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Johnson County War

Johnson County Cattle War


Johnson County, Wyoming is a location where history and legend merge and where the Johnson County Cattle war, a range dispute, left its mark in the late 1880s.

In April of 1892, time and circumstance were bringing changes to the free range of what is now northeastern Wyoming. The operators of the large cattle outfits, who were resisting these changes, recruited twenty-five gunmen from Texas and formed a vigilante group known as the Invaders. The group gathered in Cheyenne and took a train to Casper and continued north by horseback. The group planned to proceed secretly to Johnson County. Supposedly, they carried a list of suspects they planned to kill.  Nate Champion and Nick Ray were only two of seventy names on the Regulators' list.

At the Kaycee cabin, they encountered Nate Champion and Nick Ray and a lengthy standoff that involved setting fire to the cabin, ensued. During lulls, Champion kept a log in an old notebook, later printed by a Chicago Herald reporter:

"Me and Nick was getting breakfast when the attack took place. Two men was with us- Bill Jones and another man. The old man went after water and did not come back. His friend went to see what was the matter, and he did not come back. Nick started out, and I told him to look out, that I thought there was someone at the stable and would not let them come back.

Nick is shot but not dead yet. He is awful sick. I must go and wait on him.

It is now about two hours since the first shot. Nick is still alive.

Boys, there is bullets coming like hail. They are shooting from the stable and river and back of the house.

Them fellows is in such shape I can’t get at them. They are shooting from the stable and river and back of the house. Nick is dead, he died about 9 o'clock. I see a smoke down at the stable. I think they have fired it. I don't think they intend to let me get away this time.

Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now, I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once."

About three o'clock, Champion notes in the log that two men had passed by and were fired on, "I seen lots of men come out on horses on the other side of the river and take after them." Unbeknownst to Champion, the men passing by were Oscar Hite "Jack" Flagg and his stepson.   Flagg was a neighbor, and one with whom Champion had ridden roundup on the old Bar C Ranch before it went broke.   Flagg and his step son made good their escape and proceeded to Buffalo to raise the alarm with Sheriff Angus.  With the word out, the Sheriff was able to raise a posse of over two hundred men, all of whom were deputized by Sheriff Angus.  The armed men rode out to meet the Invaders.  They met at the TA Ranch where the battle continued with Champion writing:

"I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes if alive."

The regulators took a wagon and loaded it with flammables and shoved it into the cabin. Champion's final message written in the notebook:

"The house is all fired. Goodbye boys, if I never see you again."     Nathan D. Champion

Champion dashed out the rear door of the cabin and was hit in the leg by a shot. Then another shot hit Champion, and the regulators kept firing.  Ultimately there were more than 24 bullets in Champion.

 After several days of fighting with those who had come to assist Champion, Federal troops rode out from Fort McKinney to rescue the Invaders. The Invaders surrendered themselves to the Army, which took them into custody and transferred them to Cheyenne.  The Texas contingent was released on bail and quickly disappeared.  The locals, who had taken part in the fight, were housed in the jail at night and were allowed to be free during the day.  After court proceedings continued for weeks, then months, it became apparent that Johnson County could no longer afford room and board for so many prisoners.  Realizing that material witnesses had also disappeared, it was decided that the entire case would be dropped.  Political power had ensured the group would never come to trial for the murders.  Nothing appeared to happen that could be qualified as justice.

Both sides of the conflict gained some knowledge and understanding, however, and tensions gradually lessened. Today when one passes through Johnson County, he/she would see descendants of the two sides of the Johnson County Cattle War living in harmony.

 Question: What events led to the Johnson County War, and how do you think it might have been avoided?

Nate Champion on left-most horse, Dudley Champion at far right, 1880's.

 Johnson Invaders
Johnson County Invaders, prisoners at Fort D. A. Russell, 1892, photo by J. E. Stimson

 TA Map
Map of the Siege of the T A Ranch

 TA Barn
The Stable at the T A
Photo credit to Wyoming Tales and Trails, Geoff Dobson


Chronology for Johnson County Cattle Wars

1889-July 20--Lynching of Jim Averill and Ella Watson (Cattle Kate) on the Sweetwater.

1886-1887--Disasterous winter


1891, June 4--Lynching of Tom Waggoner near Newcastle

1891, November 1--Nate Champion and Ross Gilbertson attacked at Hall cabin on Powder River

1891, November 26--Orley "Ranger" Jones bushwacked at Muddy Creek.

1891, December 1--John Tisdale bushwacked at the divide south of Buffalo.

1892, March 23--Gov. Barber ordered the National Guard to obey only state orders.

1892, April 5--special train in Cheyenne 1892, April 6--Special train in Casper
1892, April 7-8--Invaders arrive at TTT Ranch, day of rest.

1892, April 9--Attack at dawn on the KC cabin where Nick Ray and Nate Champion were killed.

1892, April10-13--Seige of the TA Ranch.

1892, April 15--Funeral for Champion and Ray: April16 Coroner's jury and 39 invaders indicted.

1892, April 19--Invaders moved to Ft. Fetterman; April 22 moved to Ft. Russell, Cheyenne.

1892, May 9--George Wellman shot

1892, July 5--Preliminary hearing in Laramie changed venue to Cheyenne;  August 10 Invaders released on own recognizance;  Texans left.

1893, January 21--Case was dismissed

With permission from Johnson County Library & Johnson County Historical Society

Create a Frontier Timeline

Sequencing Skills
Create a timeline and place the following events in the proper order including dates.

_______ Wagon Box Fight

_______ Fetterman Fight

_______ Establishment of Fort Reno

_______ Establishment of Fort McKinney

_______ Fort Laramie Treaty signed

_______ Custer Battle

_______ Bozeman Trail Forts Abandoned

_______ Establishment of Fort Phil Kearny

_______ Johnson County Cattle War

_______ Death of Chief Red Cloud

Historical Treasures in Buffalo, Wyoming

Visitors to Buffalo's main street will see more than a dozen historic buildings, including the Occidental Hotel where Owen Wister's Virginian finally "got his man."  Other Wyoming historical sites are just a short distance from Buffalo including Fort Phil Kearney, Fetterman's Massacre Site, Wagon Box Fight and the infamous "Hole in the Wall"- the hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid along with the rest of the "Wild Bunch".

Buffalo, Wyoming

Gatchell Museum

The Gatchell Museum has the finest displays of items relating to the frontier experience in Wyoming’s Powder River Region – the focal point of historic activity along the Bozeman Trail.  The impressive museum has over 15,000 artifacts from the American Old West.  The museum houses a large collection of Native American artifacts, including some exceptionally fine prehistoric pieces. Also featured are significant items from the Custer Battlefield, the Fetterman Fight, the Johnson County Cattle War and personal equipment of famous lawmen and outlaws. The museum’s holdings are a priceless resource –invaluable to students of America’s pioneer history.  Individuals visiting Buffalo, Wyoming would greatly benefit from a visit to this museum as well as other educational sites in the area.

Wyoming Map

Links & Resources
(a special thank you to Geoff Dobson for his assistance.  He allowed me the use of photos and quotes from his site.)
(a special thanks to Nancy for sharing  library resources)

Myers, Patty, Cattle War of Johnson County For Children, Wy: The Office, c1985

 Site developed by: Evelyn Jeffers

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