Johnson County War

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The “Regulators”

T A Ranch Map
Ella WatsonJim Averell

The Johnson County War, also known as the War on Powder River, was a range war which took place in April 1892 in Johnson County, Natrona County and Converse County in the U.S. state of Wyoming. It was a battle between small settling ranchers and larger established ranches in the Powder River Country that culminated in a lengthy shootout between local ranchers, a band of hired killers, and a sheriff's posse. The troubles go back to the mid/late 1880's but came to a head in early 1892. A standard plot in most old western movies. The difference is, this one is real.

The often uneasy relationship between larger, wealthier ranches and smaller ranch settlers became steadily worse after the poor winter of 1886-1887 when a series of blizzards and temperatures of 40-50 degrees below 0° F (-45 °C) had followed an extremely hot and dry summer. Thousands of cattle were lost and large companies began to appropriate land and control the flow and supply of water in the area. Some of the harsher tactics included forcing settlers off their land and setting fire to settler buildings as well as trying to exclude the smaller ranchers from participation in the annual roundup.

In Banditti of the Plains Mercer gives this explanation:

“The range cattle industry is based on the theory and fact that the grasses of the so-called arid region grow up in the spring, quickly ripen and cure in the sun, retaining all of the sugar, starch, gluten, etc., in a more or less crystallized state, thus affording a really rich winter diet for all kinds of herbivorous animals. So long as the requisite proportion of the growth was allowed to mature and properly cure, the cattle thrived in winter nearly as well as in summer at least they remained strong and healthy during the stormy weather and quickly laid on flesh when the green grass came. With the range overcrowded, the grass was largely consumed in summer and very little was left to grow tall and carry rich seeds for winter feeding. The winter range should not be grazed in summer.
“This shortage of feed, coupled with a few exceptionally hard winters, caused an excessive mortality among all classes of cattle and reduced the calf crop fully one half in all the mixed, or breeding herds. Very soon this commenced to tell in the output of beef steers and greatly reduced the income of the company, so that more robbery of the herd had to be resorted to in order to pay a dividend and keep up the market price of the stock shares.
“Then came a sudden and marked decline in beef values at the great market centers.1 The steers that had brought any where from fifty to seventy dollars at Chicago, now sold for from twenty-five to fifty, a shrinkage of nearly one half as a rule. This decline was due first, to the real falling off in beef values, and second, to the generally poor condition of the range shipments in consequence of overstocking and the resulting scarcity of feed........................Thus it is evident that the general managers of cattle companies found themselves in exceedingly hot water between the devil and the deep sea, so to speak. Something had to be done; their integrity and financial reputation demanded action. Dividends were passed and shareholders demanded the reason. To explain that the herds had been systematically robbed of future beef steers in the shipment of unripe cattle would be to impeach themselves. To admit that the hard winters and overstocking of ranges had decimated the herds would not be in harmony with official reports rendered. Some other excuse must be found. Eureka, says one. ‘Thieves!’ he ejaculated, and forthwith the cry echoed and re-echoed over the entire range cattle country.”

Editors Note:
1. At this time in the Southern plains there was a concerted effort to open the Indian Territory to settlement. On February 17, 1890 President Harrison voided the lease of the Cherokee Strip Live Stock Association and ordered all cattle off the Cherokee Outlet by October 1, 1890. On September 19, 1890 President Harrison issued an extension to the final deadline to remove all the cattle from the Outlet. This forced the cattlemen of the Cherokee Strip Live Stock Association to dump their cattle on the market, driving down the prices as noted above. All cattle had to be off the range in Indian Territory by December 1, 1891.

In 1980 there was a television movie made named The Johnson County War. It does a relatively good job of folowing the events as given, but as usual some cinematic license was used and the names were changed to protect the guilty as well as the innocent. It shows up from time to time on cable channels and a quick Google search says there are some home videos available on DVD.

Forward From the 1954, University Of Oklahoma Press printing of "Banditti of the Plains" by William H. Kittrell
Banditti of the Plains
BY Asa Shinn Mercer1
It is written from the perspective of Mercer, who had come to Wyoming to edit the North West Live Stock Journal, the official publication of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA), which represented the monied interests intent on controlling the cattle industry. As the events of the range wars unfolded, Mercer came to sympathize with the homesteaders and turned against the WSGA. The book reflects his pro-settler view, and is an important document of the events.
1892 Newspaper Accounts of the Johnson County War
The Hanging of Ella "Cattle Kate" Watson and James Averell
From "History of NATRONA COUNTY WYOMING 1888-1922" by Alfred James Mokler
Cattlemen's Invasion of Johnson County
From "History of NATRONA COUNTY WYOMING 1888-1922" by Alfred James Mokler
1. Asa Shinn Mercer (June 6, 1839 – August 10, 1917) was the first president of the Territorial University of Washington and a member of the Washington State Senate.
In 1861, as a member of one of the founding families of Seattle, Washington, a young Asa Mercer assisted his brothers in clearing stumps to make way for the new territorial university. Once the building had been completed, Mercer, the only college graduate in town, was hired as the university's sole instructor and president.