The Johnson Country War

PrintPrintEmailEmail

By 1890 a thin colony of blackballed cowboys had settled on the rivers and creeks of Johnson County and were waging war with rope and running iron on the big outfits. Then early in 1892 a group calling themselves the Northern Wyoming Farmers’ and Stockgrowers’ Association announced in the press their intention of holding an independent roundup, in defiance of the state law and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. This was provocative, insolent, outrageous if you like; it was hardly the furtive behavior of ordinary thieves.

Also announced in the press were the names of two foremen for what was now being called the “shotgun roundup.” One was a Texan, known as a skilled cowhand, who was lightning with a gun. His name was Nathan D. Champion.

Meanwhile the storied walls of the Cheyenne Club beheld the amazing spectacle of nineteenth century gentlemen plotting wholesale murder. The declared object of their expedition was the “extermination”- not “arrest,” but “extermination”—of various undesirable persons in the northern part of the state. The death list stood at seventy. In addition to a hard core of nineteen most-wanted rustlers, it almost certainly included a large number who were merely thought to be too close to the rustler faction, among them the sheriff of Johnson County and the three county commissioners.

This incredible project was fully known in advance to Acting Governor Amos W. Barber, to United States Senators Joseph M. Carey and Francis E. Warren, and to officials of the Union Pacific Railroad, whose consent to run a special train was obtained; and none of whom found anything questionable in the undertaking. Twenty-five hired gunfighters from Texas raised the manpower complement to fifty, since the local cowboys were thoroughly disaffected and would not have pulled a trigger for their employers. A smart Chicago newsman, Sam T. Clover, had heard about the impending necktie party and was in Cheyenne determined to get the story for the Herald . He and a local reporter were taken along just as though the expedition were legal; it apparently had not occurred to the planners that they were inviting witnesses to murder.

They got started the afternoon of April 5, on board a train loaded with men, arms, equipment, horses, and three supply wagons. An overnight run landed them in Casper, two hundred miles to the northwest, where they descended, saddled their horses, and were oft before the townspeople were up—except tor enough of the latter to start talk. Their objective was Buffalo, the county seat of Johnson County, but when they arrived at a friendly ranch on the second night, they received new intelligence which determined them to change their course: Nate Champion and possibly a good catch of other rustlers were at a cabin on the Middle Fork of Powder River, only twelve miles away. They decided to detour and finish this group off before proceeding to Buffalo.

Rumors have come down to us of the drinking and dissension that accompanied this decision: faced with the actuality of shooting trapped men in a cabin the next morning, stomachs began to turn over, and three members of the party pulled out, including the doctor and the local newsman. But that night the main body rode on to the attack, through one of the worst April blizzards in memory. They plodded along without speaking, while beards and mustaches became coated with ice, and the wind lashed knife-edged snow in their faces. Halting before daybreak to thaw out around sagebrush fires, they went on until they looked down over a low bluff at the still-sleeping KC ranch.

Two innocent visitors, trappers, had been spending the night in the cabin. As first one and then the other sauntered forth into the gray morning air, he was recognized as not among the wanted men, and as soon as a corner of the barn hid him from the house, each was made prisoner. After a long wait Champion’s friend Nick Ray finally appeared and was shot down. The door opened, and Champion himself faced a storm of bullets to drag Ray inside.

The fusillade went on for hour after hour. In the log shack Nate Champion was writing, with a cramped hand in a pocket notebook, the record of his last hours. Me and Nick was getting breakfast when the attack took place. Two men was with us—Bill Jones and another man. The old man went after water and did not come back. His friend went to see what was the matter and he did not come back. Nick started out and I told him to look out, that I thought there was someone at the stable and would not let them come back.

Nick is shot but not dead yet. He is awful sick. I must go and wait on him.

It is now about two hours since the first shot. Nick is still alive.

They are still shooting and are all around the house. Boys, there is bullets coming in here like hail.

Them fellows is in such shape I can’t get at them. They are shooting from the stable and river and back of the house.

Nick is dead. He died about 9 o’clock.

Hour after hour the hills crackled with rifle fire, and such was the emptiness of the country that while the besiegers were on a main road, such as it was, connecting civilization with a little settlement at the back of beyond, they could bang away all day without fear of interruption. Or almost. As it happened there was a slight interruption in midafternoon.