Magazine article Sunset

A War in Wyoming

Magazine article Sunset

A War in Wyoming

Article excerpt

In Johnson County, the West's most famous fight is not over yet

The TA Ranch barn is weathered to creosote brown and smells strongly of horses. So dark is the barn's interior that the shafts of sunlight pouring in seem like apparitions. The light slants in through holes in the barn siding. More than 100 years ago, men augered out these holes, pushed the barrels of their Winchesters through, and fired on the citizens of Johnson County, Wyoming.

"You treasure your independence," says Earl Madsen, explaining how one of the West's most famous battles took place on the ranch he now owns. "And you go up against power you can't do anything with."

Power and independence. Those were what the Johnson County War was about. Or, to put it another way, it was about who deserved to own the West. The war was fought here, where Crazy Woman Creek curves beneath the Bighorn Mountains, in the spring of 1892. On one side were the big ranchers, the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association. On the other were the small ranchers, the cowboys who ran a few head of cattle on the open range.

Stock growers knew the small ranchers were rustling their cattle. The small ranchers knew the stock growers were pushing them into bankruptcy. Neither side had a monopoly on virtue. But it was the stock growers-many of them scions of wealthy Eastern families-who slid into vigilantism. They staged a lynching and an assassination or two. Then, with the tacit approval of the state government, they led a pack of mercenaries into Johnson County, intent on killing their opponents. Says Wyoming historian Ken Welshimer, "You had a state making war on its own people."

But Johnson County got word of the invasion. Residents gathered in Buffalo, the county seat. They rode south to surround the invaders, who were holed up at the TA Ranch.

On the fourth day of shooting, the invaders surrendered. The big guys lost: as Welshimer says, "Johnson County became a county of small outfits."

That was one legacy. The other was literary. In 1902, Owen Wister, a Philadelphian who had spent time in Johnson County, wrote a novel set in the days leading up to the war. He called his book The Virginian. It sold millions. Nearly a half-century later, an ex-newspaperman named Jack Schaefer published another novel about the war. …

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