Friday, September 22, 2017

125th Anniversary of the Johnson County War

A few months ago I was contacted by Earl Madsen, owner of the historic TA Ranch outside Buffalo, Wyoming. Earl explained to me his plans to commemorate the West's most notable range war during its 125th anniversary year. The Wyoming conflict between large ranchers and small homesteaders came to a head in 1892. I wrote an account, The Johnson County War, which won the 2005 Book of the Year Award of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawmen History. During my research period, Karon and I stayed on two or three occasions at the TA, which played a central role in the climax of the Johnson County War. So when Earl asked me to come to Wyoming to represent Texas at the 125th Anniversary of the Johnson County War, I eagerly accepted his invitation.

With Earl Madsen, owner of the TA Ranch
I felt the same way about participating in this anniversary as I had when asked why, as a Texan, was I writing about a major Wyoming event? I always replied that a Texas cowboy (Nate Champion) was the great hero of the range war. A Texas fugitive (Joe Horner) escaped custody in the Lone Star State and, under an assumed name (Frank Canton) came to Wyoming, where he was a feared assassin during the Johnson County War. And wealthy cattlemen hired more than a score of gunmen from Texas to try to impose their will in Johnson County. Therefore it seemed quite appropriate for a Texan to write about and to speak about Wyoming's Johnson County War.

Heroic statue of Nate Champion, by sculptor Mike Thomas
Statue of Frank Canton
Statue of rustler about to be apprehended by Frank Canton
I flew into Billings, Montana, on Thursday, September 14, and rented a vehicle for the beautiful drive to Buffalo. I arrived at the TA late in the afternoon, just as Earl and his gracious wife, Barb, were beginning to host a dinner for the participants in the next day's events. Earl had asked me to moderate a two-hour panel, to be held from 10 to 12 the next day, Friday, September 15. He assembled a stellar panel, featuring former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson and Alan's older brother, Peter, a prominent college administrator and a Wyoming legislator. Alan and Pete's father, Milward Simpson, was governor of Wyoming from 1955 until 1959. Other panelists included John W. Davis, Wyoming attorney who wrote Wyoming Range War, focusing upon the legal machinations of the Johnson County War; Bill Markley, writer for True West and Wild West magazines, and a re-enactor in such motion pictures as Dances With Wolves and Gettysburg; Tim Slosser, English author of More Than Cowboys and Out West, and producer of more than a dozen documentaries about the American West for the BBC and National Geographic; and Jim McGagna, Executive Director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, which played a crucial role in the Johnson County War. Also present was Sylvia Bruner, Director of Buffalo's Jim Gatchell Museum, a major sponsor of the event.

With Sylvia Bruner, Director of the Gatchell Museum
On Friday morning, after an excellent breakfast at the TA, I drove into Buffalo early to visit with the crowd gathering at the Civic Center. I renewed many acquaintances with history-minded friends who had helped me put together my book. There was a film crew present, headed by Tim Hoch, who is hoping to develop a documentary. An audience of 120 assembled for the panel discussion, and the two hours flew by rapidly. Following a Question and Answer period, we were treated to a catered lunch by Buffalo's Sagebrush Café. During and after lunch we were approached by numerous guests who wanted to ask further questions and who asked for inscriptions in books they had just purchased. On Friday evening a dinner was held at the Civic Center, featuring several presenters who were descendants of participants in the Johnson County War.

Bill Markley at the Speakers' Stand
Tom Hoch, head of the film crew
Earl Madsen acquired Frank Canton's 3-room cabin and moved it to the TA, where Karon and I were the first to stay there.
The Saturday highlight was a re-enactment at the TA Ranch of the climactic events of the two-day siege by 400 townspeople of more than 50 "Invaders" of Johnson County, including 20-odd Texas gunmen. For two days the Invaders, who already had killed accused rustlers Nate Champion and Nick Ray at the KC Ranch, 40 miles south of Buffalo, forted up at the TA while angry citizens besieged the ranch with rifle fire. Townspeople seized three supply wagons of the Invaders, firing their own ammunition at the Invaders. The chief defense points were the TA's log cabin and barn, as well as a redoubt hastily constructed on a hill.

Tourists beginning a wagon tour of the TA
The historic TA Ranch cabin
The most famous barn in the West
Townspeople fashioned a "Go-Devil" from two of the confiscated wagons, lashing the vehicles together with protective planking in front. On the third morning of the siege citizens intended to advance behind the Go-Devil, but before this assault could be made three troops of cavalry from Fort McKinney, located two miles west of Buffalo, arrived to take the Invaders into military custody. The dramatic arrival of the U.S. Cavalry averted a bloodbath, and months of legal maneuvers followed.

Filming a scene at the barn
Earl Madsen with cavalry re-enactors
Part of the crowd preparing to watch the re-enactment
 The Johnson County War later was memorialized by such classic novels and movies as The Virginian and Shane, along with numerous non-fiction books and TV documentaries. Buffalo-based sculptor Mike Thomas executed statues of Nate Champion and Frank Canton which adorn the Main Street of Buffalo.

On Saturday afternoon the re-enactors and film crew rehearsed seven scenes, and this dress rehearsal offered the best opportunity for photographs. Although the temperature dropped into the 30s and there was a light mist, a large crowd assembled for the five o'clock re-enactment. Certainly it was thrilling to view a re-enactment at the very site where a major gun battle exploded 125 years ago.     

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