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Finally, with a new governor, the 1888 Legislature repealed the Maverick Law under heavy pressure from the small cattle and landowners.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.
Albert John Bothwell, a wealthy cattleman and member of the Stock Association, lived about a mile from Jim and Ellen. Prior to Ellen homesteading her piece of land, Bothwell had used the property, as well as other large sections of open range, as pastureland for his cattle. In fact, Bothwell was in the habit of running his cattle through the entire Sweetwater Valley, spreading out some twenty miles.
Though he didn’t own all of the land, he acted as though he did. Bothwell was one of the most dreaded cattleman that lived in the area, his main focus to get the homesteaders off of “his” land. He was furious when Jim and Ellen homesteaded the property that he considered his best pastureland. Approaching Ellen several times, he tried to by her property but she refused him.
Jim Averell had given Bothwell a right of way through his property so that Bothwell could irrigate his pastureland, but on a few occasions, Jim had threatened to cut off his water supply, which further infuriated the cattleman. Bothwell was determined to run Jim and Ellen off their property.
When Jim wrote the letters to the Casper Newspaper, Bothwell sent his cowhands to harass the couple. The men would often just watch the couple to make sure they didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. At other times, the cowhands placed skulls and cross bones on their doorways. Bothwell also had the men fence in areas of land that did not belong to him.
On July 20, 1889, a stock detective named George Henderson rode through Ellen’s pasture in the early morning, finding the cattle with their fresh LU brands. Henderson, a member of the Stock Association, quickly suggested that Ellen might be illegally branding cattle. Though Bothwell, no doubt knew that Ellen had had the cattle for almost a year, he saw this as his long sought after opportunity to rid himself of Jim Averell and Ellen Watson.
Bothwell sent for other cattlemen in the immediate area to meet him for an urgent meeting. Who knows what he actually told them, but by the time the meeting was over the cattlemen were convinced that Jim and Ellen had stolen the newly branded cattle. One of the men rode over to Ellen’s pasture to verify the new brands, returning to tell the others about it. The men then decided to take matters into their own hands. Several of the cattlemen wanted no part of the vigilante’s plans and left, but six cattlemen remained. These six ranchers included Bothwell, the ringleader, M. Earnest McLean, Robert “Captain” M. Galbraith, John Henry Durbin, Robert Conner, and Tom Sun.
After the meeting they all decided to ride over to Ellen’s homestead and see the evidence for themselves. Arriving in the early afternoon, they found the newly branded cattle and their suspicions were confirmed. John Durbin lost his temper and began tearing down the barbed wire fence and driving the cattle out. Gene Crowder, the boy who Ellen had unofficially adopted, watched as McLain and Conners detained Ella outside, keeping her from returning to her house. Forcing her into the wagon, they explained to her that they were going to Rawlins. Then they started toward Jim Averell’s place. Crowder tried to go around them, but Bothwell detained him and he was forced to stay with Durbin.
Jim, who was starting to Casper, was just inside the gate when the men approached. Stating they had a warrant for his arrest, Jim demanded to see the document, at which time Durbin and Bothwell drew their guns. Jim was made to unhitch his team and climb in the wagon along with Ella, and then the group began to travel north. Crowder was allowed to leave and made tracks back to Jim’s house where he explained to the others what was going on. Frank Buchanan quickly got on his horse and began to follow the vigilantes.
Buchanan followed the group for about two miles as they traveled up the east side of Averell Mountain, then headed southwest across the sagebrush toward Sweetwater River and Independence Rock. Finally, the vigilantes stopped at a gulch on the south side of the river. As Buchanan watched, Bothwell tied a rope to a tree, wrapping the other end around Jim’s neck, while McLain was attempting to put a rope around Ella’s dodging neck. At the sight of this, Buchanan opened fire on the vigilantes, but when the group returned fire, he fled for his life. Returning to the ranch, he told Gene Crowder, John L. DeCorey, and Ralph Coe about the hangings.
Though an investigation into the hangings began almost immediately, the bodies were let hang in the July heat for 2 ½ days. A reporter, who was the first to talk to members of the posse, described it as thus:
“Hanging from the limb of a stunted pine growing on the summit of a cliff fronting the Sweetwater River, were the bodies of James Averell and Ella Watson. Side by side they swing, their arms touching each other, their tongues protruding and their faces swollen and discolored almost beyond recognition. Common cowboy lariats had been used, and both had died by strangulation, neither fallen over two feet. Judging from signs too plain to be mistaken a desperate struggle had taken place on the cliff, and both man and woman had fought for their lives until the last.”