Guest Post by Larry Lynch
(A note: Larry Lynch is an aficionado of high quality historic crime stories and recently began a blog, True Crime Lessons, to highlight the best in true crime online and between covers. In this guest post, he brings our attention way back to a seminal crime in the west and a classic historic crime title, The War on Powder River by Helena Huntington Smith, published in 1967 and still in print forty years later. It's become a classic in western American history.)
On July 20, 1899, a robust hog farmer and prostitute and her innkeeper friend were strung up on a stunted pine overlooking Spring Creek Gulch.
A detective working for the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association led the gang of lynchers.
Johnson County’s hard-up cowboys turned homesteaders, whom the cattlemen labeled cow “rustlers,” reacted with anger and fear and began arming themselves.
But the association initiated a plan to deal with that. It assembled a small army of 19 cattlemen, 21 Texas gunslingers, and another hired killer brought in from Nampa, Idaho.
Their intent was to eradicate somewhere between 19 and 70 Johnson County “rustlers” --- homesteaders the cattlemen decided didn’t deserve to occupy a piece of the open range. (Photo: Lynching victim Ella Watson. Via)
Things came to a head during the blizzardy spring of 1892 when the cattlemen’s “army” detrained at Casper and rode off toward the town of Buffalo, Wyoming where its leaders hoped to corner most of their victims.
The army of “regulators” began by surrounding the small ranch of Nate Champion, labeled “the bravest man in Johnson County” by one of the newspaper writers who chronicled the Johnson County war from its roots in the 1890s spring roundups to the lawlessness that followed.
Warned by the slaying of Champion, a spontaneous citizen militia made up of homesteaders from Buffalo and environs, maybe 200 strong, surrounded the gunslingers at a cattlemen’s ranch and threatened to obliterate them.
President Benjamin Harrison was forced to send in the Calvary to rescue the cattlemen’s crew, marching it off to Cheyenne where the whole gang was more or less incarcerated (mostly less) until they were cleared of all criminal charges.
This true crime story --- if the West could have true crime before it actually had much law --- is recounted in wonderful detail by Helena Huntington Smith in her 1966 book, The War on Powder River, still available from the University of Nebraska Press.
Smith tells this story with an engaging true to life flavor. To accomplish this she uses letters written by the cattlemen themselves, an abundance of not-quite-objective but many sided accounts by writers from the East and by Wyoming’s country editors at the time. All this is supplemented with information from a few books and “confessions” produced by participants.
For anyone who has been fascinated by Westerns in film and on TV, this book should become a must read. Larry McMurtry notwithstanding, it is probably as close as anyone is likely to come to “the true story” behind the myth that underlies the West.
I was tipped to Smith’s book by LSU film theorist Patrick McGee at the recent Colorado Springs conference on media and violence. In a 2006 book of his own, McGee traces how the events in Johnson County inspired the seminal Western novel The Virginian by Owen Wister and many Western films that followed. (McGee’s book is From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western.)
For a web-based quick history that may be intentionally short on some details, try out Wyoming Tales and Trails. Wikipedia also has a useful but incomplete rundown. It fails to mention Smith’s book but suggests that the disastrous 1980s movie Heaven’s Gate came close to following the true story, which is not correct. That flick is bad history as well as bad moviemaking. Somewhat ironically, the movie went so far over budget and did so poorly at the box office that Hollywood’s money men aren’t likely to have another go at the actual story any time soon.
In his conference presentation, McGee discussed his personal fascination with the way the stories of the old west based on The Johnson County War have moved over time from being sympathetic to the capitalist cattlemen to showing how the common homesteaders were victimized. I have yet to read his book, but it has moved to the top of my list along with The Virginian.
Anyone interested in the story with plans to visit Wyoming might check out Buffalo's city web site before heading out. It looks like some there are beginning to relish the story. They have just this spring erected a statue of Nate Champion.