they came to be known) included some of the most powerful cattlemen in Wyoming, their top employees and 23 hired guns. The invasion resulted from long‑standing disputes between these cattle barons, who owned herds numbering in the thousands, and small operators, most running just enough cattle to support their families. The event came to be called the Johnson County War. Longtime Wyoming historian T.A. Larson ranked it “the most notorious event in the history of Wyoming.”
Numerous court records contain valuable information on the invasion, as do other government documents, especially land files. Most significantly, after the invasion--sometimes as many as 40 years later--the cattlemen and their allies published writings containing admissions that suddenly shone a bright light on contested issues. From this voluminous data, clear facts emerge from which the truth about the invasion and its causes can be determined.
Johnson County newspapers date back to August of 1883, when no one in Johnson County conceived of future astonishing events, and those newspapers are full of candid appraisals of the community. A reading of the Johnson County newspapers quickly dispels the notion, stated in other Wyoming papers and others around the nation, that Buffalo was “the most lawless town in the country,” or a haven for “range pirates” who “mercilessly” stole big cattlemen’s livestock.
The cattle barons planned, organized and financed the invasion, declaring beforehand and afterwards that they had no choice but to take drastic action to protect their property. They said they were the victims of massive cattle stealing in Johnson County, and local authorities were doing nothing to protect their herds. They further declared that Buffalo was a rogue society in which rustlers controlled everything— politics, courts and juries. Those juries, the cattle barons said, refused to convict on cattle rustling charges no matter how strong the evidence.
Johnson County people, on the other hand, largely believed that the real reason for the invasion was the big cattlemen’s determination to drive competitors off the open range that the stockmen illegally monopolized -- to stop those who might legally take up public land under the Homestead and Desert Land acts. And Johnson County residents said that cattle rustling was greatly exaggerated, as were difficulties with prosecution for livestock crimes.
The year of the invasion, 1892, was a time when many towns in Wyoming had two newspapers and a big town like Cheyenne had several, including three dailies. Two of those influential Cheyenne papers, however, were owned by cattle interests—as all Cheyenne papers were just a short while before 1892. Still, the newspapers of the time were full of revealing information.
Contrary to the cattle barons’ portrayal, Buffalo was a town full of ambitious young people who worked hard to build up their community and make better lives for their families. Johnson County people were not saints, but they bore little resemblance to the picture of criminality later forwarded by big cattlemen.
In the 1880s, the cattle barons in Johnson County and across Wyoming Territory ruled their customary ranges like private fiefdoms. Most had little concept of the true carrying capacity of those ranges, however, and overstocked them.
Cattle prices peaked in 1882, drawing more money to the business and more cattle to the land. Soon there was a beef glut. Prices began to fall, yet no one could think of anything to do but bring in even more cattle—weakening the ranges further and driving prices further down. Then bad drought in 1886 was followed by the terrible winter of 1886-1887.
Johnson County’s newspapers show that following that harsh winter, the Wyoming cattle industry was in bad financial trouble and that the owners of the big herds deeply resented those who might challenge their unfettered right to run their cattle on public land.
Such a challenge could become deadly. That was the 1889 fate of two homesteaders, lynched near the Sweetwater River in Carbon County by six cattlemen on July 20, 1889. Ellen Watson and Jim Averell had homesteads in the middle of the cattlemen’s customary range.
Sensational newspapers articles appeared immediately after the lynchings portraying Watson as a prostitute who accepted cattle for her favors. These articles, however, were written by an employee of one of the Cheyenne dailies owned by cattle barons, and recent authoritative writings show that they were false, created out of whole cloth.
That same year, 1889, Johnson County juries acquitted suspects in five cattle theft cases. Big cattlemen reacted in fury, stating publicly and in private correspondence that the acquittals proved it was impossible to present evidence to a Johnson County jury—no matter how compelling—that would produce a conviction.
A close review of contemporary newspaper articles and court documents, however, shows the cases brought against the accused men to be deeply flawed, seemingly motivated by huge reward money and a frantic determination by owners of big herds to punish owners of small herds who claimed rights to grazing on public land.
In 1891, several of the cattle barons resolved to take action against their tormentors.
The first step was the formation of an assassination squad of employees of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. This small group of men included Frank Canton, a former Johnson County sheriff and a stock inspector of the association. Their first action was to hang a man from Newcastle, Wyo., Tom Waggoner, who traded horses. They followed this with an attack upon Nate Champion.
Champion was a small man with a reputation as a formidable fighter. He ran a herd of about 200 cattle on one of the forks of Powder River. Champion’s stock grazed on public land, exactly as did the animals of the big cattlemen. He insisted that his cattle had as much right to grass on the public range as did the herd of any cattle baron.
Legally, Champion was absolutely right, but big cattlemen did not take well to his defiance. He was declared “king of the cattle thieves” by a newspaper reporter sympathetic to the cattle barons, although no charges had ever been brought against him. Indeed, after the invasion, Willis Van Devanter, the astute attorney for the invaders, stated there was no evidence at all to substantiate charges of cattle theft against Champion. Still, the prominent cattlemen wanted to punish Nate Champion.
In the early morning of November 1, 1891, members of the assassination squad burst into a cabin occupied by Champion and another man. The cabin was a tiny structure located next to the Middle Fork of Powder River in the Hole-in-the-Wall country about 15 miles southwest of what's now Kaycee, Wyo. Only two members of the five-man squad were able to squeeze into the cabin. Those two, however, held pistols on their two captives and demanded that Champion “give it up.”
Champion, he told the Buffalo Bulletin the next month, stretched and yawned while reaching under a pillow for his own revolver, and the shooting started. The intruders fired shots at point-blank range, so close that powder burns were left on Champion’s face. Amazingly, all the shots fired at him missed. Champion’s return fire, however, did not. One of the squad members was hit in the arm and the other was shot in the belly, a mortal wound. The assassination squad fled, but not before Champion got a good look at one of them.
Private and public investigations followed, and one of the assassination squad members was forced to admit the names of all the members before two witnesses. Those two witnesses were Powder River ranchers John A. Tisdale and, perhaps, Orley “Ranger” Jones. Johnson County authorities filed attempted murder charges against Joe Elliott, the attacker identified by Nate Champion, and local newspapers pushed for charges against the wealthy and prominent cattlemen believed to be the employers of the assassination squad.
About Dec. 1, 1891, both Tisdale and Jones were assassinated. The killings created an uproar in Johnson County and the movement to charge the “higher-ups” became the whole thrust of the community.
The means to arrest and charge complicit cattlemen were at hand. If Johnson County could obtain a conviction against even one of the assassins, he would probably name his employers to avoid a long prison term. On Feb. 8, 1892, a preliminary hearing was held in the case of State v. Elliott for the attempted murder of Nate Champion.
Champion gave dramatic testimony, and Joe Elliott, a stock detective of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, was bound over for trial in the district court on the attempted murder charge. Johnson County attorneys had amassed a great deal of evidence against Elliott and, with Champion’s testimony, seemed likely to convict him when his case came to trial. The big cattlemen promptly resolved, in early March 1892, to go north and invade Johnson County.
Only a month later, the invaders left Cheyenne and traveled to Johnson County. When they arrived in the southern tip of the county, one of their local spies told them that “rustlers,” including Champion himself, were holed up in a cabin at the KC Ranch, just a few miles north.
The 52 invaders of Johnson County surround and finally kill Nate Champion and his friend Nick Ray at the KC Ranch in present-day Kaycee, Wyoming, an event that came to be called the Johnson County War. The invaders are eventually stopped and surrounded by a posse eight times their number, but are never brought to trial.
Federal troops intervened to end Johnson County War.
About the Author
John Davis has practiced law in Worland, Wyo., since 1973. In addition to Wyoming Range War, he has written A Vast Amount of Trouble, which chronicles the 1909 Spring Creek Raid, and Goodbye, Judge Lynch, which looks at the vexing troubles with vigilantism in Wyoming in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.