by Martin Murie
(Swans - April 7, 2008) I've been re-reading histories of Wyoming, from territorial days to recent times. It's a story of people who clawed their way up from nowhere, such as storekeeper Francis Warren who became governor and US senator. More commonly, it was people in England and the east who already had capital looking for investment. (1) (2) In territorial times it was Union Pacific railroad and cattle barons allied with Republican politicians who ruled the vast plains and rivers and mountains. The railroad, already highly skilled at illegal self-promotion back in D.C. when the railroad was being built, sided with Republican administrations, leaving hardly any tracks behind. Cattle barons were more openly aggressive and it is here that I have to conclude that there is something evil there, a virus that DEMANDS allegiance to "me first," or "the corporation first," no matter what it takes.
Johnson county war. Heaven's Gate, the movie, had two things right about the war: Cattlemen, the big ones, no small ranchers (nesters) need apply, made a hit list of "suspected rustlers." And the Johnson county people fought back against the big cowmen, "the invaders."
Two or three years before the "war" at least three homesteaders had been killed, two of them dry-gulched.
Cattlemen made their plan in the winter of 1891-92. They would ride into Buffalo where men waited to kill the sheriff and city marshal. The courthouse would be blown up. They hired 25 Texas gunmen, rode in a special Union Pacific train to their destination and mounted horses. So far, so good.
Then they made a big mistake, turned aside to lay siege to the KC ranch, near present-day Kaycee, Wyoming. Two trappers who had stopped there for the night emerged and were tied up. Then Nick Ray, on the "rustler" list, came out of the ranch house and was gunned down. That left Nate Champion, a cowboy also on the hit list who had previously escaped death when a gunman tried to kill him. Champion held out until about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. The besiegers finally set the house on fire and killed Champion.
These hours of delay gave Johnson County sheriff and townspeople time to form a big counter force. That's why Nate Champion is sometimes referred to as hero and martyr. (3)
The Johnson County defenders chased the invaders to a ranch, surrounded it, and waited for military help. Now it was the turn of other power people to get them off, by delays in court procedures until the Johnson County attorney asked for dismissal. Was he bribed?
Meanwhile, the cow barons sent their Texas gunmen back to Texas and hid the two trappers so well that they could not be traced. It didn't matter anyway, since a trial never took place.
A few years earlier, A. J. Bothwell and Tom Sun and a few other cattlemen forced Ella Watson and James Averell, homesteaders, into a buckboard, drove to a grove of trees, and hanged them. Eventually, the entire lynch mob was acquitted. There is still a Tom Sun ranch near Independence Rock, lots of barbed wire fencing equipped with signs, NO TRESPASSING. I trespassed there once, to get to Whiskey Peak, public land.
Bothwell seized Averell and Ella's land and water rights. Bothwell had been using public land previously and was irked when homesteaders moved in to legally take title under the Homestead Act.
I relate these late nineteenth century stories to show that something very toxic gets into the bloodstreams and brains of rulers. The big cattlemen of those times, many of them representatives of corporations, such as the Swan outfit, were a prime part of the ruling class in Wyoming. In Cheyenne these rogues built a mansion for their meetings and on formal occasions, with their "ladies," the men donned penguin suits, proudly called "Herefords" because of the white fronts Their refusal to allow small cattle ranchers to join the Wyoming Stock Raiser's Association is proof of arrogance and malice. But Murder? Yes, hands-on murder. After the Johnson County war, a few big cattlemen hired the legendary Tom Horn, former Pinkerton detective, to assassinate "enemies." That is based on hearsay evidence and the Tom Horn saga is shrouded in mystery, but it is logical to assume that the murderous impulse would continue, especially after the humiliation of the Johnson County affair.
And so, from the mass murders of Philippine civilians, courtesy of the US Army at end of the 1898 war with Spain, to today, how many twentieth century wars and incursions into other nations' affairs has our nation accepted? I will bet not one of us can count them all. Under Democratic presidents, under Republican presidents, the rulers keep on playing these murder games.
Today: a meeting in Congress to investigate failure to list the polar bear as an endangered species, Kempthorne, Secretary of the Interior, refusing to appear to face questioning. This polar bear scandal is important. On its outcome depends our nation's refusal, or intention, to treat climate change as a reality. To date, our corporate/government/military complex has not moved one little finger to do anything about global warming. And the wars go on.
Remember Wounded Knee? This time, wholesale.
1. Lewis I. Gould, Wyoming From Territory To Statehood, High Plains Publishing Company, 1989. (back)
2. T. A. Larson, History Of Wyoming, University of Nebraska Press, 1965. (back)
3. Jack Weston, The Real American Cowboy, New Amsterdam, New York. (back)
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