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Reading the West 4-12-10

Candy Moulton
Encampment, Wyo.

I will warn you right up front. I don’t believe you can purchase a copy of “Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County” by John W. Davis just yet. The book is in the final stage of production and will be released in May from the University of Oklahoma Press.

But I will say this, go down to your local bookstore now and place an order for this book. It is a superb history book and one that you will totally absorb if you are at all interested in the history of the West, and most particularly the times and people that make up the tableau of the Johnson County War.

I was fortunate to receive an advance reading copy of the book. John W. Davis is an attorney in Worland, Wyo., (which during the period of the Invasion was a part of Johnson County), and he lays out the events leading up to the invasion of April 1892 – plus the invasion itself and the aftermath – in the precise detail a prosecuting attorney would use to set up a case in court.

Davis spent years researching this book, reading period newspapers, documents, letters, and public records, and his meticulous account is not only highly detailed, but better, highly readable.

The nutshell version of the Johnson County Invasion could read something like this: “Big cattlemen concerned about ‘rustlers’ hire an army, take a train from Cheyenne to Casper, then go overland to Johnson County where they find two ‘rustlers’ at the KC Ranch, attack and kill them, then ride north toward Buffalo intending to take care of other men on their dead-list. But a Johnson County resident sees the invaders at the KC Ranch, rides to Buffalo, and warns the townspeople who grab their own weapons. The invaders meet the townspeople who push them back to the TA Ranch where now the invaders are the besieged. They are ‘rescued’ by the Army which is called out on order of the U.S. President Benjamin Harrison. There are charges and a trial, but none of the invaders serves any prison time for the deeds.”

Those facts are all fairly well known, have been written about by scores of authors, and been the basis for films – both dramatic and documentary. The most recent history of the Johnson County Invasion/War was written by Bill O’Neal of Texas, and he did a credible job.

John Davis, though, has now written what is likely to be the definitive history of the “Infamous Invasion of Johnson County.” That is due to his diligence in researching not only the events of 1892, but the years leading up to the invasion. Davis looked at records and documents not really used by many earlier writers, and he also developed the “characters” in this drama.

Some of those individuals have received extensive treatment before including cattlemen William C. Irvine and Charles Wolcott, no doubt the leaders of the big ranchers; Nate Champion, James Averell, Ellen Watson and John Tisdale, small operators and victims of the raids; Amos Barber, Joseph Carey and Francis E. Warren, governor and U.S. Senators from Wyoming, respectively; Frank Canton and Red Angus, lawmen.

But others are given full attention in this book as well, such as the newspapermen who wrote on both sides of the page – some in favor of the big cattlemen, others opposed: E.A. Slack, Ed Towse, Joe DeBarthe and Asa Mercer among them.

Then there is the attorney, Willis Van Devanter, who so skillfully manipulated not only the press, but also the courtroom, and the court of public opinion and politics to the distinct advantage of his clients: those wealthy cattlemen who launched the War/Invasion.

The account of how Wyoming’s governor and senators provided aid to the invaders … and the subsequent political maneuvering between Republicans and Democrats is a healthy dose of “political reality.” I honestly had not realized just how dastardly our early Wyoming politicians were with respect to this story. That Barber was allowed to even remain in the state is perhaps the biggest indicator of just how powerful those cattlemen were in Wyoming as the 19th century became the 20th.

If you like your history clear, detailed, and with a heavy doze of drama, then, like I say, head down to your bookstore and get a copy of Wyoming Range War.


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