Powder River Country

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My wife and I are on the inter-state, headed north toward Johnson County, Wyoming. Ten years ago I prowled this country doing research for a novel that used material from the Johnson County War of 1892, when powerful cattlemen—in what is called “the Invasion”—attacked hardscrabble newcomers who were threatening their hegemony. Ten years ago there was no interstate, and Highway 87 was the north-south artery, frequented by pickups with rifle racks in the rear windows, its blacktop notable for the amount of mashed wildlife displayed. When I asked the librarian in Buffalo, the county seat, for materials on the Invasion, she said she had none. Animosities still existed in the county.

 

The route of the Invaders, and ours, begins in Caspar, a town that grew up around a crossing of the North Platte River. Half a million Western emigrants passed this way in the mid-1800s, on the California, Oregon, and Mormon trails, and the Bozeman Trail struck north not far from here.

Scions of wealthy British families were among the first cattlemen here.

Interstate 25 parallels the Bozeman, and just north of Caspar we pass a hulking building emblazoned with the painted message MINING IS BASIC. This is southwestern terrain still, sagebrush and desert flora among rocky outcrops in gargoyle shapes, dull yellow buttes with crenelated rimrock topped by piñon and dwarf juniper. Huge mining trucks roar by, smoking like dragons. Silver mailboxes perch on fence rails, and house trailers pimple the distance, as though reluctant to cluster together in this vastness.

My wife remarks that there does seem to be enough land here for everybody. She’s thinking of the homeless, the refugees, the crowded ghettos. It’s hard to believe that with all this space anyone would have ever had to fight for elbowroom. But violence has been basic to the Powder River Country. The Crow Indians fought the encroaching Sioux, who then fought the miners and cattlemen that were crowding in; the cattlemen in turn fought to keep farmers and fences off the open range. Later still, cattlemen and sheepmen fought each other in the dirty wars of murder from ambush called dry-gulching.

 
 

Most dramatically, on the night of April 5, 1892, a special train halted outside Caspar, and a troop of heavily armed men disembarked and prepared to ride north to Johnson County. They called themselves Regulators, and they had been sent by the cattle barons.

The Invasion by the Regulators is one of the infinitely expansible legends of the West. It was the subject of the first Western novel, Owen Wister’s The Virginian, and a host of others, including Jack Schaefer’s Shane, Frederick Manfred’s Riders of Judgment, my own The Bad Lands, and generations of pulp fiction and B films. One of its latest appearances is in Michael Cimino’s cinema epic Heaven’s Gate.

Bernard De Voto complained that the hero of the prototypical Western served on the wrong side in the cattlemen’s war, for the Virginian is the loyal employee of cattle barons; he guns down the rustler chief in the climactic shoot-out. Shane turns this around, and the hero of the homesteaders blows away the killer hired by the big cattlemen.

Many of the first cattlemen to settle in Johnson County were the scions of wealthy Scottish and English families who had come to Wyoming to hunt and had fallen in love with the land. Brits like Moreton Frewen and Sir Horace Plunkett ranched in grand style, with servants, evening dress, and fine wine cellars in baronial dwellings. The Frewens’ “Castle” overlooked one hundred thousand acres of the Powder River Cattle Company. Some of the more class-conscious among them sought to reduce proud cowboys to “cow servants,” and one story tells of an English visitor inquiring of a cowhand, “Where can I find your master?” and receiving the response, “He ain’t been born yet!”

The Johnson County War is an infinitely expansible legend of the West.

Few of these overblown outfits survived the terrible winter of 1886-87, the “big die-ups,” when cattle losses in northern Wyoming averaged 80 percent. They were succeeded by moneyed Easterners, like Teddy Roosevelt in the North Dakota badlands, and hard-boiled superintendents managing reorganized foreign corporations. Soon after the die-ups these men faced an even greater threat to their way of life when newcomers—who did not consider the open range or another man’s cattle inviolable—flooded the territory.