- 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
Two hours later, three troops of the 6th filed out of Fort McKinney in the freezing dark, in a thoroughly disgusted frame of mind because (a) they had just come in that afternoon from chasing a band of marauding Crows back to the reservation and did not relish being ordered out again at three in the morning; and furthermore because (b) they were heartily on the side of Johnson County and would rather have left the invaders to their fate.
They reached the TA at daybreak. Inside the beleaguered ranch house Major Wolcott and his men, their food exhausted, were preparing to make a break as soon as it was sufficiently light. They had eaten what they thought would be their last breakfast, and were awaiting the lookout’s whistle which would call them to make that last desperate run—like so many Nate Champions—into the ring of hopelessly outnumbering rifles.
But hark! Instead of the suicide signal, a cavalry bugle! Major Wolcott crossed to a window.
“Gentlemen, it is the troops!”
From start to finish the Johnson County story reads like a parody of every Hollywood western ever filmed, and never more so than at this moment. Down the hill swept a line of seven horsemen abreast; between the fluttering pennons rode Colonel Van Horn, Major Fechet, Sheriff Angus; a representative of the governor, who would not have stuck his neck into northern Wyoming at this point for anything; and, of course, Sam T. Clover of the Chicago Herald . One of the guidon bearers carried a white handkerchief. An answering flutter of white appeared on the breastworks. Major Wolcott advanced stiffly and saluted Colonel Van Horn.
“I will surrender to you, but to that man”—indicating Sheriff Angus—“never!”
Forty-four prisoners were marched off to the fort, not including the few defectors and two of the Texas mercenaries, who later died of wounds. Of the ringleaders, only one had received so much as a scratch.
“The cattlemen’s war” was front-paged all over the nation for some three weeks, with the Boston Transcript putting tongue in cheek to remark on the everwidening activities of Harvard men. Then the rest of the country forgot it. Four days after the surrender, still guarded by unsympathetic troops, the prisoners were removed to Fort Russell, near Cheyenne. Here they were safely away from Johnson County, which had, however, been behaving with remarkable restraint. The weather was worse than ever and the march overland one of the most miserable on record. Apart from that, the killers got off at no heavier cost to themselves than minor inconvenience and some ignominy. They were never brought to justice.
They did, however, pay an admitted $100,000 as the price of the invasion, counting legal expenses and not mentioning the illegal. Of the sordid features of the Johnson County invasion which all but defy comment, the worst was the affair of the trappers. These two simple and unheroic men, who had been with Champion and Nick Ray in the cabin and had the bad luck to witness the KC slaughter, were hustled out of the state under an escort of gunmen in terror of their lives, and thence across Nebraska to Omaha, where they were piled onto a train, still under escort of gunmen and lawyers, and delivered at an eastern destination. The Johnson County authorities and their friends had been trying frantically to get them back, but no subpoenas could be issued because the cattlemen, still protected by the army, were not yet formally charged with anything. Counting bribes to federal officers and judges, legal fees, forfeited bail, and other expenses, it was said to have cost $27,000 to get the witnesses across Nebraska alone. The trappers had been promised a payoff of $2,500 each, and given postdated checks. When presented for cashing, the checks proved to be on a bank that had never existed.
Meanwhile the armor of self-pity remained undented. In their own eyes and those of their friends, the cattlemen were the innocent victims of an outrage. While awaiting a hearing at Fort Russell, they were kept in the lightest of durance, coming and going freely to Cheyenne. Major Wolcott was permitted a trip outside the state. When Fred DeBillier showed signs of cracking under the strain of captivity, raving and uttering strange outcries in the middle of the night, he was tenderly removed, first to a hotel and later to his home in New York, for rest and medical treatment.
Eventually the prisoners were transferred to the state penitentiary at Laramie, where the district judge who ordered the removal assured Governor Amos W. Barber that these important persons would by no means be required to mingle with ordinary convicts. They were then escorted to their new quarters by a guard of honor, which included Wyoming’s adjutant general and acting secretary of state.
Public opinion was overwhelmingly against the prisoners, but it was poorly led and ineffective, and public wrath was dissipated into thin air. On their side, however, in the words of a newspaper correspondent, the cattlemen were “backed not only by the Republican machine from President Harrison on down to the state organization, but by at least twenty-five million dollars in invested capital. They have the President, the governor, the courts, their United States Senators, the state legislature and the army at their backs.” Jt was enough.