Western Short Story
A Sad Saga of Sweetwater
Dennis Goodwin

Western Short Story

"Cattle Kate" Becomes the Most Famous Woman in Wyoming…After Her Hanging

The massive turtle-shaped limestone boulder had been baking in the Wyoming sun for as long as anyone could remember. Year after year, Independence Rock had dutifully kept a chiseled-in-stone record of the thousands of settlers who had carved their names into the landmark as they reached the Sweetwater River. The "great registry of the desert" preserved forever the hopeful moments when the proud scribers declared their intentions of stepping into Western history. That step could lead to a rugged but fulfilling life of treasured memories. It could also lead to a violent death at the end of a vigilante's noose.

Ella Watson knew life was a gamble in the newly settled West. She had no idea, however, of the tragic fate that would end her brief roll of the Wyoming dice. After all, she was merely a prostitute, and nobody seemed to mind that, especially the trail-worn cowboys. And she had definitely learned her trade well. She had apprenticed in Dodge City, Ogallala and Cheyenne. No, there was simply no logical reason for fate to turn on her near Independence Rock in the summer of 1888. Fate, unfortunately, doesn't always need a "logical reason."

Weighing in at a rather stout 170 pounds, Ella Watson was nevertheless quite attractive. In fact, when saloon-owner, Jim Averill, rode the fifty-some miles to Rawlins in December of 1887, he knew just who he wanted to spend a little time with. There were several brothels for his selection but only one of them housed Ella Watson, a free-spirit in her mid-twenties. He had previously partaken of her favors in Rawlins, and looked forward to a return engagement.

Averill could definitely stand a little diversion. He hadn't exactly been living a stress-free life the past few months. The previous year, he had homesteaded three miles east of Independence Rock and opened a grocery store and saloon, commonly known as a "road ranch." Although Jim was popular with the local cowboys, he wasn't exactly high on the list of the big ranch-owners - at least not on their good list. He had, it seems, more than a little trouble keeping his mouth shut.

He knew he was treading on some powerful toes when he sent his flaming letters to the Casper, Wyoming newspaper but he just couldn't help himself. Someone had to speak out about the overbearing practices of the Wyoming Stock Grower's Association. They had laid claim to all the good grazing land for miles around the Sweetwater River. It didn't matter to them that the law said the land was public domain. The association had become so powerful and crooked, it was the law.

To make matters worse, they also controlled the newspapers in towns all around them. The editors of the Cheyenne Sun, the Rock Springs Miner, and the Rocky Mountain Life had all buckled under to the association's pressure. The Casper Weekly Mail, however, printed Jim Averil's condemning letters word-for-word. In his letters, Jim called the association's members "range hogs" and "land-grabbers." He raged about their attempts to prevent settlers from locating along the Sweetwater River by using "threats of bodily harm and other forms of intimidation."

Needless to say, the members of the Wyoming Stock Grower's Association weren't delighted with the paper's exercise in free speech. Association member Albert Bothwell took the lead in targeting Averill for revenge. Not only was Averill a threat to the association, he had been a personal burr under Bothwell's saddle. Averill had built his road ranch on land he had claimed for his own. In addition, Bothwell was convinced that Averill had re-branded several of his yearlings. Not one to silently hold a grudge, Bothwell repeatedly told Jim to get out of the country while he still had his health.

But as Jim Averill looked at Ella Watson's smiling face, Bothwell and the rest of his troubles rolled off his mind like a tumbleweed in the warm Wyoming wind. It wasn't merely her "favors" that comforted him. There was something about her spirit that connected them. Apparently the connection ran both ways. By the time Averill decided to head back to his Sweetwater road ranch, he was accompanied by more than his memories of Ella Watson. He was also accompanied by Ella Watson.

Ella, however, was not the domestic type. Before long, she had built her own little homestead about a mile west of Averill's place. She soon settled into her former trade. As the word got out to the local cowboys, Ella's house became a regular stop on their trail. Unlike the city customers, they often had no available money. That wasn't a problem - they usually had calves with them. So Ella began, as one writer put it, "bartering her favors for beef on the hoof." With this practice, Ella Watson would become forever "branded" as Cattle Kate.

Although Ella's business was thriving, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon which would eventually propel her, unwillingly, into the Western history books. Albert Bothwell was becoming more and more disturbed about Averill's letters to the Casper paper. He decided something had to be done. It was time to take the matter up with the other members of the association.

On Saturday, July 19, 1888, Bothwell and five local association members, met to review the situation. George B. Henderson added his support to the meeting. He was the manager of the huge 71 Quarter Circle ranch at Three Crossings of the Sweetwater. To Bothwell's delight, everyone shared his opinion. They all felt the situation was intolerable and action must be taken. They agreed that Jim Averill and his strumpet friend, Cattle Kate, were to be presented with an ultimatum: Get out of the country or be forcibly ejected.

To justify their actions, the association members stressed the rumors of cattle rustling that Jim and Ella had undertaken. According to some observers, local cattlemen often spied their branded calves penned up in a corral next to Ella's bordello. The Cheyenne Mail Leader described her as a "dark devil in the saddle, handy with a six-shooter and a Winchester, and an expert with a branding iron." Since so many area newspapers were controlled by the association, it was becoming difficult to separate reality from the legend the papers were building. Ella claimed that all the calves in her corral were simply those fairly traded by her customers. Any calves Averill added to Ella's corral were said to be unbranded mavericks he had rounded up. The truth, however, may lie forever obscured by the dusty clouds of Western history.

Cattle rustlers or not, Ella and Jim had definitely become the target of some very powerful enemies. The ultimatum was delivered the next day. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Bothwell and three other association members hopped on a buckboard. Two others followed behind on horses. All six were armed with rifles. This time, Bothwell decided, the ultimatum would be one neither Ella nor Jim could refuse.

They stopped first at Ella's cabin. Shortly after they arrived, she came riding in with her hired hand, John DeCorey. One of the men told her to get into the wagon, that they were going to take her to Rawlins. According to later witnesses, she said she couldn't go until she put on a new print dress. Not in a mood to wait for her to get "presentable," one of the men threatened to rope and drag her if she didn't get in.

The scene at Jim Averill's house was similar. One of the men told him they had a warrant to take him in. When Jim asked to see it, he patted his rifle and said that was "warrant enough." With both Jim and Ella aboard the wagon, the mob headed, not for Rawlins as they had said, but toward Spring Creek Canyon.

The scene didn't go without witnesses. In addition to John DeCorey, a fourteen-year-old "range waif" named Gene Crowder saw the gang force Ella into the wagon. DeCorey tried to follow the gang but Bothwell pointed his rifle at him and threatened to shoot. DeCorey and Crowder then rode off and alerted Frank Buchanan, Averill's foreman. Buchanan followed the trail and boldly opened fire on the mob. "I unloaded my revolver twice," he would later testify at a coroner's inquest, "but had to run as they were shooting at me with Winchesters."

Bob Conner, one of the six vigilantes, later said they had no intention of killing the couple but only wanted to frighten them out of the country. Whatever the mob's original intention, the end result of their actions would be recorded in the Casper Weekly Mail's somber headline: JIM AVERILL, AN OLD RESIDENT OF SWEETWATER, HANGED TO A TREE. ELLA WATSON MEETS A SIMILAR FATE. CORONER'S JURY FINDS THAT PROMINENT LAND OWNERS OF SWEETWATER COMMIT THE ATROCIOUS DEED.

Not only was the deed "atrocious" but the judicial proceedings that followed would also seem to fit into that category. Since there were witnesses to the hanging, the six men were served with warrants. The legal process following their arrest, however, was not exactly a glowing example of "blind justice." The preliminary arraignment was held in a hotel room. Although a first-degree murder charge was not subject to bail, the association members were not only allowed to have bail posted, they were permitted to post each other's bail.

Then, just before the arraignment, an odd incident occurred - all of the potential witnesses suddenly disappeared. Rumors spread throughout the territory about their possible fates, but other than young Gene Crowder, they were simply never seen again. In Gene's case, he was taken in by area cattlemen. Suddenly he became quite ill and died in a matter of weeks from Bright's disease. The rumor, in his case, was that rather than contacting the disease, he had been the victim of a slow poisoning. Regardless of the reason for their inability to testify, one thing was certain, no witnesses - no trial.

There was, however, one small grain of justice buried deep within the corrupt incident. Ella Watson, previously a little-known Sweetwater strumpet, would soon become the most widely known woman in Wyoming. As the word spread from town to town that the Wyoming Stock Grower's Association had committed the appalling act of hanging a woman, resistance to its arrogant domination swelled.

The fuse of resentment continued to smolder until it helped to ignite the Johnson County cattle war. The small ranchers eventually banded together to fight the association's tyrannical monopoly. Their resistance was fueled by the memories of the association's despicable deeds - especially a sad saga at Sweetwater - the legend of "Cattle Kate."