During the April 9, 1892, siege of Wyoming’s KC Ranch, Nate Champion put up a mighty one-man stand, even prompting one of his enemies to call him ‘a he-man with plenty of guts’.
Wyoming in early April can be brutal, and the small army of more than 50 wealthy cattlemen and their hired killers had ridden all night and much of the previous day through numbing cold and blinding snow. Nearly all the gunmen were from Texas, and they were as ill equipped for the weather as they were well equipped for a fight. “I thought I’d freeze to death,” one of those 1892 Johnson County War participants later recalled. “My Texas blood was too thin for a Wyoming… winter.” They’d been supplied with new Colt revolvers and Winchester repeaters and promised $5 per day, plus $50 for every “rustler” they killed. Their employers, a handful of whom rode with them on this incursion into Johnson County, were all luminaries of Cheyenne’s exclusive Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA), and they’d put together a death list of small ranchers, cow thieves and other interfering citizens. First on their list was Nathan D. “Nate” Champion, unofficial leader of the local small ranchers.
Champion had come up the trail from Texas 13 years earlier and had earned a reputation as a skilled and dependable cowboy and roundup boss. When he began to build a modest herd of his own, however, the WSGA declared him a rustler and proscribed him for death. This snowy expedition was not the large cattle owners’ first attempt at eliminating the charismatic Champion. Five months earlier a few of the association’s hired killers, led by deputy U.S. marshal and accused dry-gulcher Frank Canton, had tried to murder him in his bed —only to be driven off by Nate Champion’s quick and accurate response (see “Pioneers and Settlers,” P. 22). This time the cattlemen were determined to finish the job.
In a pre-dawn drizzle on April 9, the shivering column stopped in the brush near Champion’s cabin on the KC Ranch. The low-roofed, four-room structure sat in an open pasture, just south of the Middle Fork Powder River. After scouting the area, the hired guns surrounded the cabin, cutting off all avenues of escape. Some men occupied the log stable 75 yards northeast of the cabin, others took the riverbank north and northwest of the cabin and west of a bridge on the road to Buffalo, and a handful of the best shots hid in a ravine some 100 yards south of the cabin. Four men occupied the cabin: Champion and his partner, a husky young cowhand named Nick Ray, and two trappers —old Bill Jones and William Walker— who’d spent the night.
As the sun rose, Jones left the cabin to draw water for breakfast. Some twodozen rifles were trained on him, and as he passed the stable, waiting gunmen silently captured him. When the old man didn’t return, young Walker went out to investigate; he, too, was taken. Under intense questioning, the trappers said that only Champion and Ray, whose name was also on the list, were inside. After some discussion, the gunmen decided that the honor of firing the first shot would go to 17-year-old Starl Tucker, a nasty piece of work who called himself the “Texas Kid.” George Tucker, a respected Texas lawman and fellow member of the group, referred to his kid brother as “mean, and always wanting to kill someone.”
When Ray left the cabin, Starl Tucker immediately shot him down. Ray was able to stagger to his feet, at which point, according to George Tucker, they “all began to shoot at him.” Ray fell again and began to crawl back toward the cabin as bullets struck into and around him. Champion suddenly appeared in the open doorway, firing his Winchester at the stable as fast as he could jack the lever to provide cover for his wounded partner. He coolly reloaded, fired again and then, to everyone’s amazement, ran outside, grabbed Ray and hauled him over the high front step into the cabin. Starl Tucker shouted, “By God, he may be a rustler, but he is also a he-man with plenty of guts!” No one disagreed—and with that began one of the most dramatic one-man stands in the history of the West. By the end of that dreary spring day Nate Champion had single-handedly foiled the plans of the nation’s most powerful cattle barons—plans supported by Wyoming’s governor and both senators, the U.S. Army and the president of the United States.
Some of the men who surrounded the KC cabin that April day had in earlier times worked alongside Champion, hired him as wagon boss, trusted him with their herds. The turn of events that now had them firing at their former friend had been years in coming. In the mid 1880s Wyoming had endured two consecutive, brutal winters and summers that had killed off some 80 percent of the stock, reduced grazing land dramatically and left the cattle barons in a panic. The men who in the 1870s had brought in the big herds and carved out cattle empires now watched their dream of endless prosperity die. When the fall roundup was over, they laid off half of the working cowboys, sending them packing instead of welcoming them to winter at their old spreads. Meanwhile, settlers were building homes on government land the cattlemen had assumed was theirs by right of occupation. Some cowboys, either out of work or looking to build small spreads of their own, also filed claims on the public land. If the barons were unhappy about the influx of settlers, they were apoplectic over the small ranchers’ practice of branding mavericks to grow their small herds.
The practice of “mavericking” had drifted up the trail from Texas with the early herds. To many the unbranded cattle were public property, available to the first man with a long rope and a hot iron. To the WSGA barons, however, there was no question who owned the stock. In 1884 the association pushed through legislation called the Maverick Law, which stated that mavericks could only be sold at auction to members of the WSGA. The association further stipulated that cattle belonging to outfits with “rustlers’ brands and… stray brands for which there are no known owners” would be confiscated and auctioned as mavericks. It went on to blacklist any cowboys who had the temerity to run their own cattle, barring them from the WSGA roundup. If a nonmember cowboy branded a single maverick, he was labeled a rustler. With no room to maneuver, some cowboys simply gave up; others defied the association and continued to grow their own small outfits. Still others did elect to supplement their herds by stealing the cattle of their wealthy neighbors.
In 1888 Champion was working as wagon boss for one of the big outfits, and he and his foreman hired on four men who had been blacklisted by the association. They did this knowing it could cost them their jobs, and it did. Ultimately, Champion put together his own small herd of some 140 cattle, and in so doing was branded a rustler by his former employer. In the four years that followed, the barons lynched a settler couple for their water rights and ambushed two small ranchers. When the law proved impotent, the member ranchers of the WSGA knew they could get away with murder. The association members decided to do away with all those who opposed their control in one fell swoop; they would invade Johnson County—that part of Wyoming they saw as the most resistant—and simply kill everyone they declared an enemy. To accomplish this, they sent for Texans who had no scruples about pulling a trigger for money.
Their action was clearly illegal. According to the state constitution, “[No] armed body…shall ever be brought into this state for the suppression of domestic violence.” Acting Governor Amos Barber, Wyoming’s second governor after it joined the Union in 1890, effectively eliminated this consideration by simply ordering the Wyoming National Guard not to interfere. He also induced his friend Dr. Charles Penrose to accompany the invasion force as surgeon. The barons assembled a war chest in excess of $100,000 to arm and equip the expedition. And in April 1892, with the support of both senators, various U.S. marshals, mayors and judges, Governor Barber and ex-Territorial Governor George W. Baxter, and with the army neutralized, they got under way. First by special train from Cheyenne to Casper, and then by wagons and horses toward Johnson County and the target city of Buffalo, they undertook the unthinkable: an armed invasion of a free county of the United States. Death list in hand, their first stop was Nate Champion’s KC Ranch.
Trapped in the KC cabin, Champion didn’t lack for firepower; he had Ray’s and the trappers’ weapons, as well as his own .45 Colt and Winchester carbine. But he realized the gravity of his situation; his partner lay dying, and he was beset by an unknown number of attackers who clearly weren’t interested in letting him surrender. Then, remarkably, he took up a pencil and a small tally book and began to log the day’s events:
Me and Nick Ray was getting breakfast when the attack took place. Two men here with us—Bill Jones and another man. The old man went after water and did not come back. His friend went out to see what was the matter, and he did not come back. Nick started out, and I told him to look out, that I thought there was someone at the stable and would not let them come back.
Champion knew from the severity of his partner’s wounds that Ray’s condition was hopeless: “Nick is shot but not dead yet. He is awful sick. I must go and wait on him.” As he wrote, his attackers fired continuously at the cabin, and from time to time he returned their fire. His shooting was accurate. One of the gunmen later recalled: “If a man was exposed for a second, a bullet quickly whistled in his direction from the shattered window frame of the house.”
The day passed slowly for Champion. “It is now about two hours since the first shot,” he wrote. “Nick is still alive.” He was now well aware of the extent of the operation outside his cabin. “They are still shooting and are all around the house. Boys, there is bullets coming in like hail. Them fellows is in such shape I can’t get at them. They are shooting from the stable and river and back of the house.”
Nick Ray didn’t linger long. In a short while Champion wrote: “Nick is dead. He died about 9 o’clock.” Meanwhile, the men down at the stable stripped and split some of the corral poles and built a fire for warmth. Champion, seeing the smoke, mistakenly assumed they had fired the building. Fire was the one thing against which he had no defense, and taking stock of his situation, he matter-of-factly wrote, “I don’t think they intend to let me get away this time.”
The invaders had indeed grown frustrated with their failure to kill this lone defender. They held a council of war and decided to burn him out, sending four of their number to a nearby ranch for a wagonload of hay. There was a lull in the shooting, and Champion continued his journal:
It is now about noon. There is someone at the stable yet; they are throwing a rope out at the door and drawing it back. I guess it is to draw me out. I wish that duck would get out further so I could get a shot at him. Boys, I don’t know what they have done with them two fellows that staid [sic] here last night.
And then, with his partner lying dead nearby and an army of men seeking his own death, for the first and only time during this terrifying day Champion expressed his fear:
Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once.
Around midafternoon a wagon and outrider appeared on the road, heading north toward the bridge. The attackers were caught off guard, as local rancher O.H. “Jack” Flagg and his 17-year-old stepson drew closer. Flagg, considered by the invaders “the most notorious rustler in the county,” figured prominently on the death list, but the Texans didn’t know him by sight. Some of them finally opened fire when Flagg and stepson thundered over the bridge toward Buffalo, and seven gave chase briefly before returning to the siege. Flagg’s stepson cut the wagon traces to free one of the draft horses (the other had been wounded), and the two men rode off to raise the alarm. The invaders had lost the crucial element of surprise.
Nate Champion knew Flagg well as a friend and sometime wagon boss but didn’t recognize him at that distance. From his limited vantage point, he saw only the beginning of the attack on the wagon:
It was about 3 o’clock now. There was a man in a buckboard and one on horseback just passed. They fired on them as they went by, I don’t know if they killed them or not. I have seen lots of men come out on horses on the other side of the river and take after them. I shot at the men in the stable just now. Don’t know if I got any or not. I must go and look out again.
Champion had no illusions about how the day would end. These men wouldn’t move on while he remained alive. Rescue seemed impossible. Even if the two men on the bridge had managed to reach Buffalo, it was several hours and a good 60 miles each way before help could arrive. There was nothing he could do except postpone the inevitable. He had come to take comfort in the simple act of putting his thoughts and observations on paper:
It don’t look as if there is much show of my getting away. I see 12 or 15 men. …I hope they did not catch them fellows that run over the bridge toward Smith’s. They are shooting at the house now. If I had a pair of glasses, I believe I would know some of those men.
He would indeed. Although the Texas gunmen were mostly strangers to him, he’d have recognized the handful of association cattlemen who had blacklisted him from their roundup and labeled him a rustler. And Frank Canton, co-leader of the bunch, the sometime lawman, sometime outlaw who had lost his rifle while trying to ambush Champion months earlier. It was Canton’s own prized model 1886 .38-56 Winchester that Champion now used to fire back at him (see “Guns of the West,” P. 66). The firing outside picked up. “They are coming back,” Nate hastily wrote. “I’ve got to look out.”
Around 4 p.m., during another brief lull in the shooting, Nate heard the sound he’d been dreading:
Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if I am alive.
But his attackers had no intention of waiting for nightfall. With Flagg’s abandoned wagon the frustrated attackers now had the means to accomplish through flame what thousands of rounds and many wasted hours had failed to achieve. The men at the stable fashioned the wagon into a massive rolling torch, filled with alternating layers of hay and pitch pine posts from the corral. Five men pushed it across the 75 yards of open ground while riflemen fired methodically at the windows to keep Champion down. With sinking heart, Nate wrote: “Shooting again. I think they will fire the house this time.”
The invaders rammed the wagon up against the cabin and set it alight. In a short time the roof caught, and soon the milled pine logs of the squat four-room cabin were ablaze. Smoke poured from the cracks and windows. As nearly five dozen men prepared to cut down their quarry, Champion hastily made his final entry: “The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.” For the last time in his life, the cowboy signed his name—“Nathan D. Champion”— and tucked the little journal into his vest pocket.
With the cabin filling with smoke, Champion crawled to the storage dugout off the kitchen, the only part of the small log building not ablaze. The cold drizzle had turned to snow, and the wind was carrying the dark smoke toward the ravine some 100 yards to the south; it was in that direction he’d make his run. It was the best of the bad choices, but at least the smoke afforded some cover. As the roof collapsed, he slipped his Colt into his waistband, levered a round into the Winchester’s chamber and—to the accompanying cries of “There he goes!”— bolted from the burning cabin. Sprinting through the smoke in his stocking feet as round after round struck all around him, Champion remained miraculously untouched. He ran into the mouth of the sheltering ravine—and straight into the rifle muzzles of two of the six Texas gunmen hidden there since early morning. Champion brought up his carbine and triggered one round, which went wild as a slug tore into his left arm, smashing the elbow. As the rifle fell from his hand, another slug caught him flush in the chest, staggering him backward as more men came on the run. Hit by 10 rounds in all, he was dead before he hit the ground.
Someone took Champion’s .45 from his waistband. Frank Canton unceremoniously stepped up, reclaimed his own carbine and delivered a grudging tribute: “He came out fighting and died game.” A reporter who had accompanied the expedition was given the little journal —now bloodstained and holed by a bullet—and ordered to place a crudely lettered placard on Champion’s chest. It read, CATTLE THIEVES, BEWARE!
The KC siege was over; the invaders slowly walked away, leaving Nate Champion’s body, rough sign pinned to his vest, to the softly falling snow. He had made them earn their $5-a-day wage and $50-a-head bounty, wounding three of them and keeping the others at bay for several hours. And by giving the citizens of Buffalo time to mount an armed resistance to the cattle barons and their hired killers, he had stopped the Johnson County Invasion dead in its tracks.
Having lost a crucial day— and the element of surprise —the hired guns resumed their march from the KC toward Buffalo, 60 miles to the north. Cold and exhausted, the leaders were bickering when the men arrived at the TA Ranch, some 14 miles south of town. The alarm had been sounded in Buffalo, and a well-armed force of angry townsmen was riding out to meet them. Alerted to its approach, the invaders decided to hole up at the TA, where they fortified the house and barn, dug defensive trenches and erected breastworks. Suddenly, the boot was on the other foot.
The Buffalo contingent, led by Sheriff William G. “Red” Angus, sought help from the local troops, but the Wyoming National Guard had orders from Governor Barber, himself a WSGA member, not to assist the townspeople. Undeterred, Angus marched his citizen army to the TA, where they surrounded the buildings, took up positions and settled in for a siege.
Within two days the force had swelled to 300 men. By now the citizens had found the bullet-riddled body of Nick Champion and the charred trunk that had been Nick Ray, and they were in a killing frame of mind. A local blacksmith constructed what accounts alternately referred to as a “go-devil” or “ark of safety,” comprising two Studebaker wagons capped by a log breastwork wide enough to shield more than a dozen men. Meanwhile, morale among the besieged invaders was low and sinking further.
The townspeople prepared their assault, rolling the go-devil to within 200 feet of the TA barn, but that’s as far as it would ever go. In a scene reminiscent of early Westerns, 107 cavalrymen— under direct orders from U.S. President Benjamin Harrison—rode in on April 13 and ordered the immediate cessation of hostilities. This time, however, they were rescuing the bad guys. The invaders were allowed to come out under a flag of truce and surrender to the military—a serious breach of civil law. During the course of their “incarceration”—first at Fort McKinney, near Buffalo, then at Fort D.A. Russell, in Cheyenne—they were feted by the governor and the cattle barons, given commemorative rings, allowed to tear up the local whorehouse and saloons and treated more as conquering heroes than murdering felons. Some of the barons gave each other silver loving cups, bearing such inscriptions as, IN GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF UNTIRING DEVOTION ON OUR BEHALF DURING THE TRYING TIME OF THE WYOMING INVASION OF 1892.
On Friday, April 15—nearly a week after the siege at the KC cabin—Buffalo held funerals for Nate Champion and Nick Ray. The next day a coroner’s jury declared the deaths of the two men premeditated murder (see sidebar at left) and named several of the invaders, including Frank Canton, as the killers. It was hoped and assumed by many in and around Johnson County that the invaders and the arrogant cattle barons who had hired them would face a rope. However, the WSGA was not about to let that happen. The association bigwigs brought to bear their considerable political influence; not only would the assassins not hang, Johnson County would bankrupt itself in the attempt. Gradually, the Texans slipped away and went home, but not before they were paid their $150-per-month wages, plus the $100 bounties for the lives of Champion and Ray. The barons returned to their estates, unimpeded by due process. Sadly, infuriatingly, no one was ever convicted or punished for these killings, or for the earlier hangings of Ella “Cattle Kate” Watson, Jim Averill or rancher Tom Waggoner, or for the bushwhack murders of Orley E. “Ranger” Jones and John A. Tisdale. Everyone knew who had committed the crimes; no one could prove it.
Many invaders in the short Johnson County War, including Frank Canton, went on to long careers in law enforcement and put the whole affair behind them. Not surprising, a number of the Texas gunmen met violent ends. George Tucker later admitted: “We were in Wyoming as paid assassins of the big ranchers. We were brought there to murder men in violation of the law. Let no one mislead you by saying that we had the law on our side—we had the politics and the money, but not the law. We were not convicted of our crimes because we had the politics and the money with us.” And how much bloodier their crimes would have been had it not been for Nate Champion’s desperate, heroic stand.
Ron Soodalter is a regular columnist for America’s Civil War and has written for otherWeider History Group publications. He is the co-author of The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today (2009). Suggested for further reading: Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County, by John W. Davis; The Johnson County War, by Bill O’Neal; and A Review of the Cattle Business in Johnson County, Wyoming, Since 1882; and the Causes That Led to the Recent Invasion, by Oscar Hite “Jack” Flagg.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.