John W. Davis, an attorney living in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin, has a passion for history, particularly that flavored with a bit of law, order and justice—proving the old adage, “Write what you know.” Davis’ maternal grandparents moved to the region in 1917 to grow sugar beets. His father arrived in 1932, taking a job as manager of the local lumberyard. Davis left the area long enough to attend college, earn a law degree and serve in the military. Then he returned home to begin a law practice and study history.
Davis has written two books about the town of Worland, Wyo., as well as A Vast Amount of Trouble, about the cattlemen raid on sheepherders at Spring Creek, and Goodbye, Judge Lynch, about another early law case in the basin. Now, after seven years of research and writing, comes Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).
The Johnson County War, also known as the Johnson County Invasion, has been fodder for many writers. The list of noteworthy participants includes cattlemen William C. Irvine and Major Frank Wolcott, leaders of the big ranchers; Nate Champion, James Averell, Ellen Watson and John Tisdale, small operators and victims of the raids; Wyoming Governor Amos Barber and U.S. Senators Joseph Carey and Francis E. Warren; and lawmen Frank Canton and William “Red” Angus. They capture Davis’ attention, but so do newspapermen such as Edwin A. Slack, Ed Towse, Joe DeBarthe and Asa Mercer, as wall as attorney Willis Van Devanter, who so skillfully manipulated the press, the courtroom and the court of public opinion about his clients, those wealthy cattlemen who launched the war/invasion. Davis recently took time to speak with Wild West about the range wars and his latest book.
‘The big cattlemen attacked Johnson County because officials there threatened the cattlemen with criminal prosecution’
What drew you to write about the Spring Creek Raid?
Growing up in Worland in the 1950s, the Spring Creek Raid was myth and legend and mystery all rolled up together; I was intensely curious about the event. Then, in 1990, I obtained the transcript of State v. Brink (the principal case coming out of the raid), which local lawyers presented as part of a Wyoming centennial project. That trial presentation sank the hook deep, and I wanted to learn the truth behind all that mystery and myth. I started digging and was very lucky, finding a trove of materials, so much that it gave me great latitude in the writing of A Vast Amount of Trouble.
The raid/trial had wide implications?
It stopped virtually all the sheep raids in Wyoming and was essentially the end of all organized vigilante action in northern Wyoming. I think the case of State v. Brink marked the end of the frontier in the Big Horn Basin. The basin finally grew up.
Then came Goodbye, Judge Lynch?
Yes. It is about the 1902 Tom Gorman murder (which produced a lynching raid on the Big Horn County jail in which three men were gunned down). In turn, these two books led to my biggest project, my new book about the Johnson County War.
Why was justice so slow in coming to the Big Horn Basin?
Different Western societies matured at different paces. Ranching and mining communities seemed to have the most trouble with lawlessness, and farming communities the least. All these places started with too many wild young men and too little law enforcement, and the real determinant of progress toward law and justice was how quickly farmers became the dominant group. In the Big Horn Basin, that didn’t happen until somewhere between 1905 and 1910, but it made all the difference. The jury in State v. Brink was a jury of farmers who didn’t approve of cowboy hijinks.
Of the people you researched and wrote about in A Vast Amount of Trouble and Goodbye, Judge Lynch, whom did you find the most fascinating?
George Saban, one of the leaders of the Spring Creek Raid, was truly an interesting person—a born leader and wholly admirable father, husband and rancher, but who harbored murderous tendencies. And then there is Maggie Gorman, wife of Tom Gorman (murdered by his brother). What man would not find a woman interesting who was so universally described as a beauty?
Who were just plain scoundrels?
Herbert Brink, the man who gunned down Joe Allemand when Allemand stumbled out of a burning sheep wagon as part of the Spring Creek Raid. Brink proclaimed: “It’s a hell of a time of a night to come out with your hands up.”
Also in that category is Jim Gorman, the man who sunk a hatchet into the back of his brother’s head. He was completely immature and self-centered.
What attracted you writing about the Johnson County War?
It’s got all the bells and whistles, especially from my standpoint. It took place mostly in my backyard (the eastern part of my county was part of Johnson County at the time of the invasion), it involved fascinating legal aspects, and it’s the greatest action story that ever happened in Wyoming, full of really good guys and really bad guys spread over a huge canvas.
How did you conduct your research?
I determined early that in order to learn the truth about this complicated, confused event, I had to dig deeper than anyone else. I believe I read every book, article and paper of any significance that has been written about the Johnson County War. I read every available issue of every newspaper published in Johnson County from the first issue (The Buffalo Echo, August 2, 1883) to middle 1895 (when I felt everything of importance had been mined). I also read the contents of every file in every Johnson County criminal case between 1882 and 1895. I felt that this background information allowed me to test and fairly consider every contention made by all the excited parties in 1891 through 1893, when all the wild stuff happened. Primary sources, such as newspapers and court documents, do have their shortcomings, but when these sources are considered together, they provide a dependable basis for accurate conclusions, far more reliable than the self-serving, biased, sometimes deliberately dishonest, sometimes hysterical utterances of the participants.
What new details did you uncover?
The most surprising thing to me was that the objective facts so frequently favored the same side in the conflict. I didn’t uncover any completely new material but did find key pieces of information seemingly hidden in plain sight. Because of my legal training and experience, I was able to ferret out the criminal jeopardy in which the big shots of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association were placed because of the failed attempt to kill Nate Champion on November 1, 1891, concluding that this criminal jeopardy was the big overlooked factor explaining the invasion. I found Robert DeArment’s book about Frank Canton (Alias Frank Canton) of enormous assistance in judging the value of Canton’s various declarations. I also found George Hufsmith’s Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate to be of great value, because it demonstrated so clearly the modus operandi of big Cheyenne newspapers owned by the cattlemen and thus told me how much weight to give their numerous one-sided articles.
Why was Joe DeBarthe placed on the cattlemen’s “kill list”?
DeBarthe was editor of The Buffalo Bulletin during 1891 and the first few months of 1892, and he vigorously supported the people of Johnson County in their dispute with the big cattlemen. His paper recommended prosecution of the cattlemen behind the 1891 assassinations and challenged all the wild stories coming out of Cheyenne and large city dailies.
Why Robert Foote?
It’s more difficult to know why Robert Foote was on the kill list. He was identified very early as an enemy of the Johnson County faction that supported the big cattlemen, a group including [Buffalo] Mayor Charles Burritt, Frank Canton and Fred Hesse. I think—and this is admittedly speculation—Foote provided a market for the sale of cattle by the small cattlemen. The big guys worked hard to push the little guys out of the cattle business; one of their strategies was to shut off markets to their small cattlemen competitors. Foote’s retail store bought some of the little guy’s cattle (which the big cattlemen always insisted were rustled cattle) and thus frustrated the actions of the big cattlemen to monopolize the cattle business in Johnson County. In compiling their list of men to be killed, the cattlemen painted with a broad brush, seeming to lump in everyone from Johnson County who had ever offended Frank Canton or Fred Hesse.
Why violence escalate in Johnson County—rather than, say, Converse or Natrona—and why did the big cattlemen target it for the invasion?
I think Johnson County became the primary focus of the big cattlemen (who were also mad at the little cattlemen in those other two counties) because of events having to do with Nate Champion. Some of the big cattlemen from southern Johnson County (Fred Hesse, John N. Tisdale) wanted Nate Champion killed. Their assassins failed to do that. Worse, one of their numbers was killed by Champion, and Johnson County filed the attempted murder case of State v. Elliott, which threatened both the remaining assassins and their employers (members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association).
I concluded in my book that the reason for the assassination of John A. Tisdale, and perhaps that of [Orley] “Ranger” Jones, was because these men had become witnesses in the attempted murder case. After these two December 1891 assassinations, the Johnson County authorities pushed hard for criminal prosecution of the murderers of Tisdale and Jones and continued with the attempted murder case. As time went on, these authorities were getting closer and closer to the big guys.
The big cattlemen attacked Johnson County because officials there threatened the cattlemen with criminal prosecution, and the cattlemen wanted to stop the attempted murder case against their employees. Too, Johnson County was where the witnesses against the employees resided. One of the main purposes of the invasion was to kill witnesses.
What effect did newspapers have on events leading up to the invasion?
Remember that in 1892 the big cattlemen owned two of the three largest dailies in Cheyenne. These dailies were the only Wyoming newspapers with the ability to undertake statewide coverage—except, to a lesser extent, the Laramie Boomerang—and they had great influence within the whole state.
The Cheyenne newspapers owned by the big cattleman (the Tribune and the Sun) emphatically pushed the cattlemen’s line, to the point that some stories seriously distorted facts and, thereby, provided cover for the big cattlemen’s violent actions.
What about the effect of newspapers after the invasion, during the trial period?
Right after the invasion, there were wars between Wyoming newspapers, primarily the cattlemen’s big Cheyenne newspapers vs. every other newspaper in Wyoming. The condemnation of the invasion by people outside Cheyenne was strong and visceral. The cattlemen’s Cheyenne newspapers, on the other hand, sought to present the invasion in the cattlemen’s terms (frequently presenting highly inaccurate facts). They stridently supported the cattlemen’s attempts to have martial law declared in Johnson County, and they attacked the prosecution of the big cattlemen in every way they could conceive. Too, the invasion quickly became a political matter, and the cattlemen’s Cheyenne papers were enlisted to support political supporters of the invaders, which meant support for the Wyoming Republican party.
I concluded that the cattlemen’s newspapers were highly successful in obscuring the real facts of the invasion and its causes. The Republicans got creamed in the 1892 election but, remarkably, in 1894 fought their way back to their former dominance, and a big contributor to that was the strong support of a few Wyoming newspapers.
What was it about the Wyoming cattlemen that led men like Joe Elliott, Frank Canton and, later, Tom Horn to take such bloody actions and then not inform on their employers?
Well, coincidentally, I’ve been doing a lot of Tom Horn work lately, so think I can comment about this in a reasonably knowledgeable way. Each of the men you mention was a very well paid employee. But more than that, they were highly prized by the cattlemen, who expended great cost and effort to protect them (which seemed to suffice to keep them quiet). The cattlemen were very rich and were certainly powerful. They could attract the services of men who were brutal and ruthless enough to be the kind of enforcers the cattlemen wanted. Within the Old West, there were plenty of men whose characters met the job qualifications.