Once again into the Old West to view a travesty of Justice. There were many instances in the west where people who deserved to die often met their death at the hands of a lynch mob. However the victims of the following chapter were innocent of any wrong doing.
Ellen Liddy Watson was born in Ontario,Canada. she was reputed to have a charming Celtic brogue, be large boned and six foot two tall. Ella was intelligent and a wonderful cook. Her parent’s emigrated to Lebanon, Kansas to homestead. At 18 she married a neighbor, who was prone to drink, and abused her. After one particular beating with a horse whip, Ella fled to her family’s farm. Finding work for a short time on a adjacent farm as a cook . She them moved about Kanasa for awhile finally settling in the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska. Her estranged husband found her there, she filled for divorce and Ella moved to Denver, then to Cheyenne, Wyoming. finally moving on to the budding town of Rawlings, where she secured work as a cook at the plush Rawling’s House..
She met Jim Averell a surveyor, who had a homestead above the Sweetwater River. He was articulate, intelligent, well dressed and above all, a gentleman. He had been born not much more than 150 miles from Ella’s birthplace. They struck up a warm friendship immediately. He had been married, but his wife had died in premature childbirth. Shortly Jim and Ella fell in love. Jim kept telling Ella of his homestead and dreams. He had started a road ranch and general store on his homestead, and invited Ella to join him there. If she came he said she could serve meals in the road ranch and charge fifty cents a plate and keep the money for her self. Marriage was discussed but they held off because Ella wanted to homestead also. If they married she would be ineligible to file, as the law stated only one to a family. It is believed that did actually marry at a Lander, 150 miles away under a assumed maiden name (Andrews), by a J.P. who did not know them. Ella filed on a adjacent homestead lot on Horse Creek. Jim helped Ella snake logs from the near by mountains and built a snug little one room cabin on it, sheltered by the cottonwood trees.
One big problem. A cattle baron named Albert Bothwell irrigated a hay meadow from the same creek but never thought anyone would homestead the land, let alone a “WOMAN”. He had thought he had complete control of the land. He had fenced in more than 60 miles of range illegally and wanted it all. He rode to Ella’s place and offered to buy her homestead. She refused saying she wanted the land much more than the money. He left was furious, and left empty handed.
Ella helped around Jim’s store and cooked meals for the visitors at fifty cents a plate. everyone declared her cooking fabulous! she was big hearted also more than once when another wife came down sick she cooked, and cleaned house and cared for children until they regained their health. she also foster mothered a 12 old waif who ran away from home, and another five-teen year old boy, both of whom did chores around Ella’s place. Jim’s sisters son came to visit from Wisconsin and helped around the store reported everyone seemed to like Ella.
One icy day in February a passing wagon train on the near by Oregon Trail paused at Jim’s store. A herd of 26 cattle in near starving condition was with the train. Ella saw a way into ranching and purchased the cattle for a dollar apiece. Some cowboys helped Ella drive them home to a fenced in pasture she had constructed. Bothwell had a conniption fit. He had cowboys post skull and crossbones posters on Ella’s and Jim’s doors. They were not intimidated, nobody would harm a woman. By summer Ella’s cattle were stronger and even some calving. Ella tried to register a brand but was turned down by the cattlemen’s association. She then purchased a brand from another rancher and filed it then branded her cattle.
The Wyoming stockmans associtation had passed a mavrick law that stated unbranded cattle on the open range could not be branded untill roundup. Then all mavricks were to be gathered and auctioned off to the highest bidder. This shut out the smaller stockmen as intended, as they could not out bid the bigger fish.
On the morning of July 29, 1889 during the neighborhood round up Bothwell struck. He sent word to the other cattlemen that Ella had rustled and branded some of their cows! Five rancher met with Bothwell and galloped to Ella’s place. There they saw what Bothwell wanted them to see. A small herd of freshly branded cattle. They tore down Ella’s fence and began driving the cattle off. Ella rushed to stop them. They surrounded her and forced her into a buckboard. A terrified Ella tried to explain her purchase of the cattle. Even telling them that Bothwell knew of the purchase to no avail, as he refuted her claim.
The self appointed posse headed to Jim’s place where they found him closing a gate. They forced him into the wagon and bound him along side Ella. When Jim asked to see the warrant they claimed to have, they showed him their guns and said they were all the warrant they needed. The group headed into the back country into a rocky area, where others could not see what they were up to. Meanwhile Ella’s ward’s raced to Jim’s store where they found a cowboy named Frank Buchanan. After the kids blurted out their story, Buchanan grabbed his six shooter and raced after the bunch. He soon came close to where the posse had stopped. He crept around the rocks above to see what was going on. He reported later he could hear them arguing and then observed them clustered around the wagon drawn up under a twisted pine tree.
Ella and Jim had been stood in the back of the wagon with lariat’s around their necks. Buchanan pulled his sixshooter and began firing, however the range was too great for a pistol and they returned fire with Winchesters. Suddenly Bothwell pushed Jim off the wagon. Another man rushed forward and pushed Ella off also. Now the story goes that the amateur executioners had not secured their arm well and had placed the lariats to close together on the same limb. Ella and Jim grappled with each other until they died and dangled with their bodies touching in death. With no way to help them Buchanan scrambled down and raced to alert the sheriff.
None of the lynchers were ever brought to justice. Witness were either murdered or disappeared or were brought off. Three Cheyenne newspapers, dominated by the wealthy cattle interest printed trumped up, ridiculous stories about Ella being a dirty whore and rustler, dispensing sexual favors for stolen cattle. Jim was painted as a pimp and murderous paramour. Nothing was further from the truth, the facts were there for those who were interested, but the world loves a good dirty story. Ella was just 28 and Jim barely turned 37.
Bothwell got his land and controll of the meadows as he planned. Some members of the posse later claimed that they thought they were just going to scare Ella into leaving the country. Maybe it’s wishfull thinking bur legend states Bothwell later went insane in his later years.
Once again all this material is available either in printed form or on the Internet.
The powerful cattleman’s association’s of Wyoming were some of the most ruthless in the history of the old west. The Johnson County Range War of Wymoing was one of the most bloody recorded, finally requiring government intervention (mostly on the side of the powerful cattle barons). A number of fanciful Hollywood epic’s have been made based on it. One of sweeping grander is ” Heaven’s Gate” staring Kris Kristofferson, and a large cast, which is a highly fictionalised portrayal with little resemblance to actual facts. Ella is portrayed as a love interest to several leading figures, and as a prostitute who does indeed receive cattle as payment for her house of ill repute which employs several girls. One of the closest is Hallmark’s “The Johnson County War”, staring Tom Berringer. It is a lot closer to the truth but still made as entertainment rather than a factual history. The powerful tried to hog the entire west and shut out the smaller people who had every right to be there by law. Maybe I’ll do a little more research on homesteading and give a report on that later on.
Untill I saddle up again, so long for now.