Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bathtime Epiphany on Wyoming's 1%, The Johnson County War, and Liz Cheney

Cheyenne Cattle Barons and Gunmen Arrested in Johnson County War

In my parent’s basement bathroom, across from the windowless room my sons and father refer to as “The Man Cave” such that I’ve been denied entry and cannot describe except to say that it smells like mothballs, is a large leather bound book about gunfighters of the old west on display near the tub and toilet presumably for ready reading.  I am not sure what provoked me to pick up this book, or what made me forget that apparently a score of years ago I picked it up before and colored all over the inside.  Still, I’ve been reading it, during my occasional time spent hiding in bath time bubbles from hellion children who’ve found safari hats and cowboy things in the cave across the hall while staying with the grandparents.
While reading this book, I’ve become a little more in tune with the history of America’s cowboy culture.  I mean, it’s not just about any given block buster in the theater right now… I won’t even bother to name one.  It’s about every one of those cowboys we all remember from the fictional Adam Cartwright to the very real Billy the Kid.  Those guys literally shaped America with their revolvers.  Some of them were heroes, but more often than not, even ‘lawmen’ like Wyatt Earp were nothing but regular human beings with both good and bad traits, with shady and honorably history. 
I remember the story my grandmother tells of her grandmother going to school in Deadwood South Dakota during a time when Calamity Jane walked the boardwalks and dusty streets.  Having grown up with a pair of pink pearl handled cap gun revolvers, I expected a fabulous tale about this rowdy woman, but all I got, a hundred years give or take a score, down the line was that she wore long black dresses and she spoke crudly so my Great Grandmother, then a school girl, was told to avoid her.  That’s it.  The infamous Calamity Jane wore black and may have cussed.  That’s all I’ve got to report, and you, my faithful reader had better be thankful I twenty questioned my Granny for that much.
The Wild West, I think, was both more and less wild than we imagine.  In all cases it was a struggle for survival and independence and sanity in a place where there was nothing defined.  A man like Wyatt Earp might be both lawman and criminal.  A woman like Jane might be both calamity and lady. 
These things were among those that I pieced together while reading that leather bound book in the tub across from the man cave, but they weren’t the most important to me.  It wasn’t till I reached the last chapter that I hit the full on state of euphoric epiphany.
The final chapter, my friends, was about an event that up till now I’ve regarded as nothing more than my least favorite western movie, The Johnson County War.  Until I read about that war, I didn’t really understand what it meant, and since you’ve come along with me this far I’m going to explain it to you.  See in the late 1800’s in Wyoming, we weren’t even a state yet, and we had these rich men in Cheyenne who had figured out that if they let a whole bunch of cows out on the range and then gathered them up later after they had babies and got fat eating prairie, they could ship them back east on trains and make all kinds of money on selling steak.  It was a great plan. 
The problem is that a few years in they started to figure out that the cows weren’t getting fatter and sometimes the cows died in the fierce blizzards or droughts.  Of course, by then, folks back east had become big fans of hamburger and steak and easy profit.  So had the men in Cheyenne who didn’t want to take responsibility for the fact that it was going to take more work to keep cows alive in Wyoming than they thought. 
The solution was to form a closed group called The Wyoming Stock Growers Association that ignored the problem of tough terrain and climate and instead made the assumption that sheep were either stealing the food from the mouths of the cattle or that small ranchers were stealing cattle from the association.  They made it so that any cowboy who worked hard and got enough together to own his own cattle was automatically an assumed thief.  They called all independent ranchers of this type “Rustlers”.
So, eventually we’ve got a group of hardworking citizenry who can’t live or survive through hard work because the very definition of that hard work has been defined by this group of rich barons in Cheyenne as thievery.  We’ve got rich barons who are desperate to stay that way and hate the regular hard working folk for making a go of it by actually investing labor and time and energy and sweat and blood.  In Wyoming, from my personal observation, it seems to me that the cattle barons could have saved us all a lot of heartache had they stopped right here and learned something.  More cows live if you invest time and labor and energy and sweat and blood than if you turn them loose on the prairie.  It’s just how the hamburger crumbles.
But the Barons didn’t figure that out.  Instead they blamed the sheepherders and the cowboys, whom they called Rustlers.  They hired men to kill accused rustlers under vague titles like Stock Detectives.  In Johnson County, small ranchers formed a rival organization – the Northern Wyoming Farmer’s and Stock Growers Association which challenged the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association’s rules in a flat out rebellion.

I was shocked as I read the description of the plan the Cheyenne Barons came up with to exterminate the Rustlers.:

                It was at this point that the members of the Cheyenne Club fashioned their plot.  Over their Cuban cigars and Rum St. Cruz, they determined to wipe out the competing organization and exterminate the “rustlers.”  Their plan was simple, but drastic. First, recruit a force of gunfighters from outside the state to descend on Johnson County. Next, cut all telegraph wires that linked the county to the rest of the state, thus isolating the citizenry when the invasion got underway.  Next, take over the town of Buffalo – the county seat- and assassinate the sheriff, his deputies, and the three county commissioners, thereby stripping the populace of leadership.  And finally, dispose of all the men on a “dead list” drawn up by WSGA’s cattle detectives – a list that, by one estimate included 70 names.”

The book detailed the process right down to the way the whole charade was paid for:

While the gunfighter’s were gathering, two stockmen left Cheyenne for Colorado to buy horses for the expedition lest suspicion be aroused by a roundup of too many horses from their own ranches. In Cheyenne, other cattlemen bought three heavy freight wagons and placed orders for tents, bedding, guns, pistols, and ammunition.  To cover the mounting costs, 100 members of the WSGA put up $1000 each.  On April 5, 1892, a special Pullman car at Denver, with the Texas gunfighters aboard, started for Cheyenne.  The $100,000 invasion was launched.”

After a good start killing several men, the cattle barons soon found themselves surrounded by the sheriff and his men.  During several days of fighting, both sides found it advantageous for them to cut the telegraph wires, but late on the second day word reached the Governor from the citizenry of Buffalo stating that an illegal armed force had invaded Johnson county and that the invaders had killed two settlers and were resisting arrest by the sheriff who requested troops from Fort McKinney “to assist in putting down rebellion.” Barber did not answer these pleas for help.
He waited for word from his friends, the cattle barons.  When later that day a telegram got through from a rider who slipped through the sheriff’s barricade and rode 100 miles to the next county, Barber immediately wired the President asking for troops to quell an “insurrection.”  By the next morning troops were on the way and soon thereafter the cattlemen agreed to surrender to the military, whereupon the cattlemen and their gunfighters from Texas were placed under military arrest and led back to Fort McKinney. 
I think that this moment, when the federal government took custody of those men is a turning point in the minds of many in Wyoming.  Think of how it felt to be those hardworking families in Johnson County.  You were just attacked and nearly killed by the rich barons of Cheyenne, and rescued by the federal government.  Your son or brother or husband might be dead and if he is, he died for trying to labor to feed his family.    When you watch those soldiers haul off with the offenders of this grave injustice, you’ve got a lot of hurt and righteous anger in your heart and you are trusting the federal government to make it right.
But that isn’t what happened.
The men who were arrested that day went to Fort McKinney and then on to a change of venue to Cheyenne where for 10 weeks the prisoners were held at Fort Russell.  The Johnson County treasury was billed 100 dollars per day for the confinement of each man till it went bankrupt.  Eventually a judge turned every man loose without bond and later still the Johnson County authorities dropped the charges against the stockmen and their hired guns.  Justice was never served on a single one of the rich barons of Cheyenne or the gunmen that they hired from Texas.

Still, think of it from their wrong but righteous feeling perspectives.  They were held for 70 days in federal prison and never convicted.  For a rich man this is a scar that he will never forget.  He will never forgive the federal government for holding him in barracks with regular hired hands. 
Now, a century and more later, we’ve got this strange thing that happens in Wyoming.  The rich hate the poor with thinly veiled “free grazer” mentality.  The poor feel a shame they have not earned.  Both parties hate the federal government. 
Nothing has changed. 
The injustice of what happened in Johnson County was never resolved and it hangs like a foul stench in the air.  It makes rich men like Dick Cheney remember tried and true techniques.  They go to Texas and find dummies that they can pay and boss around to shoot up places they’ve never been.  In 1892 it was Johnson County.   In 2002 it was Iraq.  What’s the difference? 
Liz Cheney is on that faux news channel everyday spouting her mouth off about “free loaders” and I am just about sick of it.  I watch my husband leave every morning before it gets light, and return every night after dark and I cannot imagine he’s a whole lot different than those first “free grazers” who worked day and night to make something of nothing with labor and work and effort and blood and sweat in Johnson County.  Nor do I see a whole lot of difference between her or her husband and those men who sat only a few blocks from where I sit at this moment, smoking Cuban cigars and drinking fine rum while plotting to snub people like me and mine out - for profit.
The Johnson County War ain’t over.  Justice is a long time coming, but as far as I can see it, so long as a man and a woman can’t survive through hard work and righteous effort in Wyoming, it ain’t over and I’m not done fighting and you shouldn’t be either.
(quotes are excerpts from: The Gunfighters by the Editors of Time Life Books with text by Paul Trachtman copywrite 1976)


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