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A Wyoming robber later wielded the six-shooter.

On April 9, 1892, cowboy and small rancher Nate Champion made a stand against members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) and their hired killers, who had labeled him a rustler and targeted him for death. Trapped inside his cabin on the KC Ranch, some 60 miles from Buffalo, Wyo., Champion faced stiffer than 50-to-1 odds after the gunmen who had surrounded him captured his two guests and shot down his ranching partner, Nick Ray. To defend himself Champion had a .45 Colt Single Action Army and an 1886 Winchester rifle, as well as the weapons left behind by Ray and their guests, trappers Bill Jones and William Walker. Nate managed to wound three of his assailants, and his fine marksmanship kept the rest of them at bay for many hours before they burned him out (see Johnson County War feature, P. 28). To date, museum collections hold three weapons—two rifles and a revolver— reputed to have belonged to Champion. I was directly involved in researching one’s provenance, and it taught me to look closely—and then look again—at any weapon with a claim to history.

A Colt Nate Might Have Owned

In the spring of 1974 the Littleton (Colo.) Historical Museum hired me as curator of programs. I was to accession (officially document) its collection. The objects sat on open shelves, and my job was to clean, number and photograph the items and then seal each in a clear plastic bag and return it to a shelf.

One day, as I worked my way down the rows of dusty gray metal shelves, I pulled down the museum’s only vintage sidearm—an early black-powder Colt .45 Single Action Army revolver in a well-used, double-loop holster. The pistol had a 7 ½-inch barrel and well-worn walnut grips (probably bunkhouse-made) and lacked its original finish. Filed across the backstrap were three deep grooves— probably the work of a bored, snowbound cowboy with time on his hands. The city had held this particular Colt for decades, and when it opened the museum in 1970, the gun was among the first items placed in the collection.

It seemed an unexceptional piece from a collector’s standpoint, and I expected little as I began to clean it. Securing the grips were two crude hardware screws and nuts; when I removed them, a yellowed piece of paper fell out, on one side of which was scrawled in pencil, NATE CHAMPION, 1874, and on the other, TAKEN FROM MONTE MILLER IN HOLD UP AT SHOSHONE BY SHERIFF THOMPSON, 1931. I later found out that James W. “Jimmy” Thompson served as Fremont County sheriff from January 1931 through December 1935.

After photographing and recording the note, I contacted the Colt historian in Hartford, Conn., and found that the gun, Serial No. 28881, had been manufactured in 1876 and shipped to Chicago in 1877. Beyond that the trail grew cold.

It’s known that after Champion’s death, his Colt wound up in the Cheyenne,Wyo., desk of WSGA Secretary Hiram B. Ijams, one of the key organizers of the Johnson County Invasion (as the Johnson County War is sometimes called). Ijams died in the mid-1890s, and William C. Irvine, fellow cattleman and member of the invading army, went through his late friend’s desk and found the revolver. That paper trail ends there. This leaves a period of nearly four decades for a six-shooter to somehow make its way from Cheyenne to Shoshoni and wind up in the hands of a robber.

It’s a safe bet that Champion’s belt and holster burned in the cabin fire, along with Ray’s and the trappers’ weapons and gear. And being a man of pride and stature, it’s also reasonable to assume Nate had bought his rig from a high-end shop—F.A. Meanea, J.S. Collins or perhaps the Moran Brothers. However, there is nothing special about the museum’s unmarked rig, and despite its age and patina, it is clearly post-Champion. Also, the museum rig is right-handed; Nate was a southpaw.

So, is the six-shooter in the Littleton collection really his Colt? The fact that the date on the note predates the revolver’s manufacture by two years doesn’t help its case, though that’s an understandable mistake if the note was written years later. Perhaps documentation somewhere lists the serial number of Champion’s Colt; after all, someone recorded the serial numbers of the Johnson County invaders’ guns, and new information surfaces all the time. But unless such information does surface, we are left with yet another of history’s six-shooter conundrums.

A Rifle with a Strong Oral Tradition

Strong evidence suggests that Champion, in the course of repulsing an earlier attempt on his life, captured a .38-56 Model 1886 Winchester rifle belonging to would-be assassin Frank Canton. This was the rifle with which Champion made his desperate, doomed run from the burning cabin months later and which Canton reclaimed from Nate’s body. When an army of enraged locals later surrounded the Johnson County invaders at the TA Ranch, the trapped men surrendered to a contingent of U.S. cavalrymen and turned over their weapons. According to Moore family history, Lee Moore (a blacklisted cowboy and friend of Nate) spotted and nabbed the Winchester. He recognized it as having been in Champion’s possession and gave it to Dudley Champion, Nate’s brother. Dudley had Nate’s name stamped on one side of the barrel, Lee’s name on the other, and returned the gun to Moore as a gift. The Moores, who still ranch in the region, kept it for four generations.

What lends credence to the story is the history of the people involved. Both Lee Moore and the Champion brothers were born in Round Rock, Texas, a year or two apart. Lee came up the trail around the same time as Nate and Dudley, quite possibly with them, worked for some of the big Wyoming outfits and was blacklisted for mavericking, as were they. According to the family biography, Lee “was present at the TA Ranch, where the invaders were surrounded, and it was here that he took the rifle which belonged to Nate Champion from the invaders’ wagon. He gave this rifle to Nate’s brother, Dudley, who later gave it [back] to Lee to keep. Lee later gave it to his grandson, Lee, who has placed it in the [Wyoming] Pioneer [Memorial] Museum at Douglas.” The facts ring true. If any of Champion’s guns survive, in all likelihood this is one of them.

A Rifle of Questionable Provenance

The Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum of Buffalo, Wyo., has a Remington rifle also said to have belonged to Nate Champion. The weapon is a .40-70 Remington Hepburn No. 3 Sporting and Target Model, with a sawed-off octagonal barrel, blade sight and blued finish. The patent stamp reads OCT. 1879. A donor reportedly presented it to the museum in the 1970s, although the accession card lists no specific date. In fact, the only information on the card, aside from a description of the rifle, is the phrase “listed as being found in Kaycee.” The donor gave it to the museum with the verbal assertion it had belonged to Champion.

Back in the 1970s many museums were not as concerned with documentation and provenance as they are today. Therefore, it is not unusual that the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum’s Remington lacks either.The donor chose to remain anonymous and has most likely passed on, so there is no way to confirm the weapon’s pedigree. Aside from the patent date (which places it in the right timeframe) and the locale in which it was supposedly found, there is nothing here to plead the case for the Remington being a “Champion gun.” One must use the proverbial grain of salt in assigning the weapon any historical significance.

Most gun collectors want their old weapons to have belonged to the best and worst of the Wild West. And sometimes they do. Cole Younger’s revolver recently came up for auction, and a West Coast gun dealer owns a Colt .45 that belonged to one of the Johnson County hired killers. But just as often an old gun turns out to be nothing more than that—an old gun.


Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here