Nathan "Nate" D. Champion
– April 9
) was a
key figure in the Johnson County
. Labeled falsely by the wealthy cattlemens association in
Wyoming as a rustler
, Champion was the first
person murdered by a band of hit men
by the cattlemen. Although often portrayed as an outlaw
, Champion was simply a small rancher, thus
becoming a target of the large and powerful cattlemens association.
is derived mostly due to his
heroic stand while his cabin was besieged, and for a brief letter
written during the siege describing the events, that he left
behind. He was portrayed by Christopher Walken
in Heaven's Gate
in a depiction of the
character that is historically inaccurate.
The Johnson County War and Champion's involvement
The dramatic events of 1892 took place against a background of
violent conflict over land use that stretched from 1889 to 1909.
Historian Richard Maxwell Brown refers to the events in Wyoming as
part of a wider "Western Civil War of Incorporation."
early days in Wyoming, most of the
land was in the public domain, open both to stockraising as
open range and to homesteading. Large numbers of
cattle were turned loose on the open range by
large ranches, sometimes financed by
British and other
In the spring a roundup was held and the cows and
the calves belonging to each ranch were separated and the calves
branded. Before the roundup, sometimes calves, especially orphan or
stray calves, were surreptitiously branded, and thus taken. The
large ranches, concerned about this practice, forbade their
employees from owning cattle and aggressively defended against
The situation became steadily worse after the poor winter of 1886.
The large companies began to aggressively appropriate land and
control the flow and supply of water in this area; they justified
these excesses on what was public land by using the catch-all
allegation of rustling, and vigorously sought to exclude the
smaller ranchers from participation in the annual roundup;
apparently agents of the larger ranches killed several alleged
rustlers. A number of lynchings
rustlers took place in 1891, including the double lynching of
innocent homesteaders and ranchers Ella
and Jim Averell
ranches were organized as the Wyoming Stock Growers
Association (the WSGA) and gathered socially as the Cheyenne Club in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In April 1892 the WSGA hired killers from
Texas; an expedition of 50 men was organized, which
proceeded by train from Cheyenne to Casper, Wyoming, then toward Johnson County, intending to eliminate
alleged rustlers and also, apparently, to replace the government in
led the Regulators into Johnson County. To prevent an alarm,
the telegraph lines out of Buffalo were
The expedition was accompanied by two newspaper reporters
lurid accounts later appeared in the eastern newspapers.
Attack on Champion
The first target of the WSGA was Nate Champion at the "KC Ranch".
Champion was a small rancher who was active in the efforts of small
ranchers to organize a competing roundup. Three men besides
Champion were at the KC. Two men, evidently trappers, who had taken
shelter for the night, were captured as they emerged from the cabin
early that morning to collect water at the nearby Powder River,
while the third, Nick Ray, was shot while standing inside the
doorway of the cabin and died a few hours later. The fourth, Nate
Champion, was besieged. Two passers-by noticed the ruckus and rode
to Buffalo, where Johnson County Sheriff
Angus raised a posse
200 men and set out for the "KC Ranch".
Champion held out for several hours, killing at least four of the
, and wounding several others.
During the siege, Champion kept a poignant journal which contained
a number of notes he wrote to friends while taking cover inside the
cabin. "Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was
someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once." he
wrote. The last journal entry read: "Well, they have just got
through shelling the house like hell. I heard them splitting wood.
I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will
make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It's not
night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see
With the house on fire, Nate Champion signed his journal entry and
put the journal in his pocket before he emerged, running from the
back door with a six shooter in one hand and a knife in the other.
He was gunned down by four men firing simultaneously, hit by 28
bullets. The invaders later pinned a note on Champion's
bullet-riddled chest that read "Cattle Thieves Beware". They also
carefully removed entries from the diary which named some of the
One of the men who participated in the siege was famous gunman Frank
, who reportedly regretted the incident greatly, and who
left his cattlemens association employers shortly thereafter,
becoming a US Marshal
in Oklahoma Territory
The following day the posse led by the sheriff besieged the
invading force at the "TA Ranch" on Crazy Woman Creek
. After two days, one of
the invaders escaped and was able to contact the acting Governor of
Wyoming, Amos W. Barber
. Frantic efforts to save the besieged
invaders ensued, and telegraphs to Washington resulted in
intervention by the President of the United
, Benjamin Harrison
from Fort McKinney
was ordered to proceed to the
"TA Ranch" and take custody of the invaders and save them from the
posse. . As part of the surrender, the invaders turned in all their
arms and equipment to the Army. Major Wolcott, as unofficial leader
of the group made a list of these arms and provided it to the
In the end the invaders went free after the court venue
was changed and the charges dropped.
Although many of the leaders of the invaders, such as W. C. Irvine,
were themselves Democrats
, the ranchers who
had hired the Invaders were tied to the Republican Party
, and their
opponents were mostly Democrats. A scandal was caused by the rescue
of the Invaders at the order of President Harrison, a Republican,
and the failure of the courts to prosecute them. As a result of the
scandal, Wyoming voted Democratic for a time.
From 1885 to 1909, fifteen supposed rustlers were killed by mobs.
Starting in 1892, ranchers began to hire individual paid assassins.
The killers, and the ranchers who hired them, were shielded by
corrupt elected officials, and coroners' juries tended to praise
the killers and dwell on the supposed evil reputations of the
victims. Some newspapers followed this lead, but for example the
Cheyenne Sun wrote concerning the 1885 murder of Si Partridge, "How
far lynch law may be given the support of public opinion is going
to be a question for the western country to determine some day"
(Cheyenne Sun, quoted in the Laramie Boomerang, August 13, 1885,
quoted in Pfeifer 2004). After the turn of the century, public
tolerance for the violence decreased. The assassin Tom Horn
convicted of murder and suffered the death penalty in 1903,
although it has since been indicated that Horn was not responsible
for the murder for which he was executed. The end of the violence
was enforced by public disgust at the 1909 Tensleep Raid
, in which three sheep workers
were killed by fifteen masked men (Pfeifer 2004).
The actor Henry Brandon
(1912-1990) played Champion in a 1955 episode of Jim Davis
's syndicated western television series
, Stories of the Century