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The Invasion of Johnson County

Cain and Abel were only the beginning, it seems, from the point of view of the American plains. It was possible, as they sang in the old musical Oklahoma, for the farmer and the cowman to be friends. Up and down the Great Plains, however, the growing pains of the country included conflicts between agriculturalists and pastoralists, or between rival groups of stockmen.

On the Texas plains and in the Nebraska Sandhills legal authorities took different sides on illegal fencing of the public domain. At opposite ends of the plains were Stuart’s Stranglers wreaking havoc in Montana and the Dakota Territory, and Billy the Kid making his sordid reputation in the Lincoln County War of New Mexico.

The daddy of them all, historically, has to be the Johnson County War of Wyoming. This range war surfaced in the difficult 1880s, turned homicidal before 1890, and then came to a climax with the Invasion of 1892.

Well-heeled members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, who frequented the Cheyenne Club, were annoyed by homesteaders stealing into Johnson County, and even more so by small-time stockmen trying to establish themselves in the seams between the big operators on the open range.

The WSGA controlled the press, which portrayed Johnson County (county seat, Buffalo) as a lawless and criminal province that had to be cleaned up. Finally, they took direct action with the Invasion of 1892.

A heavily armed force of 52 men (comprising WSGA members along with more than twenty hired guns from Texas) took a private train from Cheyenne to Casper, then rode horseback into Johnson County. Its leader, Frank Canton, carried a list of seventy persons to be sought out and killed.

The plan went awry when the first people they went for, including the outspoken small stockman, Nate Champion, put up a stubborn fight before being gunned down. This gave time for the county sheri to mount a massive posse that corralled the invaders in a ranch house — might have killed them all, but then soldiers arrived. A detachment from Fort McKinney intervened and took the invaders into custody.

Historical memory of these events got cloudy, most writers expressing sympathy for the big cattlemen in their battle against criminal elements. Even the eminent historian Ernest S. Osgood (The Day of the Cattlemen, 1930) was misled — mainly, I think, because he wrote his book from the archives of the WSGA.

The 2010 book by John W. Davis, Wyoming Range War, sets the record straight with exhaustive research. It wasn’t the small operators stealing cattle; it was the big ones, by means of the roundups and stock detectives they controlled.

Which brings me, a singer of Great Plains folksong, to a forgotten ballad of the Johnson County War, written down by someone who was there, a chap named William Augustus Martin. It was sung to the tune of an old Great Lakes shipwreck ballad. A scholar published the text in 1947, but it was promptly forgotten again.

I’m singing it in the twenty-first century, often while wearing my best Stetson.

Sad and dismal is the tale
I now relate to you,’
Tis all about the cattlemen,
Them and their murderous crew.

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