Invaders

This historic photo shows the Wyoming cattlemen and their hired gunslingers after capture by the U.S. Cavalry. Technically they were under arrest while being held at Fort D.A. Russell in Cheyenne (now FE Warren Air Base), but never faced prosecution. The photo was taken on May 4, 1892.  

Johnson County Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum

Even Sheriff Walt Longmire would have had trouble with these ne’er-do-wells.

Longmire is the fictional character in the television series based on books by author Craig Johnson, who used the town of Buffalo, Wyoming, as his setting. Lately that’s drawn a lot of tourism attention to Buffalo, which in real life has an unusual historical western tale of its own that mixes law, politics and vigilante mobs: the Johnson County Cattle War.

“It was the granddaddy of all the range wars,” said Bill O’Neal, Texas State Historian and the author of “The Johnson County War.”

The intrigue continued even after the notorious shootout at the TA Ranch, which was stopped from being a possible slaughter by the timely arrival of the U.S. Cavalry.

“Afterward, there were some enormous political repercussions in Wyoming,” said John Davis, of Worland, who wrote the book “Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County.”

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Bill O'Neal

O'Neal

Event

O’Neal and Davis will be two of seven speakers at Buffalo’s two-day event commemorating the 1892 conflict between wealthy Cheyenne cattle barons and their hired Texas gunmen and the angry, armed populace of the Buffalo area. The affair kicks off at 10 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 15, at the Bomber Mountain Civic Center with a discussion that will also include former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson and his brother Peter.

The topic is an interesting one to tackle, from many facets.

“The literature about the event was so contradictory,” Davis said. “I at first thought, ‘How would anyone get to the bottom of it?’”

Tunneling into original court records still preserved, reading every issue of the two Buffalo newspapers at the time and spending portions of seven years ensconced in his basement reading and writing, Davis pieced together a “narrative of why things happened.”

“The conclusion I came to was that the dispute between big and little cattlemen was created by an agenda of false news,” Davis said.

The conflict

In short, the cattlemen from Cheyenne used local newspapers to whip up Wyoming and national sentiment against settlers in the Johnson County area, which now encompasses the southeast corner of the Bighorn Mountains and a portion of the plains to the east.

At the time, the cattleman considered the open range their own, even though settlement was being encouraged by the U.S. government. To preserve their hold on the vast grasslands necessary to feed large cattle herds, some members of the rich cattlemen’s group — the Wyoming Stock Growers Association — falsely accused residents of rustling their cattle, lynched innocent small ranchers, assassinated witnesses to murder and drew up a hit list with 30 to 70 names — which included the Johnson County sheriff, all his deputies, the newspaper editor and Buffalo businessmen. With hired gunmen in tow, the rich ranchers set off by private train car and then horses to claim the grasslands by force.

“Constitutionally, it was absolutely reprehensible,” O’Neal said of the men taking the law into their own hands. “But, oh my gosh, what a group of invaders!”

Along the way, they ran into Nate Champion, considered the historical inspiration for the main character in the book and movie “Shane.” A crack shot, Champion held off the 50 cattlemen and gunmen long enough for word to reach Buffalo that the well-armed vigilantes were on their way.

Champion, who lived near what is now Kaycee, was targeted because he was the key witness in charges against the cattlemen who had earlier hired an assassination squad to kill him. Despite breaking into his cabin and blazing away at Champion in bed during that initial murder attempt, Champion was able to kill one of the men and wound the other. He and friend Nick Ray weren’t so lucky five months later when the 50 vigilantes arrived and set fire to the cabin, forcing Champion into the open where he was shot numerous times.

“When they killed him, they killed the last witness to the attempted murder charge,” Davis said.

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TA Ranch barn

The TA Ranch barn held some of the roughly 50 vigilantes who had traveled north from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to exert dominance over the Johnson County grasslands for the wealthy cattle barons who hired them.

Rally to the TA

In the meantime, everyone with a pulse, a gun and a horse in the surrounding area — a mob estimated at 300 to 400 people — was saddling up to confront the vigilantes, despite acting Wyoming Gov. Amos Barber’s telegraph to militia across the state to take orders only from him, not from their own sheriff.

The opposing sides ran into each other near the TA Ranch. Seeing how badly they were outnumbered, the cattlemen and their sidekicks turned tail and fled to the ranch seeking fortification for what would be a four-day siege.

Among the local residents at the standoff was 10-year-old Elmer Brock, whose family was homesteading about 15 miles from Champion’s ranch. Brock’s great-granddaughter, Laurel Hanson, said the boy, along with other youngsters, ran messages to inform neighbors about what was taking place.

Earl and Barbara Madsen now own the TA Ranch, which has been restored and turned into a guest ranch and restaurant. Their daughter, Kirsten Giles, helped foster the idea of marking the 125th anniversary of the shootout with the talk by authors, descendants of those involved and, on Saturday, a re-enactment of the shootout along with ranch tours.

“It’s a lot of fun to be the stewards of the history that occurred out here,” Giles said.

“It’s almost a hallowed place where these ranchers were holed up,” Davis said.

Although many visitors to the ranch may not know about its ties to the cattle war, Giles said it is fun to be ambassadors for Johnson County and tell guests about the area’s history.

Mum’s the word

That’s a change from the years following the confrontation, according to Sylvia Bruner, director of the Johnson County Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum.

“The people who remained in this area made a conscious effort to let it go and not drag up those old wounds,” Bruner said. “It was very intentional, I think, because it was such a volatile issue at the time.”

Hanson agreed. She said it was her grandfather who collected stories from those involved in the dispute and wrote them down, but he didn’t speak about the incident.

“It probably wasn’t until the ’80s that anybody talked about it,” Hanson said. “It was taboo. You could get sent home from school for talking about it. It’s really remarkable that everyone eventually was able to get along,” even when they had taken opposite sides in the dispute.

As a result, only a few relics from the Johnson County Cattle War are available for display at the museum, including pieces of bullet-riddled wood from the TA Ranch along with firearms that either were used at the shootout or are representative of those used.

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Ranch house

This historic photo shows the old TA Ranch's main house, which is where some of the vigilantes hid while engaging in a gun battle with angry locals 125 years ago.

No justice

The rich cattlemen and Texas-hired guns were never prosecuted for their illegal actions, but they came very close to being killed during the shootout. The locals had reinforced two wagons with logs, called a go devil or ark of safety, to create a primitive tank, Davis said. The idea was to push it close enough that men could lob dynamite from behind the mobile breastwork and blow up some of the vigilantes as well as destroy their hideouts — the house and barn.

Before that, though, Gov. Barber leapt to action after hearing about the siege taking a bad turn for the cattlemen he counted as allies. Barber telegraphed Wyoming’s two U.S. senators to awaken President Benjamin Harrison and ask that he order the U.S. Cavalry to intervene to halt what could be a slaughter of the cattle barons and their gunmen.

When the cavalry arrived, they temporarily imprisoned the 50 vigilantes at nearby Fort McKinney before moving the men to Cheyenne for their safety. Unfortunately for Johnson County residents, there would be no justice. The vigilantes were eventually released on what Bruner called a “goodwill bond” with a promise that they would return for trial.

“You can imagine how that went,” she said.

Plus, Johnson County was billed for the prisoners’ keep, an amount that bankrupted the small district leaving them unable to mount a prosecution against the invaders who reportedly had commemorative rings and silver cups made to mark their wild ride north. The Johnson County residents’ only solace may have been that Barber was defeated in that year’s election and Democrats temporarily gained control of both houses of the Legislature.

The incident lives on in western lore. In addition to “Shane” the conflict was also the basis for the book and movie “The Virginian,” O’Neal said, considered the first western novel. Similarities between the historical event and one of the largest cinematic flops in Hollywood’s history, “Heaven’s Gate,” are also notable, he said.

“To me, there’s nothing more dramatic than life-or-death conflict,” O’Neal said. “Together with guys wearing big boots and big hats shooting Winchesters, it fires the imagination.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.