The Johnson Country War


On a blizzardy April morning in 1892, fil’ty armed men surrounded a cabin on Powder River in which two accused cattle rustlers had been spending the night. The first rustler was shot as he came down the path lor the morning bucket of water; he was dragged over the dOOrstep by his companion, to die inside. The second man held out until afternoon, when the besiegers fired the house. Driven out by the Hames, he went down with twenty-eight bullets in him. HE was left on the bloodstained snow with a card pinned to his shirt, reading: “Cattle thieves, beware!”

So far the affair follows the standard pattern of frontier heroics, a pattern popularized by Owen Wister and justified to some extent by the facts of history if you don’t look too closely: strong men on a far frontier, in the absence of law, make their own law for the protection of society, which generally approves.

Thus runs the cliche, but in Wyoming this time it went awry. In the first place the attackers were not crude frontiersmen taking the law into their own hands. They were men of means and education, predominantly eastern, who really should have known better; civili/ed men, at home in drawing rooms and familiar with Paris. Two were Harvard classmates of the year ’78, the one a Boston blue blood, the other a member of a Wall Street banking family. Hubert E. Tcschemachcr and Fred DeBillicr had come west after graduation to hunt elk, as so many gilded youths from both sides of the Atlantic were doing; had fallen in love with the country; and had remained as partners in a half-million-dollar ranching enterprise.

Our fifty vigilantes were truly a strange company to ride through the land slaughtering people. The instigators dominated the cattle business and the affairs of the former territory, which had recently been elevated to statehood, and more than half of them had served in the legislature. Their leader, Major Frank Wolcott, was a fierce little pouter pigeon of a man, a Kentuckian lately of the Union Army, whose brother was United States senator from Colorado. Accompanying the party as surgeon was a socially prominent Philadelphian, Dr. Charles Bingham Penrose, who had come to Wyoming for his health. It was not improved by his experiences.

These gentlemen had no thought of the danger to themselves as they set out, without benefit of the law, to liquidate their enemies. Convinced of their own righteousness, they expected nine-tenths of the people of Wyoming to be on their side, and they even looked for a popular uprising to assist them. Instead, thirtysix hours after their sanguinary victory on Powder River, they were surrounded in their turn by an enraged horde of citi/ens, and just missed being lynched themselves. They were saved only by the intervention of the President of the United States, who ordered federal troops to their aid. But it wasn’t quite the usual scene of the cavalry riding to the rescue at the end of the movie, for while the cattlemen were snatched from imminent death, they were also arrested for the murder of the two men and marched off in custody of the troops—the latter, from the commanding officer on down, making clear their personal opinion that they regretted the rescue.

So ended the Johnson County War—tragic, bizarre, unbelievable. It was all a sequel to the great beef bonanza, which began around 1880. The cattle boom combined the most familiar features of the South Sea Bubble and the 1929 bull market—such as forty per cent dividends that would never cease—with some special features of its own—such as a rash of adventuring English Lords and Honorables, free grass, and the blessings of “natural increase” provided by the prolific Texas cow. A man could grow rich without his lifting a finger.

Instead of the old-style cow outfit with its headquarters in a dugout and a boss who ate beef, bacon, and beans, there were cattle companies with offices in Wall Street, London, or Edinburgh; champagne parties; thoroughbred racing on the plains; and younger sons who were shipped out west to mismanage great ranches at fancy salaries. In a raw new city sprawled along the Union Pacific tracks, the Cheyenne Club boasted the best steward of any club in the United States, and its members were drawn from a roster of aristocracy on both sides of the Atlantic. Burke’s Peerage and the Social Register mingled, though not intimately, with common cowhands from Texas, but only the latter knew anything about cattle.

To be sure, some of what they knew was a trifle shady: they knew how to handle a long rope and a running iron; how to brand a maverick right out from under the noses of the lords. But the mavericks, unbranded animals of uncertain ownership, were rather casually regarded anyhow; “finders keepers” was the unwritten rule which had governed their disposition in the early days, and they had been a source of controversy and bloodshed throughout the history of the West. While they were now claimed by the big cattle companies, the Texas cowboys were not impressed.