Name and location of repository
Level of description
Johnson County War Collection
- 1884-1893 (Creation)
1 box (2.5 linear inches)
Name of creator
The Johnson County War, also known as the War on Powder Creek, was a range war between large cattle ranchers and small ranchers in northern Wyoming in April 1892. Johnson County is located at the confluence of the three forks of the Powder Creek. The county was ideal for raising cattle, and by 1880, the cattle rush in Wyoming had begun. But an overstocked range, low beef prices, and the disastrous winter of 1886-1887 forced many cowboys to become homesteaders and to maintain small herds. The increasing number of small ranchers alarmed the big cattlemen of the region and they used their influence to gain passage of the Maverick Law of 1884. The law made it illegal to brand a maverick (cattle, regardless of age, found roaming the open range without a mother and without a brand) except under orders of the foreman of each roundup district. Another provision of the law required high bonds for bidding on mavericks. This made it difficult for small ranchers to start or enlarge their own herds. To the disappointment of big cattlemen, the Maverick Law did not stop the illegal branding of mavericks.
Prior to the 1892, cattlemen punished individuals they suspected of being rustlers and cattle thieves. But in 1891, several large ranchers, many of whom were influential members of the Wyoming Stock Growers (WSGA) Association, decided to rid themselves once and for all of these individuals they believed threatened the prosperity of the cattle industry. The plan was to use armed force and kill or drive the rustlers from the state. All of the participants in the group were to take the train from Cheyenne to Casper, Wyoming. From there, the invaders would march to Buffalo, take control of the courthouse and the weapons stored there, and then mete out "severe treatment" to those they deemed deserving of it. They had a "death" list of these individuals, which varied in number from nineteen to seventy according to different accounts. The cattlemen, supported by powerful political leaders, were convinced that they would face no opposition to their cause and that the good citizens of Johnson County would rise up and join them in ridding society of these troublemakers. They sent representatives to recruit gunfighters from Paris, Lamar County, Texas and Idaho. Their efforts resulted in twenty-two Texans and George Dunning from Idaho joining the invasion party as it was later called. The hired guns were told that they would be serving warrants to known rustlers and other dangerous outlaws.
The invasion began on April 5, 1892. A large party of cattlemen, including the owners, superintendents, and foremen of six large Johnson County cattle outfits, five stock detectives including Frank M. Canton, 23 gunfighters and their commander Major Frank Wolcott, and surgeon Dr. Charles Penrose set out from Cheyenne on the afternoon train. Sam T. Clover of the Chicago Herald and Ed Towse of the Cheyenne Sun also joined the group. The cattlemen and their hired guns arrived in Casper the next morning, loaded their wagons, and began the march to Buffalo. They stopped at the Tisdale ranch where two more men were added to the party. It was at this ranch that the invaders received news that fourteen rustlers were at the K.C. ranch approximately eighteen miles north of the Tisdale ranch. The cattlemen decided to deviate from their plan and rode to the K.C. ranch. The delay would prove costly.
When the invaders arrived at the K.C., they discovered that only four men occupied the small cabin on the ranch: Nate Champion, Rueben "Nick" Ray, and two innocent trappers. One trapper left the cabin headed for the barn for some water. The invaders promptly captured him. After some time, the second trapper exited the cabin looking for his partner and was also captured. Champion and Ray surmised that something was amiss. Champion warned Ray before he set out in search of the missing trappers. Before Ray could walk into the yard, the invaders opened fire. Champion was able to pull his body back into the cabin but Ray died from the injuries he sustained an hour later. The cattlemen laid siege to the cabin, and eventually forced Champion out by setting fire to it. During the siege, Jack Flagg, a suspected rustler, and his stepson Alonzo Taylor unwittingly crossed the firing zone. They were able to escape after the gunfighters gave them chase. Their escape was significant because Flagg and Taylor were able to warn the people of Buffalo of the group of armed men hunting rustlers and small ranchers.
After the encounter at the K.C. ranch, the invaders pointed their horses toward Buffalo. The party was less than ten miles from the town when their friend and fellow cattleman James Craig urged them not to go to Buffalo. Because of Jack Flagg's tales of his run-in with the invaders, the townspeople knew of the cattlemen's impending arrival and believed that the armed group was after innocent ranchers, not dishonest rustlers. Despite the invaders' belief that their actions were just and would meet with general approbation, the people did not rally behind their cause. The invaders decided to retreat to the T.A. ranch, thirteen miles from Buffalo. Within a day, Sheriff Angus of Buffalo and several small ranchers surrounded the ranch. More men joined their ranks as they laid siege to the ranch. The standoff lasted for two days. Early on the morning of April 13th the standoff came an end when Troops H, C, and D of the 6th Cavalry under Major Fechet, with Colonel Van Horn in command accepted the surrender of the cattlemen. After the machinations of powerful friends of the invaders including both Wyoming senators and the acting governor, President Benjamin Harrison ordered the troops to intervene. Charges were brought against many of those who participated in the invasion. However, in the end, none of the invaders of Johnson County War were convicted.
Content and structure elements
Scope and content
This collection contains financial and legal documents related to the Johnson County War, also known as the War on Powder Creek, which was a range war between large cattle ranchers and small ranchers in Johnson County, Wyoming, in April 1892. The financial documents include a bill of sale written in compliance with the Maverick Law of 1884 and a promissory note. The legal documents were produced in connection with the criminal proceedings against the participants of the range war.
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Conditions governing access
These materials are stored offsite and require additional time for retrieval.
Conditions governing reproduction
Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law. It is the responsibility of the researcher to secure those rights when needed. Permission to reproduce does not constitute permission to publish. The researcher assumes full responsibility for conforming to the laws of copyright, literary property rights, and libel.
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