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History

November 13, 2011

Historical Perspective: The Ijams family and the Johnson County War of 1892

TERRE HAUTE — During an early morning blizzard on April 9, 1892, 50 armed cattlemen on horseback encircled a cabin on Powder River in Johnson County, Wyoming.

The cabin was situated on K C Ranch, owned by John Nolan, who had rented it to Nathan D. Champion, reputed to be “The King of Cattle Thieves.”

The armed cattlemen had received intelligence that Champion and an associate named Reuben “Nick” Ray, an itinerant cowboy, spent the night at the cabin. What the posse did not know was that two trappers, Ben Jones and Bill Walker, sought refuge during the snowstorm and were permitted to spend the night.

When Jones, a chuckwagon clerk, stepped out of the cabin to fetch a pail of water, he was captured. A half hour later, Walker went to look for Jones and also was ensnared.

Ray stepped out of the cabin a few minutes later. Maj. Frank Wolcott, leader of the cattlemen, directed “Texas Kid” Brooke to shoot him. The bullet inflicted a severe wound in the young rustler’s leg which bled profusely. Champion, who had appeared at the door occasionally, quickly grabbed his friend and pulled him into the cabin.

Meanwhile, Champion began recording what transpired in a pocket notebook. According to his record, Ray died at about 9 a.m.

Ten hours later, the posse of regulators concluded that the only way to seize Champion was to set the cabin on fire. Soon the north wall was a sheet of flames and smoke poured from the windows. Some speculated that Champion had chosen suicide.

Suddenly a man bearing a Winchester in his hands and a revolver in his belt emerged from the rear door. The rustler darted through smoke toward a ravine 50 feet away. A shot disabled his right arm and the rifle fell to the ground. As he reached for his pistol, another bullet entered his right shoulder. One account asserted that his body was eventually riddled with 24 shells. Hungry coyotes prevented an accurate count.

Not much was left of Ray’s body either.

A card reading, “Cattle Thieves, Beware,” was pinned to Champion’s vest. Fortunately, Champion’s notebook survived.

Who were these regulators? About 25 of them were men of wealth and education, owners of large ranches and members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) headed by Secretary Hiram B. Ijams.

Hiram was a brother of Terre Haute industrialist William Putnam Ijams, owner and operator of Warren Park Farm, the largest standardbred horse farm in Indiana. He also owned a cattle ranch in Wyoming adjoining his brother’s.

The WSGA was the largest and wealthiest association of its kind in the world. Ijams and others sought to eliminate cattle rustlers and horse thieves who, they contended, had been stealing stock off ranches since 1886. In reality, they also sought to bar small ranchers from sharing grazing land in the public domain.

The Maverick Law of 1884 declared that unbranded calves had to be branded with an “M” and became the property of the WSGA. Non members were not permitted to bid at WSGA auctions. The cost of registering a brand was set high enough that few small ranchers could afford to register. In addition, the WSGA had the power to accept or reject brands.

Prosperous ranchers were able to enlist and influence politicians, newspaper men and law enforcement officials, including former Johnson County Sheriff Frank M. Clanton. In a pinch, it was said, they could count on help from Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, president of the U.S.

On July 20, 1889, Johnson County storekeeper Jim Averell and brothel operator Ella Watson, known as “Cattle Kate,” were lynched by six men linked to the WSGA. The victims, who may have married, did nothing more than stake homestead claims on separate tracts amid territory owned by wealthy cattle rancher Albert J. Bothwell.

Six men, including Bothwell, were indicted in October 1889 for the double murder but the cases were dismissed when the witnesses allegedly disappeared. Bothwell soon secured possession of the abandoned land.

Rivalry between the factions intensified. In 1892, WSGA members unified to recruit professional killers. Most members recruited Texans but H.B. Ijams chose to canvass Idaho for a mercenary. He found George Dunning, a bright young cowboy. It was a huge mistake. Dunning accepted the offer so he could warn his victims.

In October 1892, Dunning published a lengthy “confession” disclosing his relationship with Ijams and the murderous plans of the WSGA. The confession appeared in “The Northwestern Livestock Journal,” published by Asa Shinn Mercer.

A.S. Mercer, who in 1894 wrote “The Banditti of the Plains, or the Cattlemen’s Invasion of Wyoming in 1892,” founded the Journal in 1884 to serve as the mouthpiece of the WSGA but later changed his colors.

Meanwhile, on May 10, 1892, George Wellman was shot and killed from ambush.

The release of Dunning’s statement just before election caused an uproar. Quoting Ijams at length, he named Gov. Amos Barber, Judge John Blake, U.S. Marshall Joseph Rankin and U.S. Sen. Joseph M. Carey, among others, as co-conspirators.

Between 1884 and 1892, Mercer identified the rustlers as “human wolves.” Some thought Mercer manufactured Dunning’s “confession” to sell copies. However, his change of heart seemed sincere though the confession was not published soon enough to save the lives of Nate Champion and Nick Ray.

Champion had been hired by the newly-formed Northern Wyoming Farmers & Stock Growers Association (NWFSGA), composed primarily of small stock owners, only a few days prior to his death.

On Jan. 2, 1893, the First District Court in Cheyenne was the venue to try 53 men indicted for murder and arson for the deaths of Ray and Champion. Only 23 defendants were present.

On Jan. 21, all 1064 venire men had been interrogated but only 11 jurors had been seated. Instead of transporting jurors from another county, opposing counsel agreed to find a way to have the case dismissed with prejudice.

Nobody won the Johnson County War of 1892. The wealthy cattlemen lost in the field but found a way to outwit the legal system in the end. And, in 1893, the WSGA opened its membership to all stock growers in Wyoming.

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