The Johnson County Wars

Nate Champion Photo Credit- www.wyohistory.com

Nate Champion Photo Credit- www.wyohistory.com

In the late 19th century, westward expansion was on everyone’s mind.  The western plains were the last unclaimed land in America, and people flocked there to make their fortune.  Johnson county, Wyoming was a lush grassland with pristine streams and perfect for cattle herds.  The country was paying top dollar for beef, and eastern conglomerates came in and grazed their herds on the open range and made a lot of money doing it.  All through the 1870s, these men lived the good life and Frank Wollcott was chief among them.  He has been described as “often wrong but seldom in doubt”.  From his base at the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, he owned newspapers, fancy homes and politicians.  But their business plan was based on free access to all the land and the Homestead Act put that in jeopardy.  The Homestead Act promised public domain land to small farmers if they could last for five years and make improvements and farm.  The small farmers put up fences and broke up the open range and took water rights.  The homesteaders were in the way of Wollcott’s profits and Johnson county, Wyoming was ground zero for this fight.

Enter into this fray, Nate Champion.  With a name straight out of a Louis L’Amour novel, and full of nerve and “sand” as they said in the Old West, Champion left Texas with a herd of 200 cattle and headed for Wyoming to make his fortune.  He made his way to Johnson county and took a homestead with a wave of other settlers.  This did not make the cattle barons under Wollcott happy.  Although the homesteaders were there legally, Wollcott hired thugs to tear up fences and terrorize the homesteaders.  Some left, but Champion and his neighbors Jim Averill and Ella Watson, better known as Cattle Kate, organized the remaining homesteaders.  Wollcott and the cattle barons fought back with their newspapers calling the homesteaders cattle rustlers.   They named Nate Champion as the “King of the Rustlers” even though there is no evidence he ever stole anything.  It was a name blacking campaign that worked.

In 1886, the winter was especially hard and homesteaders and cattle barons alike lost a majority of their stock.  This made the problems between the homesteaders and the cattle barons more serious.  Wollcott got serious and hired Frank Canton, a Texas outlaw, to put the fear of God into the homesteaders.  Jim Averill and Cattle Kate were the first target.  In the summer of 1889, Canton and his men rode out to their homestead and accused them of cattle rustling.  As frontier justice went, why waste time in court if you knew they were guilty?  The two were hung on their own land.  The crime went unpunished, but the lynching of a woman began to turn public opinion.   

Frank Wolcott Photo Credit- www.legendsofamerica.com

Frank Wolcott Photo Credit- www.legendsofamerica.com

Many homesteaders left fearing for their families, however, the ones left banded together under Champion’s leadership.  They changed tactics and formed an association to compete against the baron’s head to head.  The September round up was an important time as all unbranded cattle was rounded up and divided between the ranchers.  The cattle barons forbade the homesteaders from taking part and divided the strays between themselves.  In retaliation, the homesteaders did their own roundup a month early and divided the strays between themselves.  This did not go over well with Frank Wollcott.  They were hit where it hurt, in their wallet.

On November 1, 1891, Wollcott sent men to Champion’s home.  Four armed men snuck up on him while he was asleep.  Champion woke up and remained motionless while the assassins approached his bed guns drawn.  What they didn’t know was Champion had a colt revolver under his pillow.  Unbelievably, Champion was able get out his gun and kill one of them men and wound another in the arm.  The three remaining assassins fled and Champion survived.  Champion didn’t get a good look at the men.  In the investigation that followed, one of the assassination squad members was forced to admit the names of all the members before a witness, John A. Tisdale.  Before Tisdale could testify, he was assassinated as well.  Champion’s assailants walked free.  This just added fuel to the fire.

Wollcott and the cattle barons got together and drew up a “death list” of seventy men and hired twenty three outlaws from all over to take them out.  Again, he gave out that these were rustlers and paid the outlaws $5 a day, all meals and what a witness described as “enough ammunition to kill everyone in Wyoming.”  Like a scene out of a Clint Eastwood movie, a private train pulled into Cheyenne, Wyoming full of gunmen from Texas.  The first name on their hit list?  Nate Champion.

Frank Wollcott and Frank Canton led the men to the KC ranch on the Powder River.  At dawn, they surrounded the bunkhouse.  Nick Ray, a homesteader, stepped out on the the porch and was mowed down.  Champion returned fire and the ensuing firefight lasted for hours.  During the fight, Champion recorded the events in his diary and wrote his last goodbyes even though he was hoping against hope for reinforcements.  What he did do was hold them off long enough to let people know what was going on.  Wollcott lost his temper and orders the men to set fire to the cabin.  Champion knew the game is up, and wrote his final goodbye.  “Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.”  Again, like a scene from a movie, Champion walked out the front door surrounded by flames and smoke, guns in hand and made his final stand.  He was mowed down in a hail of bullets and was shot twenty-eight times in all.  Legend says Wolcott stood over the body to make sure he was dead.

Wollcott and his army headed to another ranch to rest before taking on the next name on their list.  However this time, Wolcott was the besieged.  A posse of at least hundred to two hundred led by the sheriff of Johnson county surrounded the ranch.  When the news of Champion’s death had hit town, people rose up against the “invasion” of gunmen from Texas.  They were angry and lusting for blood.  The plan was to dynamite the fortifications and shoot the men as they ran.  Before they could do this, one of the cattle baron’s supporters got word to the governor, who called the president.  The 6th cavalry rode from Fort McKinney and took Wollcott and his men in custody.

Justice is not served.  Wollcott and his men got off using their substantial money and connections.  All charges were dismissed because a jury could not be seated and witnesses were paid to leave the state.  Wollcott left Johnson county and became a justice of the peace in Omaha.  He died in Denver 1910.  Money is the ultimate superpower.  But because of Nate Champion, there are family farms and ranches in Wyoming and not just the playground of rich men.

ER