Wyoming's Wild Past
Johnson County Cattle War - April, 1892
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In the late 1800's the lush grasslands of Johnson County became a battleground where cattle barons and homesteaders faced off over grazing rights of these prime lands. The cattle barons, long established along the vast plains, were beginning to see their iron-clad grip on the land fade away as homesteaders began setting up small ranches throughout the county. Much was made by the cattle barons about cattle rustlers among the homesteaders and eventually the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) began to take action against these small operators, employing stock detectives, like former Johnson County sheriff Frank Canton and hired gun Tom Horn, to seek out "rustlers" and kill them.
In the spring of 1892, the WSGA, hired a group of more than 50 men, many who were gunslingers from Texas, to launch an expedition into Johnson County where they were to "shoot or hang" some 70 county residents and officials named on a "kill" list compiled by the stock organization. The mercenaries, led by Canton, were to be paid $5 a day plus a bonus of $50 for every rustler killed.
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The "invaders" first targeted a local rancher, Nate Champion, (President of the newly-formed Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association), when they got word on April 9th, 1892, that he was at a cabin on the KC Ranch west of Kaycee. Champion, along with companion, Nick Ray, were cornered in the cabin by the invaders and killed after a lengthy shootout. However, another county resident, Jack Flagg, witnessed the battle and high tailed it to the Trabing post office south of Buffalo to give warning of the invading force. Meanwhile, a neighbor of the KC Ranch who had heard the gunfire from the assault on Champion, Terrance Smith, raced 60 miles to Buffalo to alert Sheriff Red Angus of the invaders approach. After a raucous town meeting in the Occidental Saloon, an impassioned posse of some 200 men was raised and, after being armed and provisioned by local businessman Robert Foote, set off to the south to intercept the invading group. The posse eventually forced the "regulators" to retreat to the TA Ranch some 16 miles south of Buffalo, where they were besieged by the posse for several days. As the siege continued, the posse began building rolling breast-works which would have allowed them to approach the ranch buildings and lay fire to them or dynamite them.
About that time one of the invaders was able to escape and rode 100 miles to find a working telegraph station. Word was sent to Cheyenne, and then Territorial Governor Amos W. Barber contacted President Benjamin Harrison and was able to convince the President to send troops from Fort McKinney to rescue the regulators. The regulators were then escorted to Fort McKinney under military guard and then transferred out of the county to Cheyenne.
The WSGA group was held at the barracks of Fort D.A. Russell because the Laramie County jail was unable to hold that many prisoners. They received preferential treatment and were allowed to roam the base by day as long as they agreed to return to the jail to sleep at night.
Eventually the invaders were released on bail and were told to return to Wyoming for the trial. Many fled to Texas and were never seen again. In the end the WSGA group went free after the charges were dropped when Johnson County could not pay for the costs of prosecution. The cost of housing the men at Fort D.A. Russell was said to exceed $18,000 and the sparsely populated Johnson County was unable to pay.
Nathan "Nate" D. Champion (September 29, 1857 — April 9, 1892) was a key figure in the Johnson County Cattle War. Labeled falsely by the wealthy Wyoming Stock Growers Association in Wyoming as a rustler, Champion was the first person murdered by a band of hit men hired by the WSGA. Although often portrayed as an outlaw, Champion was simply a small rancher, thus becoming a target of the large and powerful cattlemen. His fame is derived mostly due to his heroic stand while his cabin was besieged, and for a brief letter written during the siege describing the events, that he left behind.
Champion was a small rancher who was active in the efforts of small ranchers to organize a competing roundup. Three men besides Champion were at the KC Ranch, west of Kaycee. Two men, evidently trappers, who had taken shelter for the night, were captured as they emerged from the cabin early that morning to collect water at the nearby Powder River, while the third, Nick Ray, was shot while standing inside the doorway of the cabin and died a few hours later. The fourth, Nate Champion, was besieged.
Champion held out for several hours, killing at least four of the vigilantes, and wounding several others. During the siege, Champion kept a poignant journal which contained a number of notes he wrote to friends while taking cover inside the cabin. Among his last entries in the journal were these:
"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.
"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.
"I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house to-night.
"I think I will make a break when night comes if alive." The regulators then 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
With the house on fire, Nate Champion signed his journal entry and put the journal in his pocket before he emerged, running from the back door with a six shooter in one hand and a knife in the other. He was gunned down by four men firing simultaneously, hit by 28 bullets. The invaders later pinned a note on Champion's bullet-riddled chest that read "Cattle Thieves Beware". They also carefully removed entries from the diary which named some of the attackers.
One of the men who participated in the siege was famous gunman Frank Canton, stock detective and former Johnson County Sheriff.
Josiah Horner (September 15, 1849 — September 27, 1927), better known as Frank M. Canton, was a famous American Old West lawman, gunslinger, cowboy and at one point in his life, an outlaw. Josiah Horner was born on September 15, 1849, in Virginia. He drifted into Texas working as a cowboy and, in 1871, he started robbing banks and rustling cattle, which at the time was a capital offense. On October 10, 1874, Horner got into a gunfight with some Buffalo Soldiers, killing one and wounding the other. In 1877, he was arrested for robbing a bank in Comanche, Texas. He escaped from Texas Ranger custody and moved to Ogallala, Nebraska and took up a herd of cattle. While in Nebraska, he officially changed his name to Frank M. Canton and vowed to give up his outlaw ways.
Frank Canton hired on as a stock detective for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. He was also elected sheriff of Johnson County, Wyoming. In 1882, Canton married and had 2 children, one of whom died early in childhood.
Canton served as sheriff for four years, 1882-1886, and was unrelenting in his opposition to rustlers. He was responsible for a territory that included not only present day Johnson and Sheridan Counties, but parts of present day Washakie, Big Horn and Hot Springs Counties. During his term he captured the notorious Teton Jackson, and hanged the murderer Bill Booth who poisoned his victims (the only legal hanging ever conducted in Johnson County). After Canton left office he took employment as a stock detective with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and at the same time worked as a U.S. Deputy Marshal.
Harry Sinclair Drago in his The Great Range Wars: Violence on the Grasslands, (University of Nebraska Press), 1985, summed up Canton, "Frank Canton was a merciless, congenital, emotionless killer. For pay, he murdered eight — very likely ten men." Drago concluded, "Even Jesse James was kind to his mother."