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The broad outlines of the conflict are familiar: some of Wyoming’s biggest cattlemen, under the guise of eliminating livestock rustling on the open range, hire two-dozen Texas cowboys and, with range detectives and prominent members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, “invade” north-central Wyoming to clean out rustlers and other undesirables. While the invaders kill two suspected rustlers, citizens mobilize and eventually turn the tables, surrounding the intruders at a ranch where they intend to capture them by force. An appeal for help convinces President Benjamin Harrison to call out the army from nearby Fort McKinley, and after an all-night ride the soldiers arrive just in time to stave off the invaders’ annihilation. Though taken prisoner, they later avoid prosecution.
The cattle barons’ powers of persuasion in justifying their deeds have colored accounts of the war for more than a century. Wyoming Range War tells a compelling story that redraws the lines between heroes and villains.
About three miles east of Buffalo, Wyoming, there is a turnout off the westbound lanes of Interstate 90, just before the interstate reaches the Big Horn Mountains. The turnout overlooks Buffalo and the valley surrounding the town, and it presents one of the great vistas in America. In April and May the valley can be as green as Ireland, and the mountains loom over Buffalo like giant snow-laden skyscrapers; it seems that half the sky is filled with the majesty of the Big Horns. Deep-green timber starts almost at Buffalo, rising until it meets the tundra of the high peaks. Those high peaks are topped by Cloud Peak, floating 8,500 feet above Buffalo. Buffalo, with a population of fewer than four thousand people in the 2000 census, snuggles in the middle of this scene like a New England village.
Buffalo has been the seat of Johnson County, Wyoming, since 1881, when the county first began operation and the town was growing up as an adjunct to a frontier army post. Buffalo's peaceful and pleasing setting today makes it hard to believe this little town was once the center of a happening that, as T. A. Larson wrote, "ranks as the most notorious event in the history of Wyoming." It was called the Johnson County War, it happened more than a century ago, and within Wyoming the very mention of Johnson County still calls up a time of infamy.
What is now Johnson County was originally created as Pease County by the territorial legislature in 1875, a time when settlement, and thus organization of the county, was impossible — the entire northeastern quarter of Wyoming was then set aside as unceded Indian territory. Nevertheless, the legislature found at least one use for Pease County and Crook County, which together comprised most of the Indian territory. An unpopular judge, William Ware Peck, was "sagebrushed" by the Wyoming legislature when legislators assigned these unorganized counties as his district, thereby ensuring he had no trial court duties, presiding over only sagebrush.
Pease County was a remarkable domain. It was roughly one hundred miles by one hundred miles, extending south from the Montana border and from the Big Horn River on the west (in the Big Horn Basin) to the Powder River on the east. It encompassed virtually the entire Big Horn Mountain chain, which meant that the area was unusually well watered, especially along the base of the Big Horns. The eastern slope drains numerous streams between the Powder River on the south and Tongue River on the north; every few miles a traveler crosses a stream, usually flowing clear mountain water. A lot of water meant a lot of grass, and the grazing in the shortgrass prairie east of the Big Horns was as good as could be found in Wyoming. The resources were practically limitless; to name only two, the Big Horn Mountains were full of timber, and the eastern part of the county was full of coal.
Until the spring of 1877, the northeastern quarter of Wyoming remained the realm of the Sioux, the Cheyennes, and the Arapahoes. The warriors of these tribes were fearsome; under Red Cloud, they drove whites from the Bozeman Trail (the "bloody Bozeman" ran north and south along the eastern base of the Big Horn Mountains). Then, a few years later, when led by Crazy Horse, they checked General George Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud, preventing him from joining Alfred Terry and George Custer. These tribes were finally worn down by U.S. forces and confined to reservations.
The United States, to assure that the tribes that defeated Custer would stay put, decided "to surround these Indians with a cordon of posts." In 1878 Captain Edwin Pollock of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry was given orders to select a site for a fort along the Bozeman Trail. On July 18, 1878, Captain Pollock laid out a military reservation centered on Clear Creek, where that stream first emerges from the Big Horn Mountains.
All of this meant not only that Pease County was open to land settlement but also that there were opportunities for entrepreneurs who wished to service the substantial needs of an army post. During the year 1879 the name of Pease County was changed to Johnson County (in honor of the U.S. attorney for the Territory of Wyoming, who had just died), and entrepreneurs did arrive and set up shop at a site just downstream from the new fort, which was named Fort McKinney.
Buffalo's earliest years must have been truly boisterous, judging by the comments of T. V. McCandlish, the editor of the first newspaper published in Johnson County, the Buffalo Echo. In its inaugural edition, issued on August 2, 1883, McCandlish provided histories of Buffalo and Johnson County. He first discussed the establishment of Fort McKinney and then described the beginning days of the town growing up near the fort: "On the banks of Clear Creek was soon gathered as rough an element of humanity as a frontier settlement is usually blessed or cursed with. During the years 1880 and 1881, the town was the scene of many deeds of violence." McCandlish added, however, that after 1882 the citizens of the town, bolstered by the addition of "a few more energetic and peace-loving citizens," determined that law and order would "reign supreme." The editor proudly pointed to a number of developments that showed that Buffalo was no longer a wild and lawless town. These included two large general merchandise stores, as well as "a Bank, six saloons, two hotels [one was the Occidental Hotel], two eating houses, one livery stable, barber shop, ... dentist's office, blacksmith and wagon making shop, shoemaker's shop, meat market, lumber yard, court house, school house, etc."
Buffalo was never a very large town during the 1880s and early 1890s (population: 1,087 in 1890), but it was active. Although the inaugural edition of the Buffalo Echo is the only extant issue of a Johnson County newspaper from before September 1884, it provides an invaluable window into the community, a detailed early portrait of Johnson County and Buffalo. The most striking thing about this newspaper (shared by subsequent newspapers in Buffalo) was its faithful reflection of the outlook of the entire community. These people were utterly excited by their prospects, by the adventure and challenge of building a wholly new society in a wholly new place. For example, in one Echo article the writer proclaims that the arrival of a railroad was "an assured fact," that Buffalo was "destined to become the principal city of Northern Wyoming," and that within a few years Johnson County would "have double the population of any other county in the territory." Perhaps this attitude should not come as a surprise, because a selection process was at work here. The people drawn to frontier towns such as Buffalo, including newspaper editors, were young, ambitious, and optimistic. Those who did not share their enthusiasm and energy had been left back home.
Johnson County had a full complement of officers in 1883, including E. U. Snider, Johnson County representative to the territorial legislature; James M. Lobban, probate judge and county treasurer; Nathaniel G. Carwile, county clerk; H. S. Elliott, county attorney, and Frank M. Canton, sheriff.
Even among the ambitious and active young people in Johnson County, Frank Canton stood out. He was a proud, tough, and ferociously efficient peace officer, traits that very early earned him the admiration and praise of the large cattle interests in the area. He was thirty-three in 1882, almost six feet tall, and slender. He was a good-looking man who seemed to have many friends, but Johnson County people had conflicting feelings about him. His personality was so strong that it seemed that his mere presence caused people anxiety; he intimidated men with only a look.
In his autobiography, Canton stated that in his entire four years as sheriff, from 1883 to 1887, he returned every writ and indictment issued by the courts of Johnson County, and "not a single return showed 'not found.'" Given the terrain over which he had to operate, and the character of some of the young men who inhabited it, this boast seems highly dubious, but if any Wyoming sheriff could have done this, it was Frank Canton.
Canton had arrived in Johnson County in 1881; he told people that he had been born in Virginia and educated there. He said he then had come west to Missouri in 1861 and to Colorado with his father in 1868, where they engaged in stock raising southwest of Denver. He also reported that he had relocated to Montana, where he was in the stock business with one William Jamison. In 1877 he went to Cheyenne, and in 1881 to Buffalo, where he was hired by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association as a detective.
As the county seat, Buffalo was the center of legal activity in Johnson County, and early on, attorneys arrived in Buffalo and began the practice of law. They prosecuted and defended the criminal cases forwarded by Frank Canton and other sheriffs, and they engaged in an active civil practice. These attorneys appeared before Judge Jacob Blair, who had been Johnson County's only district judge since 1881 and would remain so until the spring of 1888. Blair lived in Albany County (in Laramie City), which formed part of the southern boundary of Wyoming, but the district over which he presided included Johnson County, which was part of the northern boundary of Wyoming. Twice a year, just before the beginning of the spring and fall judicial terms in Johnson County, Judge Blair had to make the very long trek from far southern Wyoming to far northern Wyoming and, for several weeks, preside over criminal and civil cases. He did not seem to mind this twice-yearly sojourn, and various public pronouncements through the years show that he favored the northern part of his judicial district; it was Blair who coined the term "bouquet county," referring to Johnson County. Blair was a popular figure in Buffalo, unusually so for a district judge, and the simplest explanation is that he liked Buffalo and Buffalo liked Judge Blair.
In 1883 five attorneys were practicing in Buffalo, including Charles H. Burritt, who was, without question, the leading figure in the Buffalo bar during the 1880s and early 1890s. Burritt was from Manchester, Vermont, and had received a splendid education, first at Middlebury College and then at Brown University. This was unusual for the time; most men who would be lawyers simply read law in an established attorney's office and took no college courses at all. Burritt began practicing law in Michigan in 1876, when only twenty-two, but for some reason he left Michigan and came west, working first as a sheepherder and then as a foreman. He arrived in Buffalo in the spring of 1883, was a deputy sheriff for Frank Canton for four months, and in 1884 was elected a justice of the peace.
Burritt was a tall, confident man. Early Johnson County records contain numerous original documents with his bold and elegant signature. Burritt dressed well, being "always garbed in black frock coat, neatly fitting vest and striped trousers." He quickly and firmly aligned himself with the monied interests of the county, including John H. Conrad and the larger cattle corporations. He also made enemies, one of whom was Robert N. Foote, who was described as Burritt's "staunch opponent" and was no friend of Burritt's clients.
Robert Foote was one of the leading merchants in early Buffalo. He had been the sutler at Fort Halleck (near Rawlins, Wyoming), but he moved to Buffalo in 1882 and established a general mercantile store there. His principal competitor was John Conrad and Company, another dealer in general merchandise and a client of Burritt's. Foote was an older man by early Buffalo standards, being one of the rare persons over fifty, but he fit right in because he reportedly had a lot of get-up-and-go. He seemingly had his fingers in every aspect of the life and economy of Johnson County — land, livestock, merchandise, crops, public affairs, and public service. Foote was an impressive figure, a man who, according to those who wrote about Buffalo's first hundred years, was "never to be forgotten as long as there is a Buffalo, or a Johnson County." He was born in Scotland in 1832 — he never lost his pronounced Scottish brogue — and he was a strong-minded man. He conveyed a striking presence, well described in Buffalo's First Century: "Anytime he appeared on the dusty streets of Buffalo, he was attired in top hat, Prince Albert coat, and striped trousers. He was, moreover, an object of tonsorial magnificence with his long white beard carefully combed, and his footwear highly polished. And he never appeared without his fine walking stick, which he handled with deft and natural ease."
Foote ran a main-street business, but Buffalo had other businesses, not quite so respectable, businesses that catered to some of the baser needs of the soldiers of Fort McKinney. One man who was deeply immersed in such businesses, but who would nevertheless rise to prominence in Buffalo over the next ten years, was William Galispie "Red" Angus. Angus was only thirty-three in 1883 (he was born the same year as Frank Canton, 1849). Like many men in Buffalo at that time, Angus had already lived an eventful life. His family located in Kansas in 1856, when the territory was in the worst throes of a nasty guerrilla war over slavery, an ugly harbinger of the Civil War. In 1862 Angus demanded that he be allowed to enlist in the Union army, though he was only twelve years old, and he was allowed to do so as a drummer boy. When discharged in 1865, he was just fifteen but had served in several campaigns. After he left the army, he worked as a freighter in western Kansas, when such an occupation was considered "hazardous employment." Several tribes (principally the Cheyennes but also the Arapahoes and the Lakota Sioux) were active in the area and hostile, and Angus was in Fort Wallace in 1867 during its harrowing siege. In October 1868, Angus enlisted in the Nineteenth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, which participated in a campaign against the Cheyennes. Angus was discharged in April 1869, and though it might seem that he had filled a lifetime quota of excitement, he did not thereafter seek a quiet life. He first resumed freighting between Kansas and Oklahoma, then worked for three years in Texas (apparently as a cowboy), spent a year as a teamster in Guatemala (he later told "vivid" tales about the country, its people, and a revolt he witnessed), and returned to the United States by way of California, working there for two years as a cowboy and a teamster. In 1880 he arrived in Wyoming, driving a herd of cattle. He first alighted near Prairie Dog Creek in the northern part of Johnson County but then relocated to Buffalo in the spring of 1881.
Red Angus had red hair (hence his nickname) and was "slightly shorter than average." He was a likable man, but although usually easygoing, he possessed a strong temper. It was said that his courage was without question. In Buffalo he became part of the Laurel Avenue and saloon crowd — "Laurel Avenue" being the red-light district in Buffalo. Indeed, Angus was referred to as the "Mayor of Laurel Avenue," and his first wife had been a prostitute in one of the brothels. He also had run-ins with the law. Territory v. Angus was the first criminal case filed in Johnson County, Wyoming, in which Angus was charged with assault for pistol-whipping a man. He was tried on July 12, 1882, convicted, and paid a fine of $80 and $5 in court costs.
Fort McKinney may have been the primary economic force in Johnson County, enabling Red Angus and many others to make a living, but cattle raising was a close second, one that supported a great number of cowboys and a few rich men. Observing that Buffalo sat "on the dividing line between the vast stock raising territory on the south" and the agricultural country to the north, the Buffalo Echo contended that the country to the south was not suitable for agricultural pursuits but was ideal for grazing. The newspaper did not explain why only the northern part of the county was suitable for agricultural pursuits, but it was certainly true that big companies running cattle dominated the southern half of the county, while smaller family outfits, raising crops and small herds of cattle, dominated the northern half.
Excerpted from Wyoming Range War by John W. Davis. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Posted May 13, 2011
I've read several books on the Johnson County War but found Mr. Davis' the best. Maybe it was the time distance from the event but Mr. Davis' training as a lawyer helped him set the timeline and present the facts in an organized, interesting way that kept my attention.
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