the vast open range of
Wyoming, where thousands of buffalo once roamed, came
great herds of cattle in the 1880’s. At this time, most of the land was
public domain and utilized primarily by large cattle ranchers, but, as more
and more small homesteaders moved into the region, the cattle barons began
In 1884, the entire range was monopolized by
some 20 big ranches who allowed their cattle to roam freely on the open
range. Each spring, a roundup was held, where the cows and calves belonging
to each ranch were separated and the calves branded.
However, sometimes, calves were taken and branded before they could be rounded
up, causing the large ranch owners to aggressively punish cattle rustlers.
Because the cattle barons generally ran their ranches with a "hands-off”
and foremen to do the work, they usually forbade their own employees from owning
cattle. This eliminated any temptation to take a few orphan or stray calves. In the
beginning, property and water rights were usually respected among big and small
ranches based on who was first to settle the land and the size of the herd.
However, as more and more homesteaders moved into the region, some of the large
ranches banded together to monopolize large areas of the open range in order to
prevent newcomers from settling.
Adding fuel to the fire was an
increasing number of missing cattle, especially the unbranded calves. Though
the vast majority of small ranchers were hard-working men, there were some who
saw the maverick calves as a way to build their herds and would unscrupulously
make away with them before the large ranch round-ups. Before long, the cattle
barons began to blame the homesteaders for any missing cattle. The cattle barons
were also unhappy as they watched more and more of the open range being taken
over by large sheep herds – blasphemy to a cattleman.
The tension increased between
the cattle barons and the smaller ranch owners after a summer of drought was
followed by severe blizzards during the winter of 1886-1887. Thousands of cattle
died of the bitter cold and more were lost to wolves and cattle rustlers. At the
same time, cattle prices plummeted, causing the cattle barons' profits to drop
dramatically and even put a few of them out of business.
By this time, the large ranches were greatly
outnumbered by the homesteaders who had little sympathy for their problems. Time
after time, cattle thieves were hauled into court, but, it was almost impossible
to get a jury to convict anyone. Finally, the cattle barons decided to take
matters into their own hands and stepped up the number of range detectives hired
by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association to help curb cattle rustling. The
Association also drew up a number of new rules that made it extremely difficult
for anyone to register a new brand and employed stock inspectors at shipping
points to confiscate cattle with unregistered brands.
The large ranchers also
began to aggressively appropriate land where they controlled the water
supplies, and excluded smaller ranchers from participation in the annual
roundup. At the same time, the detectives hired by the Association were
increasingly implicated in the deaths of a number of small ranchers and
suspected cattle thieves.
Things really came to a
head when homesteaders
aka Cattle Kate, and
Jim Averell were accused of cattle
rustling and hanged in July, 1889. Though the small area ranchers were
enraged, the intimidation continued.
Finally in the spring of
1892, the angry small ranchers decided to start their own association called
the 'Northern' Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association.
In response, the
Wyoming Stock Growers
Association decided to hire some 50 men, including a number of known
killers, to eliminate the alleged rustlers in Johnson County. On April 5, 1892,
a large party of cattlemen, five stock detectives, including
Frank M. Canton,
gunfighters, under the command of
Major Frank Wolcott, set out from
Cheyenne on their way to Buffalo. Beyond Casper, the force, called the
"Regulators,” began cutting the telegraph lines along the way, in order to
prevent an alarm.