johnson county war
When the ranchers began to take over the western plains, there were those who were honest, and those who were scoundrels. One of those scoundrels was Albert John Bothwell (1855-1928), who was one of the main instigators of the Johnson County War in Wyoming. Bothwell was born in Iowa and migrated to Wyoming, where he quickly became one of the most prosperous cattlemen in Sweetwater County. Bothwell was an arrogant man, who tended to take what he wanted. He had been grazing his cattle on unclaimed homestead land, which was not his to use, but as I said, he tended to take what he wanted. When James Averell and his girlfriend, Ellen Watson came along in 1886, and filed a claim on the land Bothwell had been using, they found that he had gone so far as to illegally fence much of their land with barbed wire. In his mind, Bothwell had decided that the land was somehow his, that his needs were more important, or that no one would ever put in a claim on it, at least not if he had any say in the matter.
When Averell and Watson moved onto the land, Bothwell’s illegal use of the property came to light, and of course, led to repeated disputes between Bothwell and the young couple. Bothwell, was a powerful man, as many cattle barons are. They have men to keep what they believe to be theirs protected. The problem here was that the land wasn’t his…it belonged to Averell and Watson. When Averell wrote to the Casper Daily Mail criticizing Bothwell and claiming that the cattle barons had too much power, Bothwell retaliated by claiming that Averell and Watson were stealing his cattle. Dubbing Watson with the moniker of “Cattle Kate,” he also accused her of being a prostitute who sometimes accepted stolen cattle in payment.
As the dispute continued to rage over the next several months, Bothwell convinced other area ranchers of Averell and Watson’s guilt, and on July 20, 1889, he convinced five other men to help him hang the pair at a small canyon by the Sweetwater River. Though the men were charged with murder, key witnesses began to mysteriously die or disappear and all of them were acquitted. Both Averell and “Cattle Kate” were “tried” in the press, which was owned or influenced by the cattle barons, and branded as “outlaws.” Bothwell later acquired both homesteads of the murdered victims.
After the dust settled and many years had passed, re-investigations into the whole affair have found that most likely neither James Averell, nor his girlfriend Ellen “Cattle Kate” Watson, were guilty of any crime. In the meantime, this event, as well as several other similar events, led to the Johnson County War in Wyoming. Albert Bothwell, however, walked away free of any repercussion and continued to run his ranch until his retirement, when he moved to Los Angeles, California, where he died on March 1, 1928. No one was ever prosecuted for the murders of James Averell and Ellen Watson.