This week marks the 125th anniversary of the Johnson County War or Johnson County Invasion, depending upon you’re view. Much has been written in the last century about the events of April 1892 and the debate rages to this day about what did or did not happen in Northern Wyoming.
This is the story of an erstwhile traveler who was caught up in the excitement, as told by Albert W. Richards of Sheridan in the 1930s.
Gillette, Wyoming in 1892.
(WSA Sub Neg 8983)
In the Spring of 1892, I, in the company of other young men, made a trip into Kansas City where we heard that the new railroad extension of the CB&Q which ran from Kansas City, Missouri, to Gillette, Wyoming, was offering to take anyone into the new territory for the nominal price of $2.
I was a young man of 27 then and craved to be a lawyer and had the idea that if I could get out west I could work and save enough money to study…
I never will forget the day I stepped off the train at Gillette. It was April the 15th and I was met by a reception committee composed of 5 or 6 men who looked daggers at me and roared, “What do you want?”
I just stood and stared at them. I guess I presented a rather ludicrous spectacle standing there staring at these men who just plain “jumped all over me.” I wondered if this was the West that Horace Greeley advised young men to go to. Too astonished to speak, I just stood and stared and one of the men rammed a six-shooter into my totally empty stomach and yelled, “Well?”
That made me pretty mad and I snorted, “Say, is this the West where they meet a man with six-guns and ask him his business?”
One of the other men said, “Do you know where Powder River is?”
“Never heard of it in my life. Do they want men to work there? That’s what I’m looking for, is work.”
“What kind of work?”
They looked at one another and went on with their questioning. “What made you think you could get work on a farm in this country?”
“Well, I thought there was work of that kind and I took a chance with $2.”
“You’re not sure somebody didn’t round you up?”
“Round me up nothing. My pardner and me,” here I turned to look for my pardner but discovered I had none, “Well,” I fairly screamed at my reception committee, “just what do you folks want to find out?”
“Well, we want to know have you or have you not come out here to help capture the invaders?”
“Invaders? Why I didn’t even know you had an invasion. Where is it?”
Johnson County Invaders being held by the US Army at Fort DA Russell in 1892.
(WSA Sub Neg 9516)
My reception committee held a consultation then and decided to OK me. I went on my way toward the restaurant where I found my pardner half scared to death. “Say,” he whispered to me, “I’m getting out of this town. They say they shoot strangers on sight.”
“Well,” I told him, “there seems to be some sort of invaders they are afraid we came to help. If anyone asks you any questions, why you just tell them the plain truth and you’ll be OK.”
Gillette at that time was the end of the railroad and it was certainly a busy little town but of course the excitement that prevailed was the outgrowth of the Cattlemen’s Invasion which had taken place a few days previously and the cattlemen were then being held prisoners at Ft. McKinney and everyone was excited, suspicious and nervous. But Gillette was a typical little railroad burg at that time: there were a few dwellings and only about half a hundred business houses which were for the most part saloons or combinations of saloons and restaurants. But what Gillette lacked in buildings, it made up for in crowds – everywhere, on the street corners, in saloons, restaurants, everywhere there were large groups of freighters, cowboys, farm hands, emigrants and Indians. They were a heterogeneous mob but they were all good fellows and a spirit of good fellowship prevailed that you find nowhere today.
Richards and his partner found a ride to Sheridan with a freight outfit for $5 each.
Three weeks later, we reached Sheridan. It had been a terrible trip. Rain and snow and soft roads all the way up. As soon as I landed in Sheridan, I secured a job with [James M.] Works, father of Clara Works and Mrs. Jack Flagg. Clara was the first teacher to teach in Sheridan… in 1882-83… Mrs. Jack Flagg was married to a rustler of Johnson County and Works was all riled up over the invasion and I began to believe that this was a wild and woolly West sure enough. I didn’t know anything about the controversy between the rustlers and the cattlemen and told Works so, so he fired me. I laugh about it now when I think about it all. I guess Works thought I was in sympathy with the cattlemen and he was all wrought up about it.
Cowboys around the Bar C Roundup Wagon, ca 1884. Several of the men in this group would be involved in the 1892 range war, including Nate Champion and Jack Flagg.
(WSA Sub Neg 12128)
1. WPA Bio 2208, A.W. Richards, Wyoming State Archives. Punctuation corrected. Richards settled in Sheridan County, working as a mail carrier, milk man, ranch hand, gold miner, and farmer, among other things.
For more information about the Johnson County War (list not inclusive):