Born in Iowa around 1855, Bothwell migrated to Wyoming when he grew up and quickly became one of the most prosperous cattlemen in Sweetwater County. Described as an arrogant man, Bothwell had been freely grazing his cattle on unclaimed homestead land until James Averell and Ellen “Cattle Kate” Watson came along in 1886 and filed homestead claims on the property. Bothwell was so sure that no one would claim the lands, he had even gone so far as to illegally fence much of the land with barbwire.
When Averell and his girlfriend, Ellen Watson, moved on to the land, Bothwell’s illegal use of the property, of course, led to repeated disputes between the couple and the large cattle baron. When Averell wrote to the Casper Daily Mail criticizing Bothwell and claiming that the cattle barons had too much power, Bothwell retaliated by claiming that Averell and Watson were stealing his cattle. Dubbing Watson with the moniker of “Cattle Kate,” he also accused her of being a prostitute who sometimes accepted stolen cattle in payment.
As the dispute continued to rage over the next several months, Bothwell convinced other area ranchers of Averell and Watson’s guilt, and on July 20, 1889, he, along with five other men, hanged the pair at a small canyon by the Sweetwater River. Though the men were charged with murder, key witnesses began to mysteriously die or disappear and all of them were acquitted. Both Averell and “Cattle Kate” were “tried” in the press, which was owned or influenced by the cattle barons, and branded as “outlaws.” Bothwell later acquired both homesteads of the murdered victims.
Later investigations into the whole affair have found that most likely neither James Averell nor his girlfriend Ellen “Cattle Kate” Watson, were guilty of any crime. In the meantime, this event, as well as several others, led to the Johnson County War in Wyoming.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander updated February 2020.