Wyoming October 20, 2018
The Story Of Wyoming’s Johnson County War Is Nearly Unbelievable
If you live in Wyoming, you know that there’s a general distaste for big government, and if you live out in the range, chances are you never want to hear a thing from Cheyenne unless it’s to tell you there’s a check on the way. In a land that’s been protected by Washington, D.C. over and over again, why is there such a distrust of big corporations and government officials? Well, our history of range wars has had a lasting legacy out here in the middle of nowhere. Read up on the most famous range conflict, the Johnson County War, to see why.
Johnson County, Wyoming is a sleepy ranching county at the base of the Bighorn Mountains.
You wouldn't expect much drama to unfold here - after all, the largest town around is charming Buffalo. So when you hear about the "Johnson County War", or see a historic marker on the side of Highway 196, you might wonder exactly what sort of war unfolded in these sleepy hills.
In the late 1800s, Wyoming's cattle business was booming. Small time ranchers had quickly found that the grazing here was exactly what they needed to grow healthy herds.
Wealthy businessmen took note of how the ranchers ran their operations, and began buying up large ranches, hoping to turn a pretty penny themselves. However, if you don't live on the range (as none of these wealthier ranch owners did), it can be hard to understand life out here. While the west was being settled, much of Wyoming was considered open range for grazing. Cattle were branded for identification, and stray calves or orphans were often claimed and branded before round ups. Water rights belonged to whomever settled the land first, and boundaries were generally respected by the ranchers.
When "Big Cattle" - the wealthier ranch owners - visited, they did not see cooperation and side-by-side industry growth. They saw competition, profit loss, and worst of all, cattle rustling.
Cattle rustling was hard to prove - and generally against the interests of small ranchers, anyway. It was a big problem, but it was a crime committed by outlaws, and not honest small-time ranchers.
The brutal winter of 1886–1887 destroyed the state's cattle industry. Thousands of cattle died during the winter, and in the harsh, dry summer. Cattle corporations tightened the reins, forcing settlers off their land, burning properties, and banning ranchers from annual roundups. The state passed the Maverick Act, which meant that all unbranded cattle in open range became property of the Cattlemen's Association - which limited the number of small ranches that could participate. To justify these devastating blows to small ranchers, the cattlemen often accused settlers of rustlings. Over time, these false accusations lead to the death of many ranchers, and to an uproar in the communities.
Pictured above is rancher Ella Watson, who was lynched in 1889. She was accused of rustling, and though the charges came to be false, she was the first woman ever hanged by law in America.
The tension all came to a head in the spring of 1892. Local ranchers formed their own Stock Growers' Association, to compete with the Wyoming associated based in Cheyenne, the WSGA. The WSGA then hired hitmen to assassinate the leaders of the local assocation.
As the WSGA made its way through Wyoming, their goal was to exterminate the small town ranchers that were causing trouble for Big Cattle. They tore through the range and headed north, to Buffalo. They would not just "get away" with this, though. Over 400 local stockmen, ranchers, and law enforcement officials gathered up to confront these hired guns, who numbered just about 50. The hired guns took refuge at the large TA Ranch, just outside of Buffalo.
The locals had the "Invaders" surrounded, and they had no intention to let them leave the TA Ranch.
The WSGA invaders fortified and held strong for two days before one managed to sneak through the lines and get in touch with the Governor of Wyoming. Governor Barber then telegraphed President Benjamin Harrison, asking for help. Sensing the serious risk for loss of life, Harrison sent the US Cavalry in to arrest the Invaders and quell the conflict. While the invaders were all booked in Fort D.A. Russel in Cheyenne, many were freed after posting bond and ran away to Texas, rather than face any potential charges.
Emotions ran high for years after the Johnson County War, and the incident can still be felt in small ranchers' distrust of large government today.
As for present-day Wyomingites or history buffs, you can still visit the Historic T.A. Ranch and see the site of one of America's forgotten range wars.
The Johnson County War and its aftermath was a true slap-in-the-face to smaller ranchers, and the fact that the President of the United States ordered the freedom of a hired mob of killers is something that seems absolutely ludicrous. It has become one of the most talked about conflicts of the American West, and its legacy is still certainly felt in the attitudes of range ranchers today.
Take a look at what
these old ranches looked like, back in the day, to enjoy a trip back in time to the days of the Wild West.