This may, or may not, be a Shameless Self-Promotion Diary.
I have tried to include enough fun facts to make it educational, but it's still plugging a vid, so it probably is one.
When most Americans hear the phrase "range war," they conjure images of free spirited cowboys fighting off encroaching farmers, a faintly romantic picture far removed from our current concerns.
But the archetypal range war, the one on which countless songs and films are (very loosely) based, was a reign of economic repression that would be quite familiar to readers of this site, a tale of megawealthy, often multinational concerns shamelessly appropriating the common weal and wielding a broad array of weapons, including murder, to silence critics.
Coming to a long, cold night. Pull up by the fire and I'll tell you a tale.
Though cattlemen like Charles Goodnight and Nelson Story had driven herds through the Wyoming Territory decades before, the real Wyoming cattle boom began in the late 70s, after the impetuous and arrogant George Custer had gotten himself and his command good and killed on the Greasy Grass and General George Crook retaliated with a brutal campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne, securing the great open range of Wyoming for ranching.
While the men who actually punched the doagies were largely Texans ("Texians," if you asked them), a new breed quickly moved onto the range: wealthy men from the East and farther east yet. Early and typyical among them was an Englishman named Moreton Frewen, who bought several outfits, among them the 76, which he expanded into the first great cattle empire.
Others quickly followed, and by the early 80s they Wyoming range was dominated by a few small, mostly absentee-owned, outfits, united under the auspices of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. The "lords" met and set range policy in their grand club in Cheyenne, which boasted the finest table in America and, it was said, the best wine cellar in the world.
Throughout the mild, wet years of 84 and 85, the men of the Association badly overstocked the range, all the while tightening their monopoly of the business by blacklisting from the roundups any cowboy who dared raise his own herd and by forcing through the Territorial legislature the infamous "Maverick Law," which defined all mavericks--unbranded calves--the property of the Association. By these methods, they succeeded both in destroying their own market and turning the great majority of actual cowboys against them.
The brutal winter of 1886-87 drove the final nail in the bubble's coffin, killing tens of thousands of beeves. Still, as bubble-riders often will, the Association men refused to admit the good times were over and, rather than blaming their own greed and stupidity, turned an even harsher eye to the independents and settlers. It was decided to make an example of the more vocal of their critics.
Throughout 1890, the Association men and their hires waged a war of terror in Johnson County, hanging the range madam Ella Watson and her companion James Averill, who'd opposed them in his newspaper and in courts--and won judgment against their taking of the public range. Independent rancher (and alleged dealer in "stray" horses) Tom Waggoner was fitted with Association neckwear as well.
But their chief target, independent cowman and accused rustler Nate Champion, eluded their vengeance. In November, Champion narrowly escaped an ambush by Association men at Hall's ranch and was constantly on the lookout for more leaded mischief.
Frustrated with their inability to quash the independents, the Association brought out the big guns, assembling a small army of ranch detectives, Association members and hired guns from Texas in the spring of 92. They hired a special train to transport their army to Johnson County, where they finally cornered Champion and his friend Nick Rae at the KC ranch on April 9.
The Association army surrounded Champion and Rae in the ranch cabin and fired hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rounds into the building. Rae was hit in mid-afternoon and died slowly. Champion, between bouts of return fire, took pen and paper and wrote a journal of the ordeal, which ended late in the day when the invaders set fire to the cabin. Champion made a run for safety, but was cut down in the attempt by over a dozen bullets.
After killing Champion, the invaders took the journal and removed several pages, in which it is presumed Champion identified some of his besiegers, though the contents of the missing portions have been lost to history...
... which is the sort of thing that poets and balladeers find irresistible.
After reading of the War and Champion's stand at the KC, I decided I'd "write out the tale" myself, relying heavily on "The War on Powder River: The History of an Insurrection" by Helen Huntington Smith, in my opinion the most complete and well-researched history of the cattle boom and subsequent war of terror in Wyoming Territory. Any mistakes or inaccuracies are strictly my own, either the result of poetic license or simple laziness.
I was very fortunate to have the assistance of fiddle player extraordinaire Gina Forsyth and the brilliant accordionist Bart Ramsey in setting the story to music. They did excellent work in setting the harsh, lonely tone for a story that demanded nothing but.
I hope you enjoy the piece, and, if you find the subject of interest, do look into Ms. Smith's book. It tells the tale as nothing else does.
As always, a direct link to the video is provided for those with embed woes.