Tag Archives: western history

Western Wednesday – War, War on the Range

Jan 13, 2016

640px-Bloomfield_IIThe 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.

Ella Averell, early victim of the Johnson County War

Ella Averell, early victim of the Johnson County War

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.

640px-Indian_sheep_loose_herding_on_open_range._-_NARA_-_295220Over 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)

Western Wednesday – Closing the Open Range

Jan 06, 2016
The Open Range

The Open Range

Last week we talked a bit about how cattle got to the West, and how they were maintained and then driven to railheads and eventually on to market (the part we don’t like to think about when we’re enjoying a juicy burger). Obviously, letting cattle graze freely over vast tracts of public land couldn’t last forever. So what changed things and how?

The quick and dirty answer to what changed things is “barbed wire.” But of course, it’s not as simple as that. It is, however, pretty amazing that one little invention could change the course of history and cause a lot of trouble, adding to the reasons it was called the Wild West.

Let’s start with those cattle. The West began to be settled in the 1840s and 50s. During that time, you had an incredibly large amount of land inhabited by an incredibly small amount of people. Neighbors were not something you had to worry about. As the cattle industry began in places like Wyoming, where my Brides of Paradise Ranch series is set, there was more than enough forage and water sources for everyone to let their cattle roam free across the land.

(Of course, this is all from the perspective of white settlers. It was an entirely different story for the Native American tribes who were systematically having their homeland taken from them, but that’s a post for another day.)

All that began to change as more and more people moved West to settle. The most serious problems and resulting conflicts developed when small ranches and individual settlers attempted to put down roots next to the huge ranches run by men of wealth and influence. Simply put, once the West reached the tipping point of number of settlers, all that vast open land and all those easy water sources couldn’t supply everyone who wanted to use them.

The result was that, by the mid-1880s, large ranchers were doing everything they could to drive the smaller ranchers out of business. That included hiring thugs to attack, and in some cases, lynch competing outfits. The Range Wars of the Old West have gone down in legend—sometimes exaggerated, but sometimes not. They were competition taken to the extreme.

Early advertisement for barbed wire

Early advertisement for barbed wire

And one quiet player in the conflict that led to these wars had to do with the invention and implementation of barbed wire fences. Because as soon as barbed wire was invented in the 1870s, it became less expensive to fence in vast tracts of grazing land and accompanying water sources so that a rancher could keep their herd separate from their neighbors’. Only, the problem was that a great deal of the land that was being fenced in was public land.

Back in the earlier days of the West (up to around the 1870s), various Homesteader Acts meant that if you went West and claimed property and made improvements, it was yours. As that land disappeared, however, ownership of the land wasn’t so cut and dry. So when ranchers began building barbed wire fences to enclose their herds, as often as not, they’d fence in land that they didn’t technically own, regardless of whether other livestock needed to use it, the post office needed to get through, or other official institutions had claim to it. And especially regardless of whether a smaller rancher or independent farmer happened to have built their homestead on that land.

Add to that already volatile mix the fact that, in Wyoming at least, an organization of the wealthiest and most powerful ranchers, the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association (which I mention in His Perfect Bride that Howard Haskell and Rex Bonneville both belong to, although Rex is more involved with them) had so much power that they basically controlled the government of Wyoming. A lot of nasty things went down while officials turned a blind eye. None of it was exactly fair. 

Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the range wars that gave the West it’s adjective of Wild.

(images are public domain, courtesy of Wikicommons)

Western Wednesday – Home, Home on the Range

Dec 30, 2015
Vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys

Vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys

One of the most iconic aspects of life in the Old West, something that plays a prominent role in my new series, The Brides of Paradise Ranch, is the whole idea of the ranch itself. When settlers first poured out West as the various trails, and later the railroad, opened things up, many of them thought about farming the rich land or mining for gold or silver. It wasn’t until slightly later that someone looked around and said, “You know what? We could raise  livestock here.” 

Okay, so right about now I bet you’re wondering… How did cows get to the Old West? The short, stupid answer is “Just like everybody else.” Livestock was originally brought over by settlers from Europe. Not just English settlers in the original colonies, though. Quite a few cattle were brought over to Mexico by Spanish settlers. In fact, the whole cowboy, cattle drive industry that we think of today when we think of the Old West really started in Texas around the time of the Civil War. And if you remember, “around the time of the Civil War” is not all that long after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848. Mexican rancheros had been raising longhorn cattle in the area for quite some time. 

The interesting thing to me is that by 1861, with Texas now part of the United States, there was actually a huge surplus of longhorn cattle. Beef was incredibly popular back East, but the problem was getting it there from the remote, railroadless ranches of Texas. A clever, forward-thinking man by the name of James McCoy realized that shipping cattle by rail back east would send profits through the roof. McCoy began buying up land around the village of Abilene, Kansas where the railroad already ran. He built up the area and made it more than just a sleepy frontier town, he made it a destination. All, of course, designed so cattle could be driven from the ranches in Texas to the railhead in Abilene, enabling McCoy and other enterprising ranchers to make money hand over fist. 

This great diagram of how to drive cattle proved very useful in writing His Dangerous Bride!

This great diagram of how to drive cattle proved very useful in writing His Dangerous Bride!

And so, the iconic cattle drive was born. I once had someone tell me that the term “cowboy” wasn’t actually in use in the 19th century, but as far as I have been able to tell from my research, it actually was. But so were the words “cow-poke” and “cow-hand.” Whatever the term, cowboys were, in a way, like glorified shepherds. They were hired to mind the vast herds of cattle that lived out on the Open Range and were owned by specific ranchers. The advantage of the Open Range was that cattle were mostly allowed to just roam free, with little maintenance or interference by ranchers. Cowboys would keep the cattle from getting entirely lost, and once a year, usually in the fall, they would bring the herd together and drive them up to the railhead. 

So who were these cowboys that we’ve all heard so much about? A lot of them were men who were displaced at the end of the Civil War. The war had vast and far-reaching effects, particularly on the economy of the South. Too many of the men coming back from war had no jobs once they returned, especially if they were undereducated or unskilled. The West was just beginning to open at that time, and the advantage of ranches and the boom in the beef industry was that strong men were needed, whether they had education or connections or not. Being a cowboy was a tough life, but it beat a life of poverty and struggle in the decimated economies of the South and East. 

Texas wasn’t the only area where ranching sprouted. In my new series, The Brides of Paradise Ranch, much of the action takes place in the town of Haskell, Wyoming, which was founded by enterprising rancher, Howard Haskell (this is fiction, btw, but based off of a few very interesting actual people). The Wyoming ranching industry began to grow and boom by luck. Yes, the land was ideal for raising cattle (as my character Howard saw from the first), but the luck came about in the decision to bring the Union Pacific Railroad through Wyoming instead of Colorado. That decision made all the difference. 

Cattle drive, 1876

Cattle drive, 1876

The Open Range and the cattle industry were one of the things that gave the Old West a huge boost. Ranching is almost if not more important to the settlement of the West than the discovery of gold and silver. It brought men and money to an unfolding land, gave hopeful young men jobs at a time when they were scarce back East, and helped to settle the frontier. (All, sadly, at the expense of the Native Americans, but that’s a whole other blog post) 

Of course, nothing lasts forever, and neither did the Open Range and the era of the cowboy. Believe it or not, one tiny invention changed everything…barbed wire. But we’ll talk about that next time.

If you’re curious, the first book in The Brides of Paradise Ranch series, His Perfect Bride is available now!


(Photos are public domain, courtesy of Wikicommons)

Western Wednesday – Sod Houses on the Frontier

Dec 23, 2015

Okay, I confess that I actually wrote this blog post almost two years ago and am simply reposting it now. But I think a lot of people might not have seen it, and it’s about one of my favorite things in the Old West. So as part of my effort to bring you slices of Western history every Wednesday in the new year, I give you…sod houses!

Saskatchewan_sod_housePeople who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. People who lived in sod houses, however, could throw just about anything.

I happen to really like sod houses. I think my first brush with this particularly ingenious form of architecture was through reading the Little House on the Prairie series. I thought it was just awesome that people could make houses out of the dirt itself and could build them right into hills if they wanted to. I guess I’ve always been a hobbit at heart.

My appreciation for sod houses, however, grew as I learned more about the settling of the American frontier. In the early days of the Old West, settlers moving into the vast new lands opened by the explorations after the Louisiana Purchase had only the most basic materials to work with. In areas with forests, this wasn’t a problem. Cut the trees down, build log cabins and other wood frame houses, end of story. But across the prairie, were trees were scarce but the land was ripe for farming, a different kind of house was needed.

Detail of sod house construction - courtesy of Greg Willis, Wikicommons

Detail of sod house construction – courtesy of Greg Willis, Wikicommons

Sod houses were surprisingly strong. They were the ideal form of shelter in areas where the winds whipped and fires could spread like, well, wildfire. Sod “bricks” were cut from the virgin soil as part of the process of cultivating the land for planting. These bricks would be built into walls, like clay bricks, and a roof would be put on top. It sounds so simple. It was simple. It was also genius.

The sod was still living when it was first built into walls, and the roots of the grass had just enough time to grow the bricks together before it dried. The result was a fortress of a house…complete with insects and other “wildlife” growing in it. We are so deeply concerned about building “green” houses now, but these sod houses put our modern green architecture to shame.

Of course, with a sod house came sod problems. The walls living in more ways than one. Bugs, mice, and other little critters were just as cozy and happy within the walls as people were. If you lived in a sod house, you were never truly alone! Constant dirt was another problem. Unlike fired bricks, dried sod tended to “shed” over time. That’s not to say that the walls would crumble. The roots of the grass that had grown in the sod before it was made into bricks saw to that. But dirt and dust was a problem.

Dowse sod house, Comstock, NE - built in 1900

Dowse sod house, Comstock, NE – built in 1900

For many frontiersmen, it was a problem worth having. The solidness of a sod house was perfect for keeping out the cold. The sharp winds of the prairie didn’t cut through the walls the way it did with wooden houses. Better still, sod houses were fireproof. In the era before electricity, when one upset lamp could burn through a family’s livelihood, sod houses were the best insurance you could have.

Interior of the Dowse sod house. Not too shabby!

Interior of the Dowse sod house. Not too shabby!

Believe it or not, they were also incredibly durable. One book I read talked about a couple continuing to live in their two-story sod house that had been built in the 1850s well into the 20th century and their old age. These color photographs of the interior and exterior of a sod house, the Dowse sod house in Comstock, Nebraska, were taken in 2006 (thank you Wikicommons!), but the house was built in 1900. Still standing!

Yep, if I had lived in the mid-19th century and found myself settling on the prairie, I think I would have been happy to live in a sod house. And that’s about it, really. Just another interesting tidbit of life in the Old West that I find fascinating.

Weekend Excerpt – His Perfect Bride/Corva: The Perfect Bride

Dec 19, 2015

Okay, you may have noticed that I’m posting this week’s book excerpt on the weeknend and not on a Wednesday. That’s because part of my New Year’s Resolution is to start (or restart, really) a new History blog post feature–Western Wednesdays–in the new year. I’m hoping to bring you little slices of life in the Old West based on the research I’ve done for my books. And I’m also going to try to get back into posting more writing tips and tricks for aspiring authors. But today, it’s all about Corva. Or His Perfect Bride, depending on whether you’re reading the nice or the naughty version. Here you go!


Franklin had to put a stop to this line of questioning. Clearly, it upset Corva, and he wouldn’t have that. “Dad, what are your plans for confronting Bonneville about the calves?”

Behind them, Cody laid a few more logs on the fire to brighten the room, as if it wasn’t hot enough already in spite of the spring chill outside.

“Now, now, son.” Howard shook a finger at him. “First things first. We’re investigating…I mean, learning about your wife.” He winked at Corva.

Corva blushed and stared down at her plate.

“Dad, maybe now isn’t the best time,” Franklin defended her.

“Nonsense. Now, young lady, what about your parents? Where are they?”

Corva swallowed. “My father was killed in the war. My mother died right after the war ended. That’s when I was sent to live with my Aunt Mildred, because the family thought we would cheer each other up.”

“Well? Did you?” Howard demanded.

Franklin cringed. He knew his father meant well, but he was like a grizzly bear in a house of cards. Franklin tried to shake his head to call his father off, but he was oblivious.

“No, not really,” Corva answered. “Aunt Mildred didn’t like children. She…she married my Uncle Stanley two years later, but…” She closed her mouth and swallowed.

Franklin saw the tell-tale signs of a woman about to cry. “Dad, I know you want to learn all about Corva, but this business with Bonneville is far more pressing. We need every one of those calves to stay with our herd if we stand a chance of increasing our numbers.”

“The only solution I can think of is to keep the pregnant cows close to home,” Travis spoke up.

Franklin sent him a nod of thanks for coming to the rescue.

Howard sighed. “I doubt Bonneville himself is behind it. More likely it’s that bast—” He cleared his throat, darting a glance at the women and children present. “That scoundrel he’s got running his operation, Brandon.”

“Kyle Brandon is a menace,” Travis growled.

A snap sounded from the fireplace behind Franklin and Corva. Franklin ignored it, but Corva turned, as if only just realizing she’d been seated in front of it. The logs Cody had laid on the fire had caught and were now blazing away.

One look at the flames, and Corva screamed, launching out of her chair. Her plate spilled to the carpet. She only made it two steps before stumbling over one of the children.

Franklin thrust his plate aside and jumped up after her. “It’s okay,” he assured her, closing his arms around her and drawing her into an embrace, even though he wasn’t all that steady himself. “It’s okay.”

Corva hid her face against his shoulder with a sob. She shook like a leaf, so Franklin tightened his hold around her. Throughout the room, his family and friends gaped and murmured in baffled surprise.

“She lived through the burning of Atlanta,” he told them quietly.

A few hums and nods of sympathy followed, but Corva continued to shake and refused to come out of hiding.

“Move those chairs,” Howard ordered, blustering, but red-faced with embarrassment. “What fool put them there in the first place?”

Probably him, but Franklin wasn’t going to say anything.

“I’ll fix you a new plate, dear,” his mother said, patting Corva’s back as she skipped through the room to the dining room.

“Why is Aunt Corva crying?” Minnie asked.

Everyone jumped into motion to drown the impertinence of Minnie’s question, shuffling seats and moving Franklin and Corva’s chairs to the hallway side of the parlor. There was so much movement and fuss that not one of them heard the front door open and slam shut.

It wasn’t until he shouted, “Haskell, I demand you stop this underhanded farce at once,” that they realized Rex Bonneville had barged into the house.


Quick little historical fact, in case you were wondering…. The word “Dad” as used to refer to your father is actually not as modern as you might be tempted to think it is. It was first recorded around the year 1500 as a name for your father, but language historians believe it’s much, much older than that.

His Perfect Bride (naughty version) and Corva: The Perfect Bride (nice version) are coming on December 28th! Stay tuned for links and more! But if you want to get the background to this story and the series, I recommend reading Trail of Destiny….