Blood-Stained Diary, The
DESCRIPTION: "It's just a little blood-stained book, Which a bullet has town in two; It tells the fate of Nick and Nate...." The singer recounts the words of Nathan D. Champion's diary as he and his companion are attacked in the Johnson County War
EARLIEST DATE: 1958 (Burt-AmericanMurderBallads)
KEYWORDS: death homicide cowboy
1891-1892 - Peak of the "Johnson County War"
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Burt-AmericanMurderBallads, pp. 175-177, "The Blood-Stained Diary" (1 text, 1 tune)
Cohen-AmericanFolkSongsARegionalEncyclopedia2, pp 575-577, "The Blood-Stained Diary" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Laurence I. Seidman, _Once in the Saddle: The Cowboy's Frontier 1866-1896_, 1973 (I use the 1994 Facts on File paperback which has been edited in ways the copyright record does not clarify), pp. 107-109, "The Ballad of Nate Champion" (1 text)
cf. "The Invasion Song" (subject)
NOTES [6949 words]: Burt-AmericanMurderBallads links this with the Johnson County War, a conflict in Wyoming between honest herders and cattle rustlers. There are conflicting versions of what happened -- or, rather, there is a strong disagreement about why it happened, with most of the residents of Johnson County telling one story and the large cattle owners telling another.
There are many books on the topic: Asa Shinn Mercer, The Banditti of the Plains, or the Cattlemen's Invasion of Wyoming in 1892 (the first book on the subject, 1894); Robert B. David, Malcolm Campbell, Sheriff; Billy O'Neil, The Johnson County War; John W. Davis, Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County (cited below); Jack R. Gage, The Johnson County War Is A Pack Of Lies: The Baron's Side AND The Johnson County War Ain't A Pack Of Lies: The Rustler's Side; D. F. Babar, The Longest Rope: The Truth About The Johnson County Cattle War; Helena Huntington Smith, The War On Powder River (cited below); and Marilynn S. Johnson, Violence In The West: The Johnson County Range War And Ludlow Massacre: A Brief History With Documents (cited below). Other books sound as if they might be about it, but I can't be sure. Just those eight titles, though, show clearly how controversial the topic is! There is also a movie, "Johnson County War," with Tom Beringer, Luke Perry, Rachel Ward, and Burt Reynolds, but I suspect that there isn't a word of truth in that.... Wikipedia reports that the film "Heaven's Gate" is also loosely based on the war, or at least the people involved; the plot is said to be different.
According to Davis, p. 5, "within Wyoming the very mention of Johnson County still calls up a time of infamy." (Although perhaps not a lot of space in real histories. Larson, for instance, gives it about the equivalent of two pages.) Johnson, p. 8, considers it an example of western vigilantism, with big cattlemen claiming the law in Johnson County was ineffective and taking justice into their own hands; she considers it fairly typical of the legal process of the time as large landowners tried for "enclosure" (a term going back to British land management problems) and the rest of the people resisted.
Davis, pp. ix-x: "What constitutes the 'Johnson County War' has never been strictly defined, but the name refers generally to murderous episodes beginning in late 1891 and culminating in the full-scale invasion of the county in April 1892 by twenty-five big cattlemen and their top hands, along with another twenty-five hired guns [from Texas]." On p. x, he describes reviewing the writings of the period, and finding them confusing, contradictory, highly emotional, adversarial, and self-justifying. And, because nothing ever came to trial, there was never a real attempt to sort out all these conflicting stories.
Most of the accounts, according to Davis, p. xi, are from the invaders -- that is, the people who killed the heroes of this song. They certainly had most of the newspaper connections, especially those in Cheyenne, the most important town and the capital of the state. The political elite of the Republican party, oddly, freely sided with the out-of-state cattlemen over the people of Johnson County in their own state.
The song mentions two places, Buffalo, Wyoming, and Crazy Woman's Creek, and six people, "Nick" (Nick Ray), "Nate" (Nathan D. Champion, the writer of the diary of the title), Frank N. Canton of "Canton's Bloody Crew," Jack Flagg, "Bill Jones," and "Red Angus" (William Galispie "Red" Angus).
Crazy Woman Creek is a substantial waterway which runs mostly south to north; it is east of Buffalo and flows into the Powder River northeast of the town.
Buffalo (named after the city in New York, not the bison; Smith, p. 3) is the county seat of Johnson County -- a county which, at this time, was close to a hundred miles square, and almost completely undeveloped outside the town of Buffalo -- which itself was only about a decade and a half old, having grown up around the army base at Fort McKinney, which was founded in 1876 (Johnson, p. 13). This meant that most of the county had little law enforcement (the western part of the county, in the Big Horn range, was effectively inaccessible in winter). And the county was a little wild: at the time of organization, in the late 1870s, it had just 637 people -- and 17 saloons (Smith, p. 3).
Seidman, p. 98, calls the Johnson County War "the final effort to keep the open range unsettled."
The political situation was interesting: The county was used mostly for cattle raising, and the herd owners were depended on the use of unregulated Federal lands. Every time an individual staked a claim, it took that Federal land out of circulation, interfering with the herd owners' profits. If too much land was claimed, they would be out of business (Davis, pp. 35-37). Indeed, many were failing because of low cattle prices, leading to an 1887 depression in the industry.
There was also the issue of "mavericks" -- unbranded young cattle born on the range when the herds were mixed. This was a hot issue throughout the west (since whoever managed to nab a maverick got, in effect, a free calf), but most states had come up with reasonable laws. Wyoming Territory, by contrast, had had a bad law written by the big landowners. It had been repealed when Wyoming became a state, but the legacy lived on (Smith, pp. 58-59).
The big landowners had an organization, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, which they controlled and which lobbied for their interests (Davis, pp. 48-49). A quarter of the 1889 constitutional convention had been stockmen, and they had a very large representation in the state legislature -- nine of 24 in the 1890 lower house of the legislature, and five of twelve in the upper (Larson, p. 128). They were able to pass laws that gave exceptional advantages to large stock growers over small (Davis, p. 49).
All this resulted in a situation where law enforcement was spotty. Davis, pp. 25-26, reports that justice was not very effective and the acquittal rate in the small number of cases that went to trial was high. On pp. 26-29, he explains why: In a county of 10,000 square miles, with 2,000 people, at least 150,000 cattle, and no fences, keeping track of cattle was almost impossible and gathering evidence often hopeless. How much cattle crime was there in Johnson County? Quite likely not even the locals knew. Davis, p. 58, suggests that people thought crime was rare -- until the stock growers started promoting the idea that it was widespread (Davis, p. 58). Frank Canton openly declared in his autobiography that the county had an organized group of cattle thieves (Davis, p. 50).
The murders began on July 21, 1889, when Ellen Watson and James Averell -- two homesteaders who had claimed land in the cattle ranges -- were lynched (Larson, p. 129; Johnson, p. 14 says that they lived over the border in Carbon County). This murder is the subject of the poem on pp. 171-172 of Burt-AmericanMurderBallads, apparently entitled "Cattle Kate," which is not indexed because Burt claims to have had it from the author. It has few details except that Cattle Kate and James Averell were hung by stockmen -- but those details are correct as far as they go.
Watson in particular seems to have been a highly respected member of the community -- a Scottish immigrant, 28 years old, the survivor of an unhappy marriage, a cook and housekeeper, and very kind to her neighbors (Davis, p. 69; Johnson, pp. 52-53, has the firsthand account on which this seems to be based) -- not a prostitute as Smith, p. 121, alleges (Davis says this is based on a confusion of names; Johnson, p. 50, quotes the newspaper story that probably started the rumor -- from a paper that was associated with the stock growers) and Burt-AmericanMurderBallads, p. 170, repeats. There is a photo of her on p. 15 of Johnson and in Smith's photo insert (which should have been evidence that she wasn't a prostitute; she doesn't look very pretty).
Averell was an army veteran who had lost his wife and baby and moved to Wyoming apparently to leave his memories behind (Davis, pp. 69-70). Watson and Averell apparently intended to marry but did not do so at once, since that let them claim more land (Davis, pp. 70-71). But, of course, it meant that they were more in the way of the big herders. And they paid dearly. The two built a small herd and were establishing a brand when attacked. Watson was away from her holding when vigilantes arrived and started tearing down fences. They demanded she give them the cattle she had legally bought. They kidnapped her, then Averell, hauled them off, and hung them by the Sweetwater River (Davis, pp. 72-74).
Because there were several witnesses, it was pretty clearly known who had committed the murders, But they "were not even indicted. These six men, clearly guilty of atrocious murders, walked free" (Davis, p. 76). Smith, p. 122, says that several witnesses could not be found and one likely was killed. Two of the killers even became members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association's executive committee! This executive committee eventually came to resemble vigilante groups like the Klan: They would actually meet to decide who to assassinate. They considered it a judicial process -- but the accused did not even know they were on trial, so they could not defend themselves, and in any case, the Executive Committee was writing its own laws rather than those decided by the duly appointed government (Davis, pp. 94-95). They formed a semi-official hit squad: "Frank Canton, Fred Coates, W. C. 'Billy' Lykins, Joe Elliott, and, on at least one occasion, Mike Shonsey"; they committed their first murder in June 1891 (Davis, p. 95).
To give you an idea of what the Stock Growers' executives were like, we can look at the 1924 autobiography of John Clay, who became President of the organization. Of the lynchings, Clay wrote, "This of course was a horrible piece of business.... and yet what are you to do? Are you to sit still and see your property ruined...?" (Johnson, p. 54). On the next page, Clay declares that it is a bad thing that people complain about the lynching of black men!
On the other hand, the tragedy probably helped to encourage the inclusion, in the Wyoming constitution adopted at statehood in 1890, an explicit ban on private armies not authorized by the government (Davis, p. 78). But the big herders had one thing the local small owners didn't: a publicity machine. They were the ones filing stories with the outside newspapers (Davis, p. 90, etc.) For example, the Cheyenne Daily Sun in July 1889 reported on the hanging of Watson and Averell, declaring Watson a "prostitute... who recently figured in dispatches as Cattle Kate who held up a Faro dealer at Bessemer" (Johnson, p. 50) -- every word of which is false.
The "crime" for which Nate Champion was murdered was simply taking his 200 cattle to graze on public land that was also being grazed by 2000 cattle owned by Robert Tisdale. Tisdale moved his herd, taking some of Champion's animals with him; Champion then reclaimed them -- probably somewhat forcefully, conditions being what they were (Davis, pp. 99-100).
Champion certainly wasn't living a high life. Davis, p. 101, reports that on November 1, 1891, Ross Gilbertson and Nate Champion were sharing a cabin; Smith, p. 157, says it was called the "Hall Cabin"): "The cabin was 'unbelievably small,' just large enough to hold a stove and a bunk bed (the bed kept the door from swinging all the way open), and the roof was so low that an average man had to stoop to get in" (Davis, p. 101). It was surrounded by enough trees and undergrowth that it was easy to stay in hiding by those who approached secretly. It was there that Frank Canton, Fred Coates, Joe Elliott, and Billy Lykin prepared to attack, while Mike Shonsey held their horses. The men approached quietly and burst into the door while Champion was asleep. The opened the door, pointed their weapons at him, and called on him to surrender -- and he managed to pull his gun, mortally wound Lykins, and chase off the rest (Davis, p. 102; Smith, p. 158, quotes him as saying he was able to do this because he was left-handed). Little wonder he was held in high esteem.
Champion followed, found another man, John A. Tisdale, to serve as a witness, caught up with Shonsey, and got him to confess and name his confederates (Davis, p. 105). But someone assassinated Tisdale on December 1, 1891 (Davis, pp. 108-110).
Canton was widely suspected -- so he turned himself in and called for a swift trial. There hadn't been much time to gather evidence, and the only witness had been far away, so Canton was quickly acquitted (Davis, pp. 110-112; Johnson, p. 58, quoting Asa Shinn Mercer).
If the hit squad was bad, what followed was worse: "On April 5, 1892, just before the April roundup, a train carrying fifty men and three cars of horses left the Cheyenne station heading northwest. Calling themselves 'regulators,' the group was commanded by Major Frank Wolcott, a Civil War veteran and manager of a large ranching operation in southern Wyoming (Smith, p. 197, says however that he was "temperamentally unfit to lead men, and his stubbornness and bad judgment on two separate occasions doomed the expedition to failure). They debarked at Casper early the next morning, saddled up, and headed off for Johnson County with a list of seventy alleged rustlers to be hunted down and executed" (Johnson, pp. 14-16). And they had support in high places: Acting Governor Amos Barber, who supported the Stockmen, had given orders that the militia could not be called out by anyone else, so the local sheriffs were unable to get support from local troops (Davis, p. 135. This mattered -- when the invaders came to Johnson County, Sheriff Red Angus could not call on the militia; Davis, p. 158).
The "crime" which was used to justify the hit squad was merely this: the small herders had decided to hold a roundup about a month before the big herders held their roundup (Smith, p. 160, who says they named Nate Champion to lead it, probably just to irritate the stockmen). The big herders objected, and set out to stop it. And they did, without violence, because they owned the government agency responsible for cattle herding, and it ordered the small herders to stop. And they did. The big herders had already gotten the outcome they wanted. But they went ahead with their plans (Davis, p. 140), seemingly because they'd been given just enough excuse and they were a bunch of psychopaths who put no value on others' lives.
Astoundingly, the organizational plans for the hit squad -- including pay and other arrangements -- were actually put in writing, and have been preserved (Davis, p. 136, with copies of two of them, too small to be really legible, on p. 137). George Dunning, who had a major part in the expedition, received the two letters, and eventually talked about it, said that the organizers thought the invaders/regulators would end up killing about thirty men, which would drive the rest to flee the area -- leaving their cattle for the Stock Growers to appropriate! (Davis, pp. 136-137). Even if one accepts the big herders' contention that the rustlers were out of control (a claim I find extremely dubious, but I wasn't there at the time), it seems clear that the plans for the regulators were utterly lawless and excessive.
According to Davis, p. 142, "The invading force left Cheyenne about 6:00 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, 1892. They had one overriding imperative -- to get to Buffalo as rapidly as possible, there to kill Sheriff Red Angus and his deputies and to kill all the Johnson County commissioners. Having destroyed the leadership of the county, they could then destroy Johnson County men at their leisure." This, apparently, was based on the testimony of one of them. I'm not sure I believe it, but the fact that someone could even claim this shows how dramatic their plans were.
That part of the plot failed, for two reasons. One was bad weather that made it very hard to get the expedition from Casper to Johnson County; the other was a tactical mistake -- for what amount to personal reasons, the expedition decided to take out Nate Champion first rather than to attack the government in Buffalo (Davis, pp. 146-147; on p. 152 he says that several of the leaders disliked Champion so much that killing him was worth messing up the whole expedition).
The fight that formed the heart of the Johnson County legend was summarized by Smith, p. xi, as follows: "On the blizzardy morning of April 9, 1892, fifty armed men surrounded a cabin on Powder River in which two alleged cattle rustlers had been spending the night. The first rustler was shot as he came down the path for a morning bucket of water; he was dragged over the doorstep by his companion to die inside. The second man held out until afternoon, when the besiegers fired the house. Driven out by the flames, he went down with a dozen bullets in him." Champion, from his cabin, had managed to hit three men, two seriously, but none died (Davis, p. 150; Smith's full version of the events, as opposed to her summary, starts on p. 207).
Sam Clover's eyewitness account of this is on pp. 60-63 of Johnson. He describes how the attackers first captured two guests of Champion's, then shot Nick Ray as Ray came out to look for the guests, then started shooting at Champion, who was still inside. They almost got Jack Flagg as he drove by the area by chance, but he was able to escape. Knowing that Flagg was likely to bring help, they seized a hay wagon (according to Davis, p. 153, it was Flagg's own abandoned wagon), filled it with pitch and the like, and set it afire. Six of them rolled it up to Champion's cabin while the others kept up so heavy a fire that he couldn't come out. The cabin caught fire, and Champion finally had to come out, ready to fight. But two sharpshooters killed him before he could harm any of the attackers. They pinned a note saying "Cattle thieves beware" on his body and high-tailed it away (newspaperman Sam Clover reported this, and Smith, p. 208, says he in fact wrote it himself!). But they had lost too much time. Flagg and a neighbor, Terrence Smith, were on their way to Buffalo to raise the alarm (Davis, p. 151).
The response was dramatic: The attackers "had expected the people to rise in their support; the people rose, but in such a wave of fury as the West has never seen before or since. Thirty hours after their grisly victory on Powder River, the invaders were besieged in their turn by an army of several hundred hornet-mad cowboys and small-ranchmen, who would have meted out to them the same fate they had dealt their victims if the two United States senators from Wyoming had not been feverishly busy in Washington on their behalf. These gentlemen persuaded President Benjamin Harrison to order out the troops from nearby Fort McKinney, and the cattlemen's surrender was accepted in a somewhat ignominious mixture of rescue and arrest. So ended the Johnson County "invasion." Tragic and bizarre, it split the young state from scalp to toenails. The scars still show" (Smith, p. xii, writing in 1966, or 75 years after the event).
Flagg's memoirs tell how he gathered a large following, who gathered and encircled the regulators, eventually starting an actual siege. (The regulators, soon after killing Champion, realized that their insurrection could not succeed, headed for the T. A. Ranch on a branch of Crazy Woman Creek south of Buffalo, and entrenched; Davis, p. 161; photos on pp. 162-163 show the ranch and one of the rifle pits.) They couldn't even call for help; they had cut the telegraph wires (Davis, p. 167), only to discover that it was they, not the locals, who needed to contact their friends elsewhere! -- when one of them managed to sneak past the siege lines, he went to Buffalo and had no way to make contact, so they had to head for Cheyenne by horse (Davis, p. 169).
A list of those in the ranch is on pp. 185-189 of Smith; Davis, p. 207, has a photo of most if not all of them as they awaited the trial that never happened.
It's not known exactly how many men took part in the siege, but the minimum estimate places it at 200, rising to perhaps 400 at the end. And they were fairly well-equipped; a merchant in Buffalo had offered the run of his store to anyone who would join the fight against the regulators (Davis, p. 166). They proceeded to built a regular siege line around the ranch. This large crowd was very much to their advantage in the cold April nights (it snowed on the night of April 11): They had so many men that they could rotate them in and out of the front lines to keep warm. The besieged, though, were few, and they could not move around much because they would be shot if they did, and many of them had no way to keep warm in the outbuildings or defensive works (Davis, p. 170).
During the siege, the locals captured the regulators' supply train, including a paper listing seventy people to be killed (Davis, p. 165) -- more evidence of the scale of the planned insurrection; this wasn't just some casual terror campaign.
On April 12, 1892, Governor Barber finally got the word of how much trouble the invaders were in. He tried to get President Benjamin Harrison to intervene (starting with a telegram that was almost certainly deliberately ambiguous, opening "An insurrection exists in Johnson County," rather than, say, "The rebels I've been bribed to support are in danger"; Davis, p. 174; the full text is on p. 224 of Smith). Barber's messages to Harrison don't seem to have drawn a response, so he contacted the state's two Senators, and they managed to get Harrison's attention; he ordered troops to the area (Davis, p. 175). But the only local troops, those at Fort McKinney, knew more about what was happening -- and went out to the T. A. Ranch with his troops *and Sheriff Angus* (Davis, pp. 175-176).
The besiegers had actually constructed a siege engine and were moving in on the invaders when the 11 officers and 96 men from Fort McKinney, under Colonel J. J. Van Horn, showed up. The regulators promptly surrendered into the hands of the soldiers (Davis, pp. 176-177; Smith, p. 225; a description is quoted on pp. 66-67 of Johnson). Wolcott (who managed to get in one zinger when he said he would turn his force over to the military but never to Sheriff Angus; Smith, p. 226) surrendered 45 men plus horses and ammunition; one of the men had a wound that proved fatal. At least one man hid to avoid giving in (Davis, pp. 178-179).
The governor eventually took the invaders into his own custody and moved them to the southern part of the state, away from Johnson County (Davis, pp. 189-190). And when the defenders asked for a change of venue, they managed to get the case moved to Cheyenne (where all the Powers that Were were on their side) and get the judge removed (Davis, p. 212).
Had there been a trial in an honest court, conviction would have seemed a certainty, because Major Wolcott confessed openly to a reporter from the Chicago Tribune: "We have nothing to regret. Blood was shed, it is true, but it was not the blood of an honest man. If an innocent man had been killed, the charge of murder would have been justified, but Champion and Ray were pirates..." (quoted on p. 196 of Davis).
"Ultimately, no one was ever tried or convicted for the Johnson County violence and killings. After four months, the regulators were released on their own recognizance, and following protracted disputes over jury selection, the cases were dismissed in January 1893. One of the conflict's immediate effects was a political rebellion against the state's Republican leadership in the 1892 election, as Governor Barber and Wyoming senators Francis Warren and Joseph Carey were ousted by Democratic challengers" (Johnson, p. 17; Davis, p. 245, says that, in Johnson County, the Republicans, who held most of the government positions, lost 14 of 15 county offices, and the one they held was one where the man was endorsed by both sides! The situation in the government of the state was much more complex, as the Republicans resisted the results with all the stubbornness, and rather more competence, than Donald Trump in 2020; the result that the Warren Senate seat was left vacant in 1893-1894; the whole business takes most of pp. 255-266 of Davis).
"Some of the captives were charged with murder, but the case against them was dismissed in Cheyenne eight months later. Key witnesses who had been spirited out of the territory could not be found by the prosecution [According to Davis, p. 207, the two men who had been allowed to survive the Champion assassination were actually shanghaied to the eastern U.S.; Smith, p. 251, says they were also given post-dated checks to pay them off -- and the checks, once it was too late, proved to be bad]. The invaders had too many powerful friends in high places, too much money, and too much legal talent" (Larson, p. 130). Trials also cost money, and Johnson County didn't have the $12,000 the case would probably require and was prohibited by Wyoming law from levying the taxes needed to raise it (Davis, p. 203). By contrast, John Clay, who was arranging the defense, had $100,000 to spend (Davis, p. 206), plus he had a mole on the prosecution's legal team. Johnson County wanted to try just four men it regarded as ringleaders (Major Wolcott, Frank Canton, the leader of the Texas mercenaries, and one other), and try to use the convictions to get pleas fro the others, but the judge decided that, since all 45 had been charged together, they would be tried together (Davis, p. 213). Apart from increasing the expense, this meant that it would probably be impossible to seat a jury, since the defense would have hundreds of peremptory challenges (chances to strike a juror without cause). The prosecutors would probably die of old age before they could examine enough jurors.
Asa Shinn Mercer, soon after the conflict, claimed that the Johnson County sheriff was not being paid enough to house them, so the judge tried to demand bail, but they wouldn't pay, so the judge was forced to release them on their own recognizance, and no one ever managed to get the case back together (quoted by Johnson, pp. 77-79; similarly Davis, p. 214). In fact the case could not have been restarted; the Johnson County prosecutor gave up and dismissed the charges when it became impossible to pay for the case or seat the jury -- the lawyers supposedly went through every man in Cheyenne without being able to seat a full jury, so the prosecution offered to dismiss. Since the trial hadn't technically started, the defense refused (because new charges could be brought). So they brought in a man off the street, didn't question him, swore him in as the twelfth juryman, and *then* the prosecution dismissed, making it official and final (Smith, pp. 281-285; Davis tells the story in more detail but also more legal language).
The Stock Growers, while this was going on, had wanted to put Johnson County under martial law (Davis, p. 215), even thought their invasion was over; apparently they were hoping to fish in troubled waters. That was too much even for governor Barber, not because he objected but because he didn't want to face more political criticism (Davis, p. 217). A random murder eventually opened the door (Davis, pp. 218-220), but nothing much came of it.
President Harrison's response to all this was interesting. He didn't want to declare martial law, or get involved in a local mess, especially since the election of 1892 was approaching (Davis, pp. 221-222; he did win the state that fall, although he lost the election). He decided to send the Ninth U. S. Cavalry (Smith, p. 261), a Black unit that was recruited because it wasn't expected to have any local ties (Johnson, p. 17). They had a tendency to be assigned to trouble spots. But they were sent to the southeastern part of the county, not Buffalo; they had some problems, but the "War" was not re-kindled (Davis, p. 222).
Although the violence was over, the costs to Johnson County and Buffalo were still being paid. They had wanted a railroad. As a result of the War, the Burlington and Missouri took another route, through Sheridan (Smith, p. 229). And Buffalo remains a small town to this day....
It may be revealing that the lawyer who managed to arrange the invaders' non-trial was Willis Van Devanter (1859-1941) -- whose loyal service to the stockmen, and to the Republican Party they so largely controlled, resulted in his appointment to the U. S. Supreme Court by President Taft (Davis, p. 275; served 1910-1936). He became "the foremost intellectual conservative o the court during his twenty-six-year tenure," and was one of the "Four Horsemen" who opposed absolutely everything Franklin D. Roosevelt ever did (Hall, p. 894). He perhaps didn't actually believe that might makes right, but he certainly believed that might influenced right a lot.
The first major publication on the conflict, Asa Shinn Mercer's Banditti of the Plains, was anti-stock-growers, and the stockmen had one last small laugh: they obtained an injunction against its publication. It was sometimes said that the book burned, and Mercer jailed for mailing obscene materials! (Seidman, pp. 98-99, although Davis ignores this and Smith says the burning is exaggerated although Mercer did face all sorts of trumped-up legal charges).
This song seems to have come straight from the newsletters: "The Johnson County war might have been only a footnote on history's page were it not for two writers who, in reporting history, became part of it themselves. One was Sam T. Clover of the Chicago Herald. He... set the story down in five newspaper columns, every detail repeated so often since; the siege, the firing of the cabin, Jack Flagg's miraculous escape, and Nate Champion's bloodstained diary (Smith, p. vii). Smith, p. xi, says that Clover was "the only newspaperman even known to have been invited to a lynching" (that of Ray and Champion, described above).
According to Davis, both Flagg and Canton left eyewitness accounts -- but they are "diametrically opposed" (Davis, p. xiii). Flagg was directly involved but often regarded as partisan. "The writings of Frank Canton, the sheriff of Johnson County between 1883 and 1887, have been given more credence. Canton was a man in a position to know the whole truth about Johnson County's experiences, and his judgments upon the people of Johnson County are damning" (Davis, p. xiii). Canton published his story in Frontier Trails: The Autobiography of Frank M. Canton; I have not seen it.
O'Neal, p. 55, says that Nathan D. Champion was born in Texas on September 29, 1857, and died April 9, 1892; he lists his occupation as "Cowboy, cattle rustler." He arrived in Buffalo with his twin brother Dudley in 1881 after driving a herd up the Goodnight-Loving Trail. He had been in Wyoming for ten years or perhaps a little more (Smith, p. 155). "The big ranchers began to call him 'King of the Rustlers'" (O'Neal, p. 55) because, like most in the area, he played a little fast and loose with ownership marks.
"Nate Champion is described as stockily built, with steely blue-gray eyes; a quiet sort, people said, laconic, soft-spoken. He was also a lion of a man who feared nothing and would stand up to anybody, and he was lightning with a gun. The cattlemen hated him very greatly. Four of them couldn't kill him even in his bed. It took fifty men to do the job" (Smith, p. 155).
O'Neal, pp. 55-56, lists him as being in two gunfights, one on November 1, 1891, and the second the fight on April 9, 1892, in which he and Nick Ray were killed. His brother Dudley was killed in 1893; Davis, p. 270, regards Dudley -- who was shot by Mike Shonsey, the man Nick had captured after the first attempt on his life -- as the last casualty of the War.
Davis, pp. 98-99, says that "Nate Champion was admired and respected by most of the people in Johnson County. He was small and quiet but had a well-earned reputation as a tough man. The [Buffalo] Bulletin wrote of him in early 1892: 'No man who knows him would not swear by him. His reputation among men has always been the best. He was formerly one of the most trusted of Wyoming cowboys, but when he bought cattle for himself, he was put upon the black list, and has never complained.'" (A rule was "imposed on all member of the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association... forbidding them to employ any man who owned a brand or cattle"; Smith, p. 27. It was a lifelong blacklist.) Davis, p. 99, says that he was never charged by anyone with stealing cattle, even though the Stock Growers would have loved to pin such a charge on him. The worst that can be said is that his animals got mixed with larger herds, and there was disagreement over who should get which animals.
Davis, p. 192, says that a quarter of the population of Buffalo came to the funeral of Champion and Ray.
Davis has a photo of Canton on p. 8, of Angus on p. 13, and of Champion on p. 98. Smith, p. xi, quotes Sam Clover as calling Champion "the king of the cattle thieves and the bravest man in Johnson County." Smith's photo section has what is said to be the only photo of him, although it's not the same photo as in Davis.
Frank Canton came to Johnson County in 1881, saying he was from Virginia, where he was born in 1849, via Missouri and Colorado. But "his entire life [story] was a lie. The truth was that Frank Canton was Joe Horner, a fugitive from Texas with an extensive criminal history there." O'Neal, p. 150, also lists his birth name as "Joe Horner," and lists his occupations as "Cowboy, outlaw, rancher, law officer, packing plant superintendent, prospector, soldier, bank robber." O'Neal lists his first gunfight as taking place in 1874 and his last in 1896 -- not that that ended his career; he lived until 1927, and by then had ranged as far north as Alaska and as far west (or east, depending on how you look at it) as the Philippines.
In 1877, Joe Horner was convicted of bank robbery in Texas and sentenced to ten years' hard labor -- but managed to break out of the prison, cut the telegraph wire, and escape. He was soon caught, but he escaped again two years later, and this time, he was not recaptured (Davis, pp. 52-53). He does seem to have reformed after that, in the sense that he did not again become an outlaw -- but he kept the habit of excessively direct action.
When Horner/Canton came to Buffalo, he first worked as a detective, then became sheriff two years later (1883). boasting in his autobiography that, in four years as sheriff, he never once failed to bring back a fugitive (Davis, pp. 8-9). Tall and good-looking, "His personality was so strong that it seemed that his mere presence caused people anxiety; he intimidated men with only a look" (Davis, p. 8). He married a local woman, Annie Wilkerson, in 1885 (Davis, p. 22), although he apparently was perfectly willing to leave her behind when he went on his travels.
Despite his claimed success as sheriff at bringing in lawbreakers, he decided at the last minute not to run for re-election in 1886 -- and then ran in 1888 and was defeated (Davis, pp. 32-33; he had lost the job he had lined up in 1886 because of the 1887 cattle industry depression; Davis, p. 35). The new sheriff was "Red" Angus, of whom more below (Davis, pp. 43-46).
It was Canton who, along with Joe Elliott, Tom Smith, and Fred Coates, attacked Nate Champion in 1891, resulting in several injuries but no final settling of their disputes (O'Neal, pp. 103-104). Of course, he had his second chance in 1892....
Canton's attitude toward rustlers is utterly black-and-white: "The conditions in Johnson County grew from bad to worse. The ranch owners discharged their foremen who had 'double-crossed' them, and they also fired a great many of their men. The Stock Association 'blackballed' the whole bunch and signed an agreement not to allow any of them to work with the outfit of any member of the organization. The rustlers then banded together and worked the range with ack outfits, in defiance of the laws of the territory and the rules of range work among honest men" (from Canton's autobiography, quoted on p. 45 of Johnson).
"Red" Angus sounds like a character, although in his case, I don't mean that as a compliment. Angus was born in 1849. His nickname came from his red hair. After his family moved to "bleeding Kansas" in 1856, he served in the Civil War as a drummer boy, He again joined the army in 1868, spending some time fighting Indians. He moved around the west a lot in the years after his discharge, working with cattle, but came to Wyoming in 1880 and settled in Buffalo in 1881. He settled down in the red light district -- his first wife had worked in one of the whorehouses, and his temper was bad enough that he had a criminal record for pistol-whipping a man (Davis, pp. 12-13).
Davis, p. 59, says that O. H. "Jack" Flagg was one of those who took land and refused to be bullied by the stock owners. "Handsome Jack Flagg was a big, confident, contentious man, and a bit of a rogue. He liked women, gambling, and whiskey, and he refused to be pushed around. Born in 1860, he was the son of a prominent couple in Charleston, Virginia (later Wst Virginia).... [A]t age seventeen, he left West Virginia and headed west," stopping in Texas before reaching Johnson County in 1882. He purchased the "Hat brand," later forming what amounted to a cattle partnership in 1888 -- having already been blacklisted by the stock growers' association. But neither Flagg nor his partners would knuckle under.
Similarly Smith, p. 33: "[A]t the end of 1886 Jack Flagg had been blackballed and was unable henceforth to get a job with a cow outfit. Thereupon he took up a homestead on the Red Fork of Powder River and brought a brand and a little bunch of cattle and went into cattle-raising for himself; from this ensued and awesome train of consequences. The brand was alled the Hat."
Flagg and Canton had a personal grudge; among other things, Flagg had helped ensure Canton's defeat in the 1888 contest for sheriff (Davis, p. 60).
Davis doesn't mention him, at least by name, but according to O'Neal, pp. 183-184, Harvey Logan, the subject of the song "Harvey Logan" [Laws E21], was one of those who fought on Nate Champion's side.
None of the books I've consulted seems to mention a Bill Jones, Billy Jones, or William Jones as being involved in the war. But there was an Orly Jones -- a name easily mistaken for "Billy Jones." Orly E. Jones, known as "Ranger Jones," may have been one of those recruited by Nate Champion after the first attack on Champion's home (Davis, p. 103). But he was a 23-year-old who was assassinated at a distance by parties unknown (so Asa Shinn Mercer, quotes on p. 57 of Johnson), so it probably isn't him.
So who was "right" in the Johnson County War? The strong biases of my sources make it hard for me to form an impartial judgment. But what is certain is that outside mercenaries were hired by the cattlemen to invade Johnson County; that the outsiders murdered men without even trying to use the courts (they said the courts never convicted cattle rustlers, but they weren't even trying any more); that they were trying to interfere with local affairs without having any duly constituted authority to do so. And their writings smugly declare their own right without offering any justification except sweeping claims of wrongdoing by the residents of Johnson County. To me at least, it appears that the burden of proof clearly lies on the side of those who would justify the invaders.
The Blood-Stained Diary of the song's title was famous; Sam Clover claimed to have found it on Nate Champion's body; he published it in a news story in 1892. It wasn't really a diary -- just loose paper. But it no longer exists -- Clover claimed to have destroyed it (Davis, p. 155). Since it was perhaps the biggest find of his career, and the proof of his biggest scoop, one would think he would have kept the thing! What's more, it was evidence for a case involving two murders, so destroying it was tampering with criminal evidence. And there is apparently outside evidence that Clover was a thief (Smith, p. 198), so why not a forger as well?
There was eyewitness testimony to the existence of the diary (Davis, p. 156), but no one but Clover seems to have known what it said. Davis, pp. 285-286, reprints the longer of the two versions of the diary supplied by Clover. It is a fascinating document. There are a number of grammatical constructions which sound like deliberate low-class dialect, yet the spelling and orthography are correct. It does not seem to know the name of one of the men who was staying with Champion; it refers to "Bill Jones and another man." The author thinks he recognizes one of the men outside, but the name is crossed out -- the only thing in the whole document which is listed as crossed out, but so thoroughly crossed out that Clover didn't even hazard a guess. The only names mentioned in the document are "Nick" and "Bill Jones." The note has no preface explaining why it is written.
The obvious conclusion is that Clover made up his version of diary. There is very little doubt in my mind (though Smith, pp. 205-207, prints it without any signs of doubt), and Seidman, pp. 103-104, also prints most of it without question). But if the diary that gave this piece its title was fake, the fate of Nick and Nate was real.
For another piece about the Johnson County War, see "The Invasion Song." - RBW
Last updated in version 6.1
- Davis: John W. Davis, Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County, University of Oklahoma Press, 2010
- Hall: Kermit L. Hall, editor, The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, Oxford, 1992
- Johnson: Marilyn S. Johnson, Violence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and the Ludlow Massacre: A Brief History with Documents, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009
- Larson: T. A. Larson, Wyoming: A History, W. W. Norton and Company/American Association for State and Local History, 1977
- O'Neal: Bill O'Neal, Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, 1979. A general work, and as with most such things it appears to have a few details wrong, but a handy source for dates and such
- Seidman: Laurence I. Seidman, Once in the Saddle: The Cowboy's Frontier 1866-1896, 1973 (I use the 1994 Facts on File paperback which has been edited in ways the copyright record does not clarify)
- Smith: Helena Huntington Smith, The War On Powder River, University of Nebraska Press, 1966
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