Jul 31, 1976 · The Invasion of Johnson County: Directed by Jerry Jameson. With Bill Bixby, Bo Hopkins, John Hillerman, Billy Green Bush. A free-spirited Bostonian recently arrived in the West teams up with a crusty Wyoming cowboy to stop a land baron's attempts to drive out a group of small ranchers and take over their property.
- Jerry Jameson
- Bill Bixby, Bo Hopkins, John Hillerman
- Early history
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.
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.
The invaders of Johnson County, in custody at Ft. D.A. Russell in Cheyenne, spring 1892. All charges against them were eventually dismissed. Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum.
Johnson County people, on the other hand, largely believed that the real reason for the invasion was the big cattlemens 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.
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 cattleweakening the ranges further and driving prices further down. Then bad drought in 1886 was followed by the terrible winter of 1886-1887.
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 juryno matter how compellingthat would produce a conviction. Once the invaders were taken into custody, however, Governor Barber assumed control over them and refused to even allow them to be questioned; the governor completely frustrated the investigation and prosecution of the invaders by Johnson County authorities. The costs for feeding and housing the prisoners, though, still had to be paid by Johnson County, not to mention the substantial charges for preparation and presentation of the criminal cases. The state provided no financial assistance whatever. Predictably, a travesty of justice was played out eight months later in a Cheyenne courtroom. The charges against all the invaders had to be dismissed because a jury could not be seated to try their cases, and Johnson County did not have the funds to pay the continuing expenses of prosecution. After 1893, a measure of peace descended upon the Wyoming range, although it wasnt until 16 years later that armed economic vigilantism was finally stopped in Wyoming. Cattlemen raiders killing sheep and sheepherderswere convicted of serious crimes after the 1909 Spring Creek Raid south of Tensleep, Wyo., and were sent to the Wyoming penitentiary. Wyomingites could finally claim to have put frontier mob rule behind them.
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. Champions 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.
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.
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 Champions 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.
They surrounded Champion. For hours he fought the 50 men, wounding three. Finally, during the middle of the afternoon of April 9, 1892, the invaders torched the cabin, forcing him out and shooting him down. By then, however, the countryside had been alerted, and men all over the area rushed to confront the invaders. The invaders holed up south of Buffalo at the T. A. Ranch. There, they were surrounded by local citizensa posse that eventually grew to more than 400 men. The posse conducted a formal siege, no doubt led by the Civil War veterans among them.
Over three days the posse slowly closed in on the invaders. On the morning of the third day, 14 posse members started moving toward the T. A. Ranch house, using a ponderous, movable fort called a go-devil or ark of safety made of logs on the running gears of two wagons. When the telegrams, for reasons that are unclear, failed to go through, Barber asked the two senators from Wyoming, Joseph Carey and Francis E. Warren, to go to the White House and pay a personal call on the president. Harrison was quickly convinced that there was an insurrection, as Barbers first telegram had termed it, in Wyoming and agreed to call on Fort McKinney troops to suppress it.
The idea was that when the posse got close to the invaders fortifications, they would use dynamite to force the invaders out into the open. The running gears came from the captured supply wagons of the invaders, which contained dynamite intended for use against the people of Johnson County. But the posse never got the chance to use its new weapon. In the nick of time, soldiers from nearby Fort McKinney rode onto the scene and took the invaders into custody.
The cattle barons were protected by a friendly judicial system, but that system could not protect these men from Wyoming voters. The Republican Party was closely associated with the cattlemen and their principal organization, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. One of the states two U.S. senators, Republican Joseph Carey, had recently served as president of the association.
Many Wyoming people were offended by the spectacle of the senators late night personal visit to President Harrison to rescue wrongdoers. (The senators had rousted the president out of bed). The invaders and their supporters did everything they could in the months after the invasion to suppress Johnson County and its advocates, including mounting a fervent attempt to have martial law declared in the state. President Harrison, however, apparently made cautious when great numbers of Wyoming people protested his earlier actions, refused to do that.
The 1892 election was a landslide in favor of the Wyoming Democratic Party. A Democrat was elected governor and another was elected to the U.S. Congress. At the time, U.S. senators were still elected by state legislatures; enough Democrats were elected to the Wyoming state legislature that no Republican could be selected for the U.S. Senate. Senator Francis E. Warren lost his seat.
Despite mixed electoral results, there were permanent and positive changes in response to the Johnson County War. Wyoming people had made it abundantly clearby their votes and by strong resolutions to public officials reported in newspapers-- that they would not tolerate abuses like the invasion of Johnson County.
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The beautiful western scenery of northern Wyoming is the backdrop for The Invasion of Johnson County, based on the actual Johnson County War. The battle was also known as the War on Powder Creek, fought between large cattle ranchers and homesteaders in 1892.
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- John W. Davis
- John W. Davis