At 6:00 PM on Tuesday, April 5, 1892, fifty-two men, together with their horses and rifles loaded onto a train in Cheyenne, Wyoming bound for Casper. From there they planned to ride to the town of Buffalo, Wyoming, where they would first murder Red Angus, the sheriff of Johnson County, and then assassinate a list of 75 other men whom they had falsely accused of being cattle rustlers.
This band of killers were hired guns for large cattlemen who were at war with small cattlemen and settlers claiming homesteads in the Big Horn valley of Johnson County, Wyoming. For years the large cattle interests had profited from the vast open range of public domain land to run their huge cattle herds. The settlers threatened to close off much of the range with their 160-acre settlements by which they could gain ownership under the provisions of 1862 Homestead Act.
For years the large cattle interests had been trying to run the settlers out with trumped up charges of cattle rustling. This strategy had failed because Johnson County juries had not been gullible and saw through the false charges. They found the defendants not guilty in a majority of the criminal cases brought. In those few cases where actual cattle rustling was proven they did convict, but those cases were minor in both number and scope compared to all the ones that were brought without any factual basis. This so angered the cattlemen they decided to resort to hired violence to teach the good people of Johnson County a lesson.
Unbelievably to people of today, the killers had the support of then Wyoming Governor Amos Barber, and both Wyoming Senators, Francis E. Warren and Joseph Carey. As a side note, I grew up in Cheyenne on a street named for Senator Carey, and attended a junior high school named for him.
Almost from the beginning the invaders’ plans went awry. In a twist of the maxim that all battle plans fall by the wayside upon first contact with the enemy, the Cattlemen’s posse of murderers carefully drafted plans fell apart as soon as they left Casper. They had hoped to surprise Sheriff Angus and the townspeople, but the ride from Casper to Buffalo was made difficult by a nasty spring snowstorm. They had cut all the telegraph lines in hopes of keeping anyone from sending a warning to the town, but they took so long to get there that ordinary mail arrived in time to give Sheriff Angus ample warning of what was coming.
The result was that the Sheriff and his deputies as well as most of the able-bodied men in town were prepared for the invasion, and successfully won a standoff at the KC Ranch a few miles outside of town. While the killers had a list of 75 men they were going to assassinate, they finally managed to kill only two. One was a local hero and fierce fighter named Nate Champion. A life-sized statue of Nate Champion was erected at the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum in Buffalo in 2009. The inscription reads, “In the exciting history of the Johnson County Cattle War, no one is held in higher esteem that Nathan D. Champion.”
After the invasion some of the dirtiest politics anywhere in America unfolded over the next two years. The upshot was that the killers went free, no one was ever brought to justice for the murder of Nate Champion, and some of the worst vigilante criminals got away unscathed. A prominent Cheyenne lawyer named Willis Van Devanter successfully manipulated the legal system to the benefit of the big cattle interests. This story by itself makes for an astonishing read. Senator Francis E. Warren had been solidly behind the cattle barons, who were his political patrons, but lost his Senate seat for only two years before getting it back in 1895 and holding it for 37 more years. Willis Van Devanter was appointed as a justice on the United States Supreme Court by President William Howard Taft in 1911 where he stayed until 1937 by which time he was one of what Franklin Roosevelt described as the “nine old men on the Court.”
Wyoming Range War recounts this history with the utmost detail and historical accuracy. The author, John W. Davis, is a Wyoming lawyer and native. As he says at the end of the book, “For better or worse, however, for good or for ill, the Johnson County War is a profound part of Wyoming’s heritage.”
I finished the book in two days, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in some fascinating local history. I grew up in Wyoming in the 1950’s and many of the names of key players in this drama are familiar to me, and not just the big ones like Van Devanter, and Warren. The Johnson County War was a big deal, such that more than 50 years later a small boy could hear the names of many of the participants being discussed by adults.
At the Nate Champion memorial in Buffalo one can buy bumper stickers that say: “Johnson County: We Haven’t Trusted Cheyenne Since 1892.” The Johnson County War contributed to a deep distrust of the rich and powerful that exists to this day among the spit-in-your-eye libertarians of Wyoming.