he Johnson County War By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
September 13, 2013
The first homesteader in the area of Kaycee Wyoming was John Nolan, who put his ranch along the Powder River. The brand he used was KC. During the Cattleman’s Invasion of 1892 the Nolan ranch became the scene of one of the most cowardly and brutal murders in the history of the West. Many of the large ranching outfits in Wyoming organized as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, who gathered socially as the Cheyenne Club in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Comprised of some of the states wealthiest and most influential residents, the organization held a great deal of political sway in the region and the state. They organized the cattle industry by scheduling roundups and cattle shipment but they also employed an agency of detectives to investigate cases of cattle theft from its member’s holdings. The uneasy relationship between the larger wealthier ranchers and the smaller ranch settlers became steadily worse after the poor winter of 1886-1887, when blizzards and temperatures of 40-50 below zero had followed an extremely hot and dry summer. Thousands of cattle were lost and the large companies began to control the flow of water as well as trying to exclude the smaller ranchers from participation in the annual roundup. Rustling in the area increased. In Johnson County, with emotions running high agents of the larger ranches killed several alleged rustlers from smaller ranches on dubious evidence, or they were simply found dead. Frank Canton the Sheriff of Johnson County was rumored behind many of the deaths. Canton’s gripsack was later found to contain a list of dozens of “rustlers” to either be shot and hung and a contract to pay him $5.00 a day plus a bonus of $50 for each rustler killed. Unfortunately, Nate Champion was the first target. ?On April 10, 1892, the “Cattlemen” burned Nolan’s ranch house and murdered Nate Champion and Nick Ray, who were leasing the ranch from John Nolan at the time. Nate’s stand was one of the west’s greatest last stands. He kept up a steady gunfire, and took cover in a pit he had dug out in the dirt floor of the cabin. The regulators finally used a wagon loaded with hay and set on fire, and pushed it against the cabin while Champion was kept down by a rain of lead from 2 dozen rifles. Just before the structure collapsed, Champion emerged holding a Winchester at the ready. The regulators opened fire with abandon and killed him. Although they claimed that Champion was a rustler, he was in fact the first victim of the Johnson County War, (also known as the War on the Powder River, and the Wyoming Range War). Champion’s murder was intended to scare the smaller ranchers, intending to force them to leave Wyoming to the sole use of the larger ranchers, so they could let their herds of cattle have miles and miles of unfenced grazing land. To this day the lawlessness of this act and many others has gone without punishment. Some saw the big ranchers and their ally the Wyoming Stock Growers Association as businessmen, forced to take justice into their own hands to protect their assets. Because suspected rustlers were gunned down or lynched with little or no evidence, many viewed the stock growers association as little more than a cartel of cold blooded killers. The “war” was over the next day, but over the next decade, scattered violence continued as rustlers continued to be hanged.
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