Want to know why Wyoming is what it is today? Read the story of the Johnson County War. This piece of history explains how it is Wyoming has always been available to the highest bidder, why certain landed out-of-state interests have successfully persuaded folks to vote against their own interests, and why the state’s politicians often choose the special interests over the public interest.
Worland attorney John W. Davis’ excellent book “Wyoming Range Wars-The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012) is a good place to start. Davis has written an important history of this event, reminding us how little we learn in classrooms.
His book whetted my appetite. I took two dusty old books off the shelf and read them. First, Asa Mercer’s late 19th century account of the Johnson County war entitled, “Banditti of the Plains.” Next a book written by former Wyoming Governor Jack R. Gage. Known for both his wit and intellect, Gage wrote a delightful history of the incident from both sides of the controversy. One side of the book’s cover titles his book “The Johnson County War is a Pack of Lies-The Baron’s Side.” Turn it over and the book title reads “The Johnson County War Ain’t a Pack of Lies-The Rustler’s Side.”
The “war” was actually an invasion, in today’s vernacular, an act of domestic terrorism. Two years into statehood, there was a bitter conflict between large and small landowners. As today, a small group, many from out-of-state, controlled much of the economic and political power. Today it’s the Wyoming Mining Association and the Wyoming Petroleum Association. In the late 1800s, it was the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.
Many large land barons were then, as the mining interests are today, making out-of-staters wealthy while dictating Wyoming’s future. As more small landowners came to stake a claim, the large landowners, who saw the land as their own, even when it wasn’t, reacted bitterly.
Just as today when powerful mining interests name their adversaries radical environmentalists, the cattle baron’s of the 1800s named their opponents “rustlers.” While some might have been, most were simple folks trying to make a living on the land. When they made legal land claims, they often conflicted with unlawful claims larger landowners had to land they were accustomed to using.
The barons claimed the courts wouldn’t prosecute small landowners when they alleged the little guys were rustling cattle. The judges said they’d be happy to convict if the baron’s actually had any evidence. Most often they didn’t have evidence but expected their economic and political clout to be sufficient. When it wasn’t, the barons turned to hired guns.
The cattle barons recruited what Davis, in his well-documented account, called “bands of killers.” Mercer’s contemporary version referred to them as “a band of cutthroats and hired assassins.” Their compensation included a $5 per day wage and a $50 per head bounty on the “rustlers.”
Mercer and Davis’ history implicates Wyoming’s two US Senators, Francis Warren and Joseph Carey as well as Governor Amos Barber who, Mercer says, told the Denver Post he’d support “any body of men which will attempt to exterminate the rustlers.”
An invasion force of 75-80 gunmen set out for Buffalo on April 5, 1892 intending to kill the sheriff, his deputies, the Johnson County Commissioners and large numbers of small landowners. In the end, they murdered a significant number of people though not nearly everyone on the hit list. The killers and those who hired them were never prosecuted. Their attorney, Willis Van Devanter, was rewarded with an appointment to the United States Supreme Court.
This space is too limited to tell the whole story. If you’re interested in the state’s past, you should read these and other accounts of the Johnson County War. If you are interested in the state’s future, you might want to think about the choices we’ve made over the decades to sell our birthright to out-of-state, moneyed interests who have invaded Wyoming from time to time.