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The Right Side of History

 

For more than a century there has been a sort of a curse on Johnson County, Wyoming. Johnson County was the scene of a tragic and mythic conflict in 1892 between the big stockmen of the range cattle industry and—who, exactly? The big stockmen said their antagonists were rustlers, a criminal element that defied law and order on the range and had to be eliminated. The curse of Johnson County is that the public relations campaign by the stockmen, organized as the Wyoming Stock GrowersAssociation, has obscured what really happened in 1892.

The curse extends to many who have tried to tell the story of the Johnson County War. A witness to the events, Asa Shinn Mercer, wrote an account entitled The Banditti of the Plains, but it was generally unavailable until 1954, because the Wyoming Stock Growers Association sued to stop its distribution and destroyed nearly all copies. In 1980 Hollywood attempted an epic rendering of the story in the film Heaven’s Gate, a disastrous film. A TV movie called The Johnson County War, based on the novel Riders of Judgment by Frederick Manfred, also was undistinguished.

But then there is Shane, the 1953 film, based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, starring Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur. Alan Ladd as Shane, the gunslinger who rides into a local conflict between stockmen and settlers, gets himself on the right side of history when he takes the side of the abused settlers. His damaged-hero character is so appealing that I have a nephew named Shane, who is a wheat farmer and, well, a small-time cattleman.

Which I mention because it appears that the foes whom the big stockmen of Johnson County fought and defamed were, in fact, small-time cattlemen just trying to establish themselves as ranchers on the Wyoming range. A new book from University of Oklahoma Press tells the story, researched, for the first time, from grassroots sources in Johnson County. The book is Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County, and its author is John W. Davis, an attorney and historian from Worland, Wyoming.

What Davis does is get inside the everyday life of people in Johnson County, especially its county seat, Buffalo, in order to determine whether they really were the criminal element depicted by the stockmen. Examining the local newspapers, courthouse documents, and other local sources, Davis determines that although Buffalo had some of the disorder typical of any frontier town, by and large it was a respectable community. Law and order had not broken down, by any means.

What had happened was that following the bad weather and bad markets of the late 1880s, which had hit the open-range cattle industry hard, small-time cattlemen had taken up locations on the public lands, previously the exclusive domain of the big cattlemen, and commenced ranching. The big cattlemen controlled the roundups, however, and used that control to appropriate the cattle of the small operators. When they protested, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association sent in assassins to kill the trouble-makers.

This culminated in the famous invasion of Johnson County by an oddly mixed little army of rich stockmen and hired guns imported from Texas. They killed a couple of local ranchers, only to be themselves surrounded by a posse of citizens who were on the verge of wiping them out when federal troops arrived to stop the fighting. The stockmen escaped prosecution for their crimes because it proved impossible to empanel a jury to try them.

Range wars are the stuff of history up and down the plains, from Texas to Montana. The vigilantes of Montana led by Granville Stuart, the Dewey-Berry feud in Kansas, the prosecution of rancher Bartlett Richards in Nebraska-all such episodes deserve to be treated with the same attention to evidence as provided by author Davis for Johnson County. Sometimes it takes a long time for the full story to air out, even on the open plains.

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