Big-ranch foreman Mike Shonsey plagued both Texas brothers.
Nathan David Champion, a Wyoming folk hero to some for his stand against cattle barons during the infamous Johnson County War, was a true Texas cowboy, sharing Lone Star State roots with many of the invading gunmen who squared off against him in April 1892.
Nate’s younger brother Rufus Dudley Champion resembled him and, like him, died a violent death in Wyoming. Nate was born on September 29, 1857, to early settlers of Round Rock in Texas’ Williamson County. Before his mother died in middle age, she had nine children, Nate falling somewhere in the middle of the brood. His father, John Thomas “Jack” Champion, a farmer, county sheriff, Texas Ranger and future Confederate officer, then married a woman who bore him 12 children.
Round Rock country, known as the “Cradle of Cowboys,” was the origin of several northbound cattle drives. As a young man, Nate signed on as a trail hand along with two or three of his brothers, including Dud (as Rufus Dudley was often called). Nate came to see Wyoming Territory as a land of promise, and around 1880 he decided to make a life there. He worked as a highly respected top hand and wagon boss for some big northern cattle outfits, and by 1890 he and a partner had acquired a small herd of their own. His ambition was enough to get Champion branded a rustler by the large cattlemen, who insisted that their cowboys not own stock or slap their own brands on mavericks.
Nate didn’t seek attention, but people were drawn to him nonetheless. When the other small ranchers—disallowed by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) and also labeled “rustlers”—held their own roundup, they named him roundup boss. A historian described Nate as “stockily built, with steely blue-gray eyes; a quiet sort, people said; laconic, soft-spoken” and added that he was “a lion of a man who feared nothing and would stand up to anybody, and he was lightning with a gun.” Allowing for poetic license, it is a fact Nate was known for his skill with weapons (lawman and hired killer Frank Canton, of all people, referred to him as “an expert shot”), and he had shown his resolve in the face of great odds. When some WSGA cowboys from the TTT and Bar C spreads gathered his cows and calves in among their own, Nate and a few armed companions cut out his stock and scattered their cattle as payback. None of the association cowboys tried to stop him.
In November 1891 Champion and then-partner Ross Gilbertson were asleep in a line shack on the Powder River when a party of “stock detectives” led by the murderous Canton came to the door. According to local lore the big cattlemen had placed a $1,500 bounty on Champion. It would not be the first lynching carried out by the WSGA; two men and a woman had been taken from their homes and hanged without benefit of trial, and the law had done nothing.With no one to stop the grassland barons, more killings would follow.
Three of the would-be assassins came through the door and, with weapons trained on the bed, ordered the two men to surrender. While they were talking, Champion snatched his Colt from the pistol belt he had draped over the bedpost and snapped a shot at his assailants. The two men nearest him fired but were so unnerved they missed, sending slugs into Nate’s pillow and bedding, close enough to burn his face. As they ran, Nate fired again, wounding one of the attackers in the stomach. Another of the men—Canton, as it turned out— exited so swiftly that he left his new 1886 Winchester leaning against the wall. Nate found another discarded rifle nearby. Champion boldly followed his assailants’ trail and the next day came upon six horses and bedding, including a blood-smeared tarp. The blood reportedly belonged to stock detective Bill Lykens, who died soon thereafter.
Nate Champion reportedly caught Mike Shonsey, a member of the lynch party, and forced him to give up the names of his comrades, nearly all seasoned regulators in the employ of the big cattlemen. In a newspaper interview in The Buffalo (Wyo.) Bulletin, Nate stated: “This crowd came to my cabin to kill Gilbertson and myself but met with the wrong kind of reception to suit them. Their intention was good enough, but they were scared off.” He catalogued the items he’d found after the attack and added, “We have all the property enumerated above, which the owners can have by calling for it.” They didn’t; it would be another five months before Canton retrieved his Winchester.
A little over a year after Nate’s death on April 9, 1892, Dud Champion rode into eastern Wyoming. Eighteen months Nate’s junior, Dud apparently looked enough like his older brother to be taken for his twin—an error repeated in a number of modern histories. Dud had come up the trail from Texas with Nate more than a dozen years before, and the two had been extremely close. And now, depending on the version you believe, Dud was either looking for work or revenge. In a cow camp of the 77 outfit, he encountered none other than foreman Mike Shonsey—the man who had been among Nate’s would-be assassins the previous November, the one Nate had caught and forced to reveal the names of his comrades, the man who had spied on Nate in Johnson County for the invading army of Texas gunmen, and the man who had been with the force that later killed Nate at the KC Ranch. Released from custody some seven months after the killing, Shonsey returned to his job with the WSGA outfits. Shonsey had ample reason to fear Dud Champion.
When Dud rode into camp on May 23, 1893, Shonsey confronted him. According to Shonsey’s version, Dud was denying he meant any harm when he went for his six-shooter, at which point the foreman shot him out of the saddle. Dud raised his own revolver, but Mike shot him again, killing him instantly. Shonsey then rode into Douglas and surrendered to Sheriff Malcolm Campbell, who was sympathetic to the big cattlemen. The killing was declared self-defense, and Shonsey dodged murder charges for the second time that year. Not wishing to push his luck in Wyoming, he“lit a shuck” for Nebraska, where he raised a family and lived well into his 90s.
But there is a second version. Asa Shinn Mercer, author of Banditti of the Plains and a bitter enemy of the WSGA, wrote that it was Dud who was sitting in camp when Shonsey rode up. “For a time pleasant conversation was carried on between the entire party,” wrote Mercer, when Shonsey suddenly drew and fired his gun, killing Dud without provocation. Helena Huntington Smith, in The War on Powder River, writes that a Texas cowboy sat by Dud Champion as he lay dying; when Dud fell, the cylinder of his six-shooter had clogged with dirt, and his last words were, “I can’t cock it. …I can’t cock it.” Mercer claimed that the day following Shonsey’s release, other witnesses arrived in Douglas, willing to swear it was cold-blooded murder. By then, however, Shonsey was out of the territory and beyond the law. Ultimately, no one would pay for the deaths of either Nate or Dud Champion.
The location of Dud’s grave was in doubt for more than a century. He lies at Buffalo’s Willow Grove Cemetery between Nate and a third brother, Ben.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.