- Historic Sites
The Johnson Country War
Enraged by losses from their herds a band of respectable cattle barons took the law into their own hands—and barely escaped with their lives
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
Jack Flagg, a rustler intellectual of sorts, had left his ranch eighteen miles up the Red Fork of Powder River on this snowy morning of April 9, on his way to the Democratic state convention at Douglas, to which he was a delegate from Johnson County. It was one of the oddities of the situation that the thieves were all Democrats, and the murderers were all Republicans. A rancher, newspaper editor, and schoolteacher, Flagg was an accomplished demagogue who had twisted the tails of the big outfits by means fair and foul. He was very much on the wanted list.
He was riding about fifty yards or so behind a wagon driven by his seventeen-year-old stepson; and since the invaders had withdrawn into a strategy huddle and pulled in their pickets, there was no sound of firing to warn him as the wagon rattled downhill to the bridge by the KC. Flagg started over to the house to greet his friends, and was ordered to halt by someone who failed to recognize him.
“Don’t shoot me, boys, I’m all right,” he called gaily, taking it for a joke. Under the hail of bullets which disabused him, he fled back to the wagon and slashed the tugs holding one of the team, and he and the boy made their miraculous escape.
The wagon Flagg left behind was put to use by the invaders. Since hours of cannonading had failed to dislodge Champion, they loaded it with old hay and dry chips and pushed it up to the cabin, where they set it afire. Flames and smoke rolled skyward until they wondered if the man inside had cheated them by shooting himself. Champion, however, was still writing.
I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house to-night.
I think I will make a break when night comes if alive.
It’s not night yet.
The house is all fired. Goodbye boys, if I never see you again.
Nathan D. Champion.
Finally, he broke through the roof at one end of the house and sprinted desperately for the cover of a little draw, which he never reached.
Pawing over the body, the invaders found and read the diary, after which it was presented to the Chicago newsman. Its contents survived, to become a classic of raw courage in the annals of the West.
Next day, Sunday, April 10, the invaders were approaching Buffalo when they were met by a rider on a lathered horse, who warned them that the town was in an uproar and they had better turn back if they valued their lives. They had just made a rest halt at the friendly TA ranch. Their only hope was to return there and dig in.
Sam Clover, ace reporter, was too smart for that trap. Deciding to take his chance with the aroused local population, he left the now deflated avengers and rode on into Buffalo, where he did some fast talking and finally got himself under the wing of his old friend Major Edmond G. Fechet of the 6th Cavalry, with whom he had campaigned during the Ghost Dance troubles in North Dakota. With the rest of the 6th, Fechet was now stationed at Fort McKinney, near Buffalo. So Clover rode off to the fort to luxuriate in hot baths and clean sheets and to write dispatches, while the wretched invaders prepared to stand siege for their lives.
They worked all night, and by morning of the eleventh were entrenched behind a very efficient set of fortifications at the TA ranch, where they were virtually impregnable except for a shortage of food supplies. By morning they were besieged by an impromptu army of hornet-mad cowboys and ranchmen, led by Sheriff “Red” Angus of Johnson County. The army numbered over three hundred on the day of surrender.
In Buffalo, churches and schools were turned into headquarters for the steadily arriving recruits; ladies baked cakes to send to Sheriff Angus’ command post; the young Methodist preacher, who was possessed of no mean tongue, employed it to denounce this crime of the century. The leading merchant, a venerable Scotsman named Robert Foote, mounted his black horse and, with his long white beard flying in the breeze, dashed up and down the streets, calling the citizens to arms. More impressive still, he threw open his store, inviting them to help themselves to ammunition, slickers, blankets, flour—everything. He was said to be a heavy dealer in rustled beef, and on the invaders’ list; but so was almost everyone of importance in Buffalo.
The telegraph wires had been cut repeatedly since the start of the invasion, but on April 12 they were working again momentarily, and a friend in Buffalo got a telegram through to the governor with the first definite word of the invaders’ plight. From that time on, all the heavy artillery of influence, from Cheyenne to Washington and on up to the White House, was brought to bear to rescue the cattlemen from the consequences of their act.
Senators Carey and Warren called at the executive mansion late that night and got President Benjamin Harrison out of bed. He was urged to suppress an insurrection in Wyoming, though the question of just who was in insurrection against whom was not clarified. Telegrams flew back and forth. At 12:50 A.M. on April 13, Colonel J. J. Van Horn of the 6th Cavalry wired the commanding general of the Department of the Platte, acknowledging receipt of orders to proceed to the TA ranch.