“Witnesses were murdered or disappeared mysteriously or were bought off. The three Cheyenne papers, dominated by incredibly wealthy cattle interests, trumped up the ridiculous stories everyone knows today about Ellen being a dirty whore and rustler, and Jim her accomplice, pimp and murderous paramour.”
— George W. Hufsmith in The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889
Ellen Watson, dubbed by local newspapers in the late 1880s, as “Cattle Kate,” has long been thought of as an outlaw. Watson along with James Averell was hanged by vigilantes near the Sweetwater River in Wyoming on July 20, 1889, for the accused crime of cattle rustling. However, there is a mystery surrounding the hangings and it appears that their deaths were unjustified, perpetrated by powerful land and cattle owners of the time.
Ellen Liddy Watson was born on July 2, 1861, to Thomas Lewis Watson and Frances Close Watson near Arran Lake, Bruce County, Ontario, Canada. Ella, as she was called, was the oldest of ten children, six of which were also born in Canada before the family moved to Kansas in 1877. Settling near Lebanon in Smith County, Kansas, Thomas homesteaded the land.
Before long, Ella, as she was called, met a young man by the name of William A Pickell who lived on a neighboring farm. On November 24, 1879, the 18-year-old Ella and 21-year-old William were married. But within just a few short months Ella found that her husband was both a heavy drinker and an abusive man. Often, he would verbally abuse her then escalate the violence to physical blows and striking her with a horsewhip. By January 1883, she could take it no longer and fled to her parent’s home. Later, she moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, 14 miles north of her parent’s farm to put even more distance between herself and her estranged husband. On February 14, 1884, she filed for divorce.
Against her parent’s wishes, Ella moved to Denver, Colorado after filing for divorce. Seeking better opportunities, she lived with a brother for a short time but didn’t stay long. Ella then moved again, first to Cheyenne, Wyoming, then to Rawlins, Wyoming in late 1885 or early 1886. She found employment at a boarding house called the “Rawlins House” as a cook and domestic for about two years. Watson has often been misidentified as a prostitute because the Rawlins House was erroneously thought to have been a brothel.
On February 24, 1886, she met a handsome young man named James Averell, who was in Rawlins to file a claim on his homestead 60 miles east of Rawlins near the Sweetwater River. Immediately, the two fell for each other and began to court.
James Averell was born on March 20, 1851, to John and Sarah Ann Averell in Renfrew County, Ontario Canada. The youngest of seven children, his father died shortly after his birth. At the age of 20, Averell, now in the U.S., joined the military and was initially assigned to Fort Douglas, Utah and later transferred to Fort Fred Steele, Wyoming, 15 miles east of Rawlins. In 1876 he was discharged but he soon re-enlisted, this time assigned to Fort McKinley, Wyoming, near Buffalo.
In Buffalo, he shot and killed a man by the name of Charlie Johnson, a mean hombre with a reputation for fighting and creating trouble whenever he was drinking. Averell claimed that Johnson had threatened him many times with a knife and on this particular occasion, James shot the man in the leg and again in the back when the shot to the leg swung the huge man around. James was held in jail at Rawlins for a time while two grand juries were convened, but he was never convicted and was eventually released.
Averell established a homestead on Cherry Creek at the north base of Ferris Mountain and married a young woman by the name of Sophia Jaeger on February 23, 1882. On August 23, 1882, Sophia gave birth to a three-month premature baby boy who lived for only a short time. Soon thereafter, Sophia took sick with what was called “childbed fever” and she also died. The homestead carried too many sad memories for Averell so he sold it and established another about fifteen miles north, between Horse Creek and the Sweetwater River.
After Jim met Ella, he convinced her that she should move with him to his homestead. Inviting her to fix meals for the hungry customers, he suggested she could charge 50 cents per meal and keep the money. He also suggested that she might be able to homestead her own piece of land, a tract that was adjacent to his own. Ella agreed and was soon living in the Sweetwater Valley.
Ella’s divorce was finally official in March 1886 and just a few short months later, James and Ella applied for a marriage license in Lander, Wyoming. It is unclear if the couple ever did actually marry, as the completed application was never returned. Some said the two planned to get married after Ella proved her own homestead (only one claim per family was allowed.).
On June 29, 1886, Jim was appointed as the postmaster of his newly created community, as well as being made the Justice of the Peace. Living with Averell at his home, Ella worked for him in the general store and cafe. Ella saved her money and eventually purchased some cattle with her earnings. Settling on the adjacent land in August 1886, she built a two-room log house and began digging irrigation ditches.
Ella tried to get a brand registered for her cattle but was refused due to what was known as the Maverick Law, passed in 1884. This law provided that unbranded calves, found on the open range, could not be legally taken off the range by just anyone. They were to be branded on the neck with an “M” and became the exclusive property of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a powerful group of men that controlled the cattle industry in Wyoming at the time. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association was also appointed as the official law enforcement agency for the Wyoming cattle industry.
The law also provided that those young calves be auctioned off to the highest bidder only by appointed representatives of the association and that the proceeds went to the association to cover the costs of policing the range. In 1886, a provision was added to the law that no one could brand calves except those receiving registered brands from the state. Further, small cattle ranchers or homesteaders were not permitted to bid on mavericks, unless they had a registered brand.
In essence, the law locked out the small ranchers and homesteaders from competing with the large Stock Growers Association. It also put their own calves at risk if they were to stray too far from their own property. When this occurred the association would round them up and sell them.
At this same time, the big cattle owners of the area began to illegally file claims to much of the area land. By placing movable cabins on their claims, they could state that the property had been “improved,” a requirement of the homestead act.
After the claim was filed, they would then place logs under the cabins and roll them to another homestead property, repeating the process over and over again. Jim Averell, as a Justice of the Peace, began to write letters to the newspaper at Casper, Wyoming, which infuriated the large cattlemen.
On March 23, 1888, Ella filed her official homestead claim with the Land Office in Cheyenne. Between both homesteads, James and Ella now owned more than 320 acres of land. Ella continued to improve her property by building corrals for the livestock and fencing much of the property.
Finally, with a new governor, the 1888 Legislature repealed the Maverick Law under heavy pressure from the small cattle and landowners. In the fall of that year, Ella bought 28 head of cattle from a man who was driving them from Nebraska to the Salt Lake basin. But by the time he had arrived in the area, the cattle were footsore and in poor condition.
On December 3, 1888, she applied for the WT brand through the Carbon County Brand Committee in Rawlings, but they rejected her application.
On March 16, 1889, she bought a brand from a nearby rancher and since it was already registered with the Brand Committee, this time her application was accepted.
Early in 1889, Ella unofficially adopted an eleven-year-old boy by the name of Gene Crowder. Crowder’s father, John M. Crowder, was a widower, a drifter, and a heavy drinker. Crowder had several children but was unable to take care of young Gene, so Ella took him in. Gene helped her with her growing ranch along with another fourteen-year-old boy named John L. DeCorey, who Ellen had hired to work for her. In April, Ralph Coe, Jim’s 20-year-old nephew from Wisconsin, joined the ranch.
Another friend who helped them was a neighbor by the name of B. Frank Buchanan who helped mend fences and assisted Ellen with branding the cattle. By the middle of July 1889, Ella had 41 head of cattle, branded with her new LU brand.