The range wars that took place in Wyoming and other places in the Old West where the cattle industry formed the heart of the economy make for great stories. They’ve been depicted in every format, from books to television to movies. In all of these cases, the drama is high, the stakes are personal, and the action is furious. This is really the stuff of legend. But what really happened back then, and was it as dramatic as the media has made it out to be?
There were several conflicts that could be classified as range wars throughout the 1870s, 80s, and 90s—from the Mason County War in Texas in 1875 to the Colfax County War in New Mexico in the 70s and 80s. Most of these conflicts were simply the result of new, entrepreneurial settlers trying to cut in on the business of ranchers and landowners who were already established in any given area. They turned violent due to lack of law enforcement to stop intimidation and retaliation before it got out of hand. But the big war, the one that gets the most press and that the movies, shows, and books are all based on, is the Johnson County War in Wyoming from around 1889 to 1893.
Although a lot of the media out there likes to paint the Johnson County War as a class war where the little guy was just standing up for his rights against the big, bad cattle barons, it’s so not that simple. The origins of the conflict were the same as any other range war—newbies trying to carve out a piece of the pie for themselves against the long-standing, well-organized ranchers who had come before them.
One theory about the instigating factor of the war is the weather. Yup. The cattle industry in Wyoming was booming in the 1870s and early 80s, and there was enough business to go around. But in the winter of 1886-87, Wyoming saw several blizzards and temperatures that dropped to 40-50 below zero. That was then followed by an unusually hot and dry summer. It decimated the herds. And while you might think that this would be great for ranchers because there would be a higher demand for fewer heads of cattle, the fact was that with cattle still grazing out on the open range—and fewer of them at that—rustling became a major problem.
A lot of the rustling (taking cattle off the open range and claiming they’re yours when clearly, according to the brand, they’re not) was blamed on the smaller, newer ranchers. Some of that was justified. Some of the rustling was done by independent gangs of criminals. The larger ranchers weren’t going to take this lying down, though, and it just so happened that they were organized.
I’ve had fun mentioning in my Brides of Paradise Ranch series that both of the cattle barons in Haskell, Wyoming—Howard Haskell and Rex Bonneville—belong to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. No single organization was as important or powerful in Wyoming in the late 19th century as the WSGA…and that includes the government. When the problems started, the WSGA took action. Not only were there powerful cattlemen in their ranks, there were also politicians, independent enforcers, and detectives.
When the rustling got bad, the WSGA sent out teams of detectives and hired guns to find out what was going on. Their conclusion in many cases was that the smaller ranchers were to blame for the rustling. To make a long story short, they took action.
Perhaps one reason why the Johnson County War spun out of control so fast was because of the first people who were killed. A range detective out investigating rustling came to the conclusion that a man named Jim Averell was guilty. So he and his team lynched him in July of 1889. They also lynched his wife, Ella. It’s one of the few times that a woman was lynched in the Old West, and it caused an outrage. Not only an outrage, it prompted revenge. A few months later, some of the men who had been involved in the lynching were murdered in retaliation.
That spark ignited a firestorm. The WSGA responded by hiring guns from Texas—who were reported to be ruthless killers—and sent more detectives out to “investigate.” One of the reasons the war earned its place in history is because they also sent out journalists to record what was going on and to send word—or rather, copy that would sell papers—back East. The smaller ranchers refused to be put down. They attempted to organize and fight back. Like, literally fight back.
Over the next few years, there were a series of sieges and armed conflicts. More often than not, they involved smaller ranchers and their allies attacking the cattle barons, and then the WSGA retaliating by sieging ranches and killing the participants. The small ranchers saw themselves as fighters for the cause of the little guy. The cattle barons saw them as vigilantes disrupting the economy. They saw themselves as protectors of the economic interests of the state and of their own businesses by whatever means necessary. Both sides thought they were right, and both were willing to fight to the death to win.
So what ended up ending the Johnson County War? How could a conflict with two sides who were so convinced they were right and who were willing to do whatever it took to protect their interests stop?
Well, the answer is that President Benjamin Harrison himself had had enough of it. In 1892, he charged the Secretary of War with ending the conflict. The U.S. Army moved in to Wyoming and slapped some serious down. The men from the WSGA who were responsible for the killings of the smaller ranchers and vigilantes were charged with crimes…but never actually prosecuted or convicted of anything.
The end result was that the cattle barons kept their power and the smaller ranchers lost theirs. Unfair? Eh, maybe. We like to hear about the little guys winning, but in a way, the little guys just lost in their attempt to move in on territory that was already claimed by men who had been in business longer than them. Before long, there were other problems taking up the cattle baron’s time and attention—changes in the market, shifting demand for beef, and new laws that changed the way ranches were organized. The war might be the thing that captures our imagination, but as is the case so often in life, it was ultimately the slow-moving glacier of economic change and development that shaped the new Old West.
(all images are public domain, courtesy of WikiCommons)