photo: Will Grigg
War came to the Western Range that April, a conflict pitting the forces of order and respectability against a restive band of extremists accused of cheating the government of what it was due. The prohibitively stronger side consisted of regulatory agencies allied with powerful non-governmental organizations determined to control the land and expel small private interests who made productive use of it. The unyielding demands of the political elite were met with the unflinching defiance of rural ranchers, leading to talk of a “range war.”
Eventually the ranchers exhausted the patience of the government, which deployed dozens of heavily armed Regulators to the county under orders to put down the rebellion. This would mean arresting – or shooting – anybody who resisted. Rather than submitting, the rebels – with the support of the county sheriff and the aid of several veterans of the most recent war – mobilized to confront the threat. Citizens coalesced into a militia and rode out on horseback to confront the invaders at their staging area.
To the consternation of the government and the respectable media, the rebels held their ground, forcing the Regulators to retreat.
This, in broad outline, is the story that unfolded at an overpass outside Bunkerville, Nevada on April 12, when hundreds of citizens – confronting paramilitary Regulators who were prepared to gun them down – compelled the BLM to return hundreds of cows the agency had stolen from the family of rancher Cliven Bundy to punish him for failing to pay grazing fees the agency had imposed on him without legitimate authority.
This act of government-licensed cattle rustling was carried out by a roundup company from Nephi, Utah, aided by a paramilitary force of roughly 200 people from the Bureau of Land Management, which is, from a constitutional perspective, a bastard agency.
Through what must be considered an act of Providence, no lives were lost on April 12.
A bloodier version of the same story played on on the same day 122 years ago in Wyoming’s Johnson County: Hundreds of citizens surrounded the TA Ranch, which was the base of operations for dozens of gunmen who had been deputized by the state government, provided with a roster of troublesome local ranchers, and ordered to execute every man whose name was inscribed on the kill list.
In both cases, the aggressors – the BLM and federal comrades in Bunkerville, a corporatist clique called the Wyoming Stock Growers Association in Johnson County – claimed to be acting in the name of the law, which for them was digested to a single arrogant claim: “The land is ours because we say it is.”
Human lives were lost in Wyoming’s Johnson County War. So far there have been no human casualties in the BLM’s range war against the family and property of rancher Cliven Bundy. To this point, the invaders have had to be content with one assault with a deadly weapon (the Taser attack on Ammon Bundy), an act of aggravated assault on a pregnant woman, and the slaughter of a still-unknown number of the Bundy family’s cattle coupled with extensive damage to their property.
“I have certain rights there – range improvements and so forth,” Cliven Bundy told me during an interview near the site of the April 12 standoff.
Although the grazing areas are considered public lands, he continued, “I did have private property there, and there was damage. What the law would do here – they [the Feds] have four Metro [police] officers out there twenty-four hours a day protecting their `property.’ A few days ago, though, I had almost 400 cattle out there [under BLM control] and they didn’t give a damn about that property.”
At least one bull was shot while securely penned, and an unspecified number of other cattle were killed. In addition, Cliven pointed out, “They tore up water lines and cut water tanks in two.”
“The damage is very extensive,” Cliven’s son Ryan told me, holding a complaint he was filing with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. “There were 200 BLM people out there, and they all had off-road vehicles, in addition to the contract cowboys [hired by the Feds to confiscate the cattle] and they have just tromped this ground. Roads meant nothing to them. First they widened the roads with heavy equipment, and then they didn’t stay on the roads. They would expect a normal person never to overturn a stone, but these guys have just ravished this land.”
In addition to wrecking the range improvements that the Bundy family was legally entitled to make, the BLM Regulators didn’t spare the abode of the incomparably precious desert tortoise, whose preservation was the stated rationale for driving cattle ranching into near-oblivion in Clark County.
“We found several places where their trucks have caved in tortoise dens,” Ryan Bundy told me, his voice laden with weary disgust. “Talk about hypocrisy.”
The BLM was forced to withdraw its armed Regulators without firing a shot on April 12. But the agency has made clear its intention to continue its efforts to drive Bundy – the last of Clark County, Nevada’s cattle ranchers – from range land the federal government illegally claims as its own.
“Well, it’s not over,” insisted Nevada Senator Harry Reid, who working in concert with his son Rory (a Clark County Commissioner and quondam gubernatorial candidate) and former Reid land-use adviser Neil Kornze (who was approved as BLM director on April 8) has played a central role in the effort to uproot the Bundy family from their land. “We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it.”
“We believe in a country in which we are subject to laws and you can’t just ignore the laws we don’t like,”sniffed Rory Reid. “I think clearly if state and local prosecutors look at this more closely, they’re going to find tat he broke the law and he should be prosecuted.”
After the retreat on April 12, the BLM sent four ominous-looking certified letters to the Bundy home.
“I’ve not opened them,” Cliven Bundy explained to me, a subtle smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Reports have been put in circulation that the BLM – under the influence of the Reid dynasty – may eventually induce the Sheriff’s Office to raid the Bundy family’s home.
Cliven has said that if the Sheriff is issued a warrant signed by judge of appropriate jurisdiction, he will turn himself in.
Volunteers acting as private peace officers stationed along checkpoints leading to the Bundy home told me that if the Sheriff’s office presents a valid warrant, they will do nothing to interfere – but that a SWAT-style raid would lead to trouble.
Cliven isn’t burdened with any illusions about the kind of people who are seeking to shut down his ranch.
When Cliven and his sons went out to inspect the damage to the range land, they found “a pit – about fifty feet long, thirty feet wide, and ten feet deep. About a third of it was full of something. We know there were [cattle] body parts sticking out of it.”
“It was a mass grave,” concluded Cliven, grimly. “Let me tell you something – if they hadn’t backed off [on April 12] they would have had mass human bodies.”
No lives were lost in the Battle of Bunkerville, but the Feds and their allies clearly see the withdrawal as a tactical retreat, and the wary peace that currently prevails as a fermata, rather than a coda, in the conflict. The Johnson County War of 1892 illustrates what could happen if the federal campaign against the Bundys becomes a literal range war.
The first victim in the elite’s onslaught against homesteaders and ranchers in Wyoming was a reformed prostitute named Ellen Watson, more commonly known as as “Cattle Kate.” Amid murky accusations of cattle rustling, Watson and her husband, James Averill, were lynched in 1889, three years before open warfare erupted along the Powder River.
At the time, a growing segment of the Wyoming population were seeking alterations to the state’s range laws, which had been written by, and on behalf of, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. The Association, for its part, was trying to minimize its losses following the collapse of a speculative bubble in the cattle industry during the 1880s.
In the decade leading up to the invasion of Johnson County, wrote Asa Shinn Mercer in his turn-of-the- 20th Century expose The Banditti of the Plains, “a craze for cattle company investments was created in the East and also in the British Isles. Soon the bulk of holding passed into the hands of corporations and high-salaried officials took charge of the business, living luxuriously in club house in the various towns and trusting the real management of herds and ranches to subordinates … frequently without practical experience.”
The lure of supposedly easy profits in the cattle industry proved irresistible to pampered children of privilege, whose dreams of empire-building in the American West were fueled by such works as Cattle Raising on the Plains of North America by Prussian nobleman and Colorado cattle mogul Baron Walter von Richthofen. “There is not the slightest amount of uncertainty in cattle raising,” the Baron assured his fellow elitists
The parvenus and dilettantes who overran Wyoming included “the black sheep sons of European noblemen and wealthy youngish adventurers from New York, businessmen from Paris and Edinburgh, Scotland,”observes historian Hal Herring. “The Anglo-Beef conglomerate, one of the world’s largest cattle companies, was formed in an office in foggy London, its investors toasting the vast profits to coming from an unimaginably raw land across the Atlantic.”
One inevitable result of the elite onslaught was a culture clash between the Europeans steeped in feudal conceits and traditions and the incorrigibly individualistic knights of the plains.
“The English referred to cowboys as `cow servants,’” Herring points out, “and the classic Western tale was born of the English lord, a newly arrived landowner, who rode up to a neighboring ranch and asked the ranch foreman if his `master’ was at home.”
“The son-of-a bitch hasn’t been born yet,” came the cowboy’s laconic and thoroughly unamused reply.
Until the late 1880s, the elitists who were represented in the Wyoming Stock Growers Association – and who controlled the state government – were content to allow actual cowboys to do the work, while the harvested the profits. During the boom, a growing number of cowboys acquired sufficient capital to obtain herds and homestead un-apportioned land within what historian Helena Huntington Smith described as “an empty paradise of waving grass – a cowman’s paradise with the Indians out but the cowmen not yet in.”
This arrangement worked “very well while the markets ruled high,” Asa Mercer wrote in his memoir of the period. However, some of the well-connected eastern cattle companies began to undermine the market by rounding up “culls” and elderly steers that were “unfit for beef” and selling them to feeders at inflated prices, an arrangement that “tickled the avarice of the Eastern or foreign shareholders and prevented a careful investigation of the methods employed.” Mercer described this as “wholesale robbery.”
The speculative cattle bubble likewise led to the over-crowding of available grazing land, which left “the ranges crowded and the grass eaten until the winter food was too short to carry the stock through the cold weather.”
Depletion of grazing areas accelerated during the drought of 1886, which was immediately followed by an abnormally severe winter. This “caused an excessive mortality among all classes of cattle and reduced the calf crop to fully one half” in Wyoming herds, Mercer recalled. To meet contracts, the elite-operated companies expanded the practice of “robbing the herd” by sending inferior quality beef cattle to Chicago. This likewise had predictable consequences: Beef prices plummeted more than half – partially because a correction in inflated prices was overdue, but also because of “the generally poor condition of the range shipments in consequence of overstocking and the resulting scarcity of feed.”
At this point in the classic boom-to-bust cycle, the correct approach would be to allow over-grown, inefficient cattle corporations to fail and allow smaller producers to rebuild the cattle market.
This was precisely what the entrenched interests responsible for that catastrophe wanted to avoid. Accordingly, aided by the mercenary press, the establishment cattle cartel generated a propaganda campaign blaming that collapse on “rustlers,” whose alleged depredations were aided and protected by an incorrigible public. Johnson County was depicted as a hotbed of rustler activity.
The cartel had become entrenched immediately after Wyoming was given territorial status in 1868. Representatives of “Eastern and foreign cattle syndicates” dominated the legislature, Mercer insisted, and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association “virtually shaped the territorial policy…. Legislative enactments first assumed form the the executive councils of the association and through its social prestige were popularized with the masses, even before adoption of laws.”
In 1891, the cartel-dominated legislature passed a measure creating the “Board of Livestock Commissioners” with a broad mandate to “protect the livestock interests of the state from theft and disease.” To that end the commissioners were instructed to appoint “stock inspectors” authorized to impose fines and to conduct both seizures and arrests. This most likely led to the assassination-style killings of ranchers John Tisdale and Orley Jones by a secretive squad of “inspectors.”
Rancher Nate Champion, a redoubtable and widely respected man, offered eyewitness testimony that the murderer was an inspector named Joe Elliott, who was indicted and bound over for trial.
This exercise of legitimate judicial authority against the Stock Growers Association’s interests prompted the oligarchy to escalate its campaign to annihilate its opposition. The cartel began a concerted press campaign through major newspapers in eastern cities “to make their readers believe that a reign of terror existed in half a dozen counties in the state that could only be overcome by a resort to arms….”
It was for that purpose that the Commission recruited a group of “Regulators” who arrived in Cheyenne on April 2, 1892, in a Pullman train car – its windows blacked out. Their mission, as described to them by their commander, Major Frank Wolcott, was to execute warrants calling for the summary execution of cattle rustlers, whose names were inscribed on a “kill list.” Each lethal “warrant service” would earn the trigger-puller a $50 commission to supplement their salary of $5 a day – a very lucrative arrangement at a time when the standard ranch hand’s wage was $25 a month.
Their wagons groaning beneath a supply of ammunition sufficient “to kill every inhabitant of Wyoming,” the death squad — numbering roughly 50 men — lit out for the KC Ranch to cross the first two names from their list – Nick Ray and Nate Champion, the latter having earned his spot by testifying against Elliott. After taking the ranch’s cook and a visiting cowboy prisoner, the Regulators laid siege to the ranch, killing Ray immediately.
Champion sold himself dearly, holding off dozens of heavily armed, ruthless men for an entire day.
“They are shooting at the house now,” a preternaturally composed Champion recorded in a journal that should be regarded as a masterpiece of stoic literature. “[T]hey have just got through shelling the house again like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive.”
As Champion predicted, the The Regulators eventually employed what would now be called the “Waco Protocol.”
“The house is all fired,” wrote Champion in his terse, fatalistic final entry. “Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.”
Shortly before 9:00 on evening of April 8, the invaders flushed Champion from his burning home and gunned him down. They proceeded to the next target, a homestead known as the TA Ranch.
Champion had noted in his journal that “If I had a pair of glasses I believe I would know” some of the invaders who eventually murdered him. His neighbor, a journalist named Jack Flagg, had a similar thought when he rode by the ranch during the siege. Flagg wasn’t aware that his name was on the kill list. That fact was abruptly made known to him when one of the Regulators sent rounds in his direction. Flagg hastened to the nearby town of Buffalo, where he told Johnson County Sheriff Red Angus about the assault on Champion’s settlement.
While the Sheriff assembled his posse, the city’s leading merchant, a transplanted Scotsman named Robert Foote, assumed the role of Paul Revere, dashing through the streets of Buffalo urging residents to arm themselves and “take a side.” Over the next three days, recalls Helena Huntington Smith in her definitive book The War on Powder River, “The streets were filling with armed men from the nearer ranches, while riders were sent to distant parts of the country for help to repel the murders.”
On April 11, the spontaneously organized citizens’ militia arrived at the TA Ranch to engage the invaders. Snipers took up positions and trained their gun sights on the main ranch house. Several members of the militia cobbled together an assault vehicle they called the “Ark.” Under covering fire from snipers they advanced on the enemy, hurling improvised explosive devices into the building.
The Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a non-governmental organization controlled by politically connected cattle interests, urged Acting Governor Amos Barber to intervene. Barber sent a frantic telegram to President Benjamin Harrison describing the citizen uprising as a threat to national security:
“An insurrection exists in Johnson County, in the state of Wyoming, in the immediate vicinity of For McKinney, against the government of said state…. I apply to you on behalf of the state of Wyoming to direct the United States troops at Fort McKinney to assist in suppressing the insurrection.”
By April 12, the citizen militia had taken control of the TA Ranch, and the Regulators were pinned helplessly inside the stable. On the following day, Colonel Robert T. Van Horn and the 6th Cavalry arrived on the scene, no doubt to the relief of the Regulators and their employers.
That relief rapidly gave way to consternation when Van Horn deferred to Sheriff Angus, recognized the legitimacy of the citizen revolt, and made arrangements for the Regulators to surrender.
Colonel Van Horn treated “the armed citizenry with the utmost respect, while making it clear that the fighting had to stop,” Herring recounts. “To the surprise of the cavalry, as soon as Van Horn assured the citizens that the Regulators would be arrested and taken to Fort McKinney, the impromptu militia swiftly disbanded.”
Although Major Wolcott insisted on surrendering to Van Horn, claiming that he would fight to the death rather than surrendering to Sheriff Angus, he disarmed his despondent mercenaries and went peaceably to the stockade at Fort McKinney. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association retained enough political clout to arrange the release of Wolcott and his Regulators without facing criminal charges. But the Association – which was already reeling from its financial losses – quickly lost its stranglehold on Wyoming politics.
Within a few years, the elite-connected cattlemen retired from an industry for which they were manifestly unsuitable, abandoned a state they had nearly destroyed, and found other ways to inflict misery on humanity. While isolated conflicts continued to flare up in the range lands until the second decade of the 20th Century, Wyoming was left to manage its own affairs – until the heirs of the elite interests behind the WSGA devised a new rationale for land-grabbing: Environmental protection.
“This isn’t about protecting turtles – it’s about controlling the land,” declared Red Bear, an Apache Indian from St. George Utah, who told me that he had come to Bunkerville “to stand in defense of freedom.” He described to me how he had been confronted by a BLM official while walking on the range.
“He told me that I had to leave, because I had `no right to be on the property,’” Red Bear said, emitting a disgusted chuckle over the armed functionary’s severe irony deficiency.
“To a Native, that’s a very old story, and it’s the same one we’re seeing here in Bunkerville today. The people behind this are driven by greed and capable of great violence, and it’s happening everywhere in the country. I came here – all of these people came to Bunkerville – to tell the government and the people working with them that it stops here.”
Reprinted with permission from LRC, via author's blog.