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Powder River Country

May 2024
12min read

A journey of a hundred miles on a Wyoming interstate turns up the true stories behind the powerful Western myths

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.

Johnson County’s 1890s population consisted not of the European immigrants who people the film Heaven’s Gate but of homesteaders, squatters, small ranchers, and townsfolk who were the usual restless or busted Americans moving west from frontier to frontier. Certainly some of the small ranchers rustled stock on the side, just as rustlers ranched on the side. “The longest rope gets the maverick” was a cow-country expression, the maverick being unbranded range cattle. Settlers butchered cattle that wandered onto their homesteads or brought home steers as they might antelope. Worse, they strung barbed wire to keep out the cattle that trampled their crops. Cowboys knocked down the wire, which could make a mess of the steer or horse that blundered into it. At the same time, small ranchers were not allowed to participate in the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association roundups, and the brands of newcomers were routinely rejected for the association’s brand book.

Frank Canton, one of the leaders of the Invasion, might have been a model for Wister’s Virginian, for he was born in that state. He was employed by the association as a stock detective. These men were the stock growers’ security force, which gathered evidence of cattle thievery and turned it over to the local sheriffs for prosecution. But the system was failing; detectives like Canton were no longer able to get convictions in Johnson County. The county seat, Buffalo, became known as the rustler capital.


That spring, when word reached them that the small ranchers had scheduled their own roundup in brazen competition with the association’s official one, the junta of wealthy cattle barons headquartered in Cheyenne was filled with indignation. Now, it seemed to them, rustling was to be legitimized.

The Invasion was planned by the association in the Cheyenne Club. There would be a lightning march on Buffalo. The town was to be seized, and known rustlers rounded up. A “dead-list” of thirty men was compiled. The Invasion force consisted of twenty-one association members, six “civilians"—three teamsters, two newspaper correspondents, and a surgeon (Dr. Penrose, of Philadelphia, who went along for the adventure)—and twenty-two mercenary gunmen, recruited mainly from Texas. Maj. Frank Wolcott, who had served in the Union army, commanded the expedition.

North from Caspar the landscape subtly changes. The buttes become more rounded, and herds of cattle graze on a carpet of grass, usually a few white-bottomed antelope alongside them. From the Johnson County line the Bighorns are visible. Rumbling over a cattle guard, my wife and I veer off the interstate onto State 259 and cross the Powder River, which runs between banks stained with the white powder of its salinity. Downstream it is famous for being “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” The horses of the Regulators must have trodden through oil seepage in these bottoms, for this is salt-dome terrain, which petroleum prospectors learned early to search for.

Above a clean white cluster of ranch buildings rises Teapot Rock on its hillock. Having lost its spout in a storm some years ago, it now resembles an Easter Island head more than a teapot. North of Teapot Rock is Teapot Creek, and up Teapot Creek is Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 3, better known as Teapot Dome. In 1922 Albert B. Fall, Warren G. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, was convicted for illegally selling rights to this field to Harry Sinclair’s Mammoth Oil Company. The reputation of the Harding administration was ruined in the scandal.

Sparse pumps dot the hillside of Naval Reserve No. 3, but just beyond it, in a rich stench of oil, the great Salt Creek Field is alive with pumps like iron praying mantises sucking the fine green oil from underground cavities. Beyond Salt Creek the interstate winds through sullen malpais, with tiny trucks approaching on slants of highway out of vast distances. Among bony hills we come upon the hamlet of Kaycee, named for the old KC ranch that once encompassed these parts. At a line camp just south of the present town the Invaders encountered the first name on their dead-list.

Hole-in-the-Wall was a stop on the outlaw trail from Canada to Mexico.

He was Nate Champion, and he was to become a Western legend because of the stand he made that day, which saved the necks of many of his neighbors, and because of the moving record of the fight he kept in his diary. The Regulators surrounded the cabin where Champion and a companion, Nick Ray, were sleeping. Ray was shot when he stepped outside at dawn to relieve himself. Champion dragged the dying man inside, and the siege began. It continued all day, with the Invaders infuriatingly delayed in their strike at Buffalo and Champion desperately hoping to make his break when night came. His diary entry reads:

“Shooting again. I think they will fire the house this time.”

“It is not night yet. The house is all fired. Good-bye boys, if I never see you again.”


They shot him down when he ran out of the blazing hut, and a card was pinned to his blood-soaked vest: “Cattle thieves, beware!” They neglected to destroy the diary in his pocket. Then they continued their interrupted march on Buffalo.


We knew we would have to make inquiries at Kaycee as to how to get to the legendary outlaw hide-out of Hole-in-the-Wall. We stopped at the Invasion Bar, on the two-block main street, where Betty, the bartender, faced a counter lined with drinkers in tractor caps. There was a conference as to the best route into Hole-in-the-Wall. There were apt to be locked gates if we went by way of Burnham. Best to phone George Taylor, they decided, for Hole-in-the-Wall is on his property. I phoned and received directions to Willow Creek Ranch, where Taylor would give me further directions. An appointment was made for the next morning.

Betty informed us that at the Community Center that very night, as part of the Wyoming Centennial, a local group was performing a one-time-only production of an original melodrama, The True Story of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. So at eight o’clock we presented ourselves at an echoing metal barn of an auditorium, where, among basketball standards, a stage, a curtain, and sets had been erected. The hall was already crowded, but metal folding chairs were cheerfully emptied for us. The Community Center continued to fill and overfill, and beautiful, lanky local children sat on the floor before the stage. The lights went down.

There was no doubt that the cast was amateur, delivering the dialogue with awkward pauses between the lines and with frequent anguished appeals to the prompter stationed behind the curtain. But the audience was enthusiastic, for the plot was cleverly devised. Six women who hoped to marry the confirmed bachelors of old-time Kaycee were running out of money and threatened with having to go to work for Belle, the local madam. The women perpetrated a bank robbery and rustling foray, and after their marriages, when a Pinkerton man came to investigate, their husbands were faced with covering up their crimes. They invented a gang, operating out of a place called Hole-in-the-Wall, upon which everything was to be blamed. Someone suggested that a fictional outlaw be called the Sundance Kid, named for a town in the northeastern part of the state. Another argued that that was a sissy moniker. What about a tough name like Butch—say, Butch Cassidy?

State 196, a one-time cow trail in the hills, is Buffalo’s main street.

The final applause, in which we enthusiastically joined, for the heroic cast, for the playwright, Nancy Schiffer, and for Mrs. Joe Harlan, who had written the music, rattled the basketball backboards.

The real Hole-in-the-Wall was an outlaw hide-out for half a century, home to the Hole-in-the Wall Gang and the Wild Bunch. It was protected by the Red Wall, a sandstone scarp facing west and running north and south for thirty-five miles, with only the one easy western entrance, which a few armed men could defend. Hole-in-the-Wall was an important station on the Outlaw Trail, which led from Canada to Mexico, and the roost of such redoubtable figures as Flat Nose George Curry, Harvey Logan, Ben Kilpatrick (“the Tall Texan”), and, of course, Butch Cassidy and Sundance. In Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch, it was also the home base of the doomed and exhausted band that fled south to a violent apotheosis in the Mexican Revolution.

It is twenty-eight miles from the 3T freeway exit south of Kaycee over the Red Wall to Willow Creek Ranch. From there we were directed north along the wall, eight or nine miles through six unlocked gates in the gray-green meadows that splashed up against red cliffs. Toward the end I had to shift into four-wheel drive, churning up a rooster tail of red dust that poured over the car like liquid whenever we slowed for a difficult passage. The famous notch in the wall is located opposite some sheep pens. From here Butch and Sundance, fleeing the Union Pacific detectives, collected Etta Place and headed for South America and a violent end in Bolivia or maybe Patagonia. It is possible, however, that Butch slipped home again to live out his life as William T. Phillips in Spokane, Washington. Multiple sepulchers are the hallmark of the authentic hero. Billy the Kid is also rumored to have lived on under another name.


The actual Hole-in-the-Wall does not compare to the vision in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where a clear-running, leafy creek winds back through cliffs to a verdant paradise. It is the task of Hollywood’s location hunters to provide sites more dramatic than the actual. The homesteads in the film Shane were in the shadow of the Tetons near Jackson, rather than near the less spectacular Bighorns, where the real action took place.

About noon of the day that Champion was killed, Jack Flagg, who was also on the Regulators’ dead-list, passed by in his wagon, headed for Buffalo. He was fired upon but escaped, and so the news of the Invasion reached the “rustler” capital. Sheriff Red Angus began swearing in deputies, and Robert Foote, Buffalo’s leading merchant, galloped from ranch to ranch on his black horse, black cape and white beard flying, alerting the citizenry. He opened his store to supply arms, ammunition, and tobacco to the settlers converging on the county seat. A Home Defenders Corps was organized, and churches and schools turned into sanctuaries for women and children. The sheriff’s posse rode south to do battle, and soon the Regulators were surrounded at the TA Ranch, fourteen miles south of Buffalo.

Already there had been desertions from the ranks of the Regulators; one man with painful piles and a cattleman and Dr. Penrose with what the Texans called “gunnarrhea.” Relations between the mercenaries and their employers were increasingly strained. In their haste to get behind makeshift fortifications at the ranch, they had lost their supply wagons to the settlers’ army, which now numbered four hundred. Somehow a message of distress was sent to Gov. Amos Barber, a friend to the cattlemen, whose ambiguous telegram to the President of the United States began, “An insurrection exists in Johnson County ... in the immediate vicinity of Fort McKinney, against the government. . . .”

In custody, the Regulators were protected by the legal system.

The siege of the TA Ranch began on Monday, April 11, 1892. Tuesday was a long day for the Regulators, ducking bullets behind their barricades. Sorties were planned and abandoned. Everyone quarreled. It could be seen that the settlers’ army was building the “Ark of Safety,” a breastworks mounted on the running gear of a wagon. This was to be maneuvered close to the fortifications so that dynamite bombs could be lobbed inside.

In the fantastical Heaven’s Gate the Regulators, vaguely fascist in their uniform horsemen’s dusters, are dismounted in a meadow while European immigrants in careening wagons, officered by good American gun toters, circle the coolly firing enemy, like some weird reversal of Indians attacking a wagon train.

In actuality, when Wednesday dawned, it was the settlers’ “Ark of Safety” that lurched forward into a hail of lead. Just then a bugle sounded, and in as corny a deus ex machina as could be imagined, Colonel Van Horn and three troops of the 6th Cavalry from Fort McKinney appeared upon the scene. The Invaders were more than happy to surrender to the U.S. Army.

Fictional versions of the final events of the Invasion have homesteaders and hired killers dying in storms of rifle fire. In fact, the only casualties were the Texan Jim Dudley, who contrived to shoot himself in a fall from his horse, and his fellow Alex Lowther, also a victim of a six-gun accident. With Nick Ray and Nate Champion dead at the KC, the final score stood at 2 to 2.

In custody in Cheyenne the Regulators were among friends, with a properly functioning legal system. Reasons were found for excusing a number of the well-connected from trial, and with delay after delay, Johnson County faced bankruptcy paying the expenses of the prisoners. Finally the Regulators’ lawyer appealed for a dismissal of charges, and everybody went home. The war continued as a series of murders, and Tom Horn, a frontier hero turned mercenary-assassin (played by Steve McQueen in the film Tom Horn), began his dry-gulching operations, for which he was hanged in 1903.


The TA Ranch’s weathered, patient log structures cluster beneath spreading shade trees. It is rather melancholy here and situated, like Nate Champion’s last stand, between the interstate and the old road. This, State 196, becomes Buffalo’s main street, a one-time cow trail curving between hills, with false-fronted buildings of wood, stone, and warm old brick springing up to bracket it. The saloon at which we thirstily stop is closed because today is Sunday. Farther along, the town’s one traffic light is under repair.

The Bozeman Trail crossed Clear Creek at Buffalo, and to the north the Great Plains collide dramatically with the Rockies—sunny meadows sweeping up against the dark verticals of the Bighorns. The country from Buffalo to Fort Phil Kearny, seventeen miles farther along, was the scene of a hundred Indian fights in Red Cloud’s War against the incursion of settlers on the Bozeman Trail, including the Fetterman Massacre and the Wagon Box Fight. Not far from here Gen. George Crook had his nose bloodied twice by the Sioux and their allies, first on the Powder River in March of 1876 and again on the Rosebud in June. From this last victory Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Chief Gall drifted north to the Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand, which was also the Last Stand of the Plains Indians.

The hundred miles from Caspar to Buffalo, and another hundred north to the Custer Monument, cover a powerful span of Western history. When we returned to San Francisco after our trip, a mechanic looked disapprovingly under the hood of the Subaru and suggested a steam cleaning to get rid of the caked dust. But I would not disturb it, for that fine red dust is the stuff not merely of history but of legend.

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