Versions of the Watson-Averell Lynching, 1889
By TOM REA
On Saturday, the 20th of July 1889, eleven months before Wyoming became a state, a woman and a man were hanged from a pine tree (below) in a gulch in central Wyoming, not far from the Sweetwater River. The woman and the man were homesteaders. The six men who lynched them were cattlemen. News stories about the hanging ran in the Cheyenne and Laramie papers just a few days afterwards. But the news didn’t stop there. Similar stories ran in Denver, Omaha, Chicago, and New York. The stories got only a few details consistently right: a man and a woman were hanged near the Sweetwater River on July 20. Almost all the other “facts” printed in these versions—who the victims were, who the lynchers were, exactly where the hanging took place, and, especially, why it happened—were wrong. And that was the way the lynchers wanted it. They wanted word to get out, as a warning. But they didn’t want people to know their real motives.
Over the next several weeks, two newspapers closer to the event—the Casper Weekly Mail, and the Carbon County Journal in Rawlins —got most of the details correct. They did this by interviewing people who’d seen at least part of what had happened, and by interviewing other people who had known the victims personally.
But because of the early, bad information from the Cheyenne Daily Leader, only the wrong versions became well known. By the 1920s, writers looking back to the events already accepted those wrong versions as fact. Historians writing in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, relied in turn on these 1920s accounts as well as the original, bad versions from Cheyenne. The bad facts, after a while, seemed truer than ever.
Finally, in the 1990s, when two amateur history writers published books on the subject, the real characters of the hanging victims and the real motives of their murderers began to come clear. These writers went back to the 1889 stories in the Casper and Rawlins papers. And they were the first to go back to the records of who owned what land along the Sweetwater in the 1880s. Finally, they found something like the truth.
The facts, as far as we now can tell, are these:
Jim Averell, a former soldier, cook, surveyor, and rancher, built and stocked a store in the spring of 1884 where the road from Rawlins, Wyoming to Buffalo, Wyoming crossed the Sweetwater River. This was just a few miles downstream from Independence Rock. Casper did not exist yet. The road was the main route north from the Union Pacific Railroad to the Powder River Basin in northern Wyoming. The cattle business was booming. The location would have been a good place to serve both traveling and local customers. Averell (right) filed a claim on a quarter section—160 acres—of land, and dug an irrigation ditch. He was postmaster, a notary public, and justice of the peace. By the summer of 1889 he had a store, a house, a stable, an icehouse, and chicken coop on the property. These would have been low, small, rough log buildings. The store was also a saloon. Averell would have sold socks, cartridges, bacon, flour, coffee, and whiskey. He also had a trout pond, 16 feet square.
Ella Watson, ten years younger than Averell, joined him on the Sweetwater in the spring of 1886. She was from Kansas, where she had married at 18 (below) and then divorced her abusive husband two years later. Averell probably met her in Rawlins. They filed for a marriage license in Lander, but whether they actually got married is unclear. She and Averell filed back-to-back, quarter-section land claims about two miles north up Horse Creek from where it joined the Sweetwater near Jim’s store. She had built one cabin and perhaps two on that land, had fenced 60 acres of pasture, and owned about 50 head of cattle by the summer of 1889. She also helped Jim run the store.
Tom Sun ranched at Devil’s Gate, about eight miles up the Sweetwater from Averell’s store. He was French-Canadian, and probably came to Wyoming about when the railroad did, in the late 1860s. In 1883, he had married a young Irishwoman named Mary Hellihan. By 1889 she had borne him two children.
John Durbin and his brother Tom ranched up the Sweetwater from Sun. Their ranch was by far the largest on the Sweetwater. They also owned interests in meatpacking plants and in a Chicago cattle-marketing business.
Albert Bothwell first came to the Sweetwater valley in the mid-1880s, looking for mining, ranching, and real-estate opportunities. In 1885, he acquired the 76 Ranch, with its headquarters less than a mile from Averell’s store, but he did not start running cattle until the summer of 1888. Bothwell and a group of investors that same summer formed a company and founded the “town” of Bothwell about a mile west of Watson’s cabins, and offered lots for high prices. Brochures described a town with a store, blacksmith shop, post office, and a newspaper, the Sweetwater Chief, and said the railroad would soon link the Sweetwater Valley to Casper.
Robert Conner ranched a few miles up Horse Creek from Watson’s and Averell’s homestead claims. He was originally from eastern Pennsylvania, where his stepfather had made a fortune in the coal business.
Robert Galbraith was a well-known railroad mechanic from Rawlins and a member of the Territorial Legislature, who visited the Sweetwater in July of 1889 to buy a herd of cattle from Albert Bothwell.
Ernie McLean was a cowboy who worked for John Durbin.
For few years, in the early 1880s, some people made a lot of money in the cattle business in Wyoming. Soon, however, there were too many cattle. Many went unbranded, and cattle thieves—rustlers—took advantage of this confusion. Then, with so many cattle coming to market, prices began to fall. Much of the grass was eaten off the range. Then came one or two hot, dry summers, and a winter so bad it’s still famous. Thousands of cattle died. Many ranchers quit. But prices stayed low, and the range was still overgrazed. These problems made business hard for all ranchers. But some, rather than face the tough chore of figuring out what was wrong, found it simpler to blame all their troubles on rustlers.
Nearly all the land still belonged to the government. To control the range where their cattle grazed, ranchers needed only to control the water. That it was necessary to own only small scraps of land with springs or creeks on them. But when people like Watson and Averell came along, fencing pastures for their small herds, digging irrigation ditches to water their gardens, or building stores, it upset familiar ways of using the land. Big ranchers didn’t like it. Bothwell approached Watson two or three times about buying her land, but she refused every time. This would have angered him.
Because Averell was a surveyor, he understood land law. He and Watson formally questioned the legality of some of Durbin’s and Conner’s land claims. Then in February, 1889, Averell wrote a letter to the Casper Weekly Mail warning people that the brand-new “town” of Bothwell was a scam: “just a geographical expression,” he put it, without a single house. Bothwell and his investors must have been infuriated. But Averell was essentially right. The only building in Bothwell was the office of its newspaper, the Sweetwater Chief. Bothwell and his partners needed customers to buy the expensive lots. The paper was there to advertise the town.
Twice each year, ranches got together to round up the cattle. In the spring, cowboys cut their ranches’ calves out from the rest, and then branded them. In the fall, they separated the calves from their mothers, and drove some to the railroad to ship to market. The spring roundup for the lower Sweetwater ended the 19th of July, 1889, with a branding at Beulah Belle Lake, about eight miles west of Watson’s cabins on Horse Creek. Durbin, Sun (right, about 1880), and Bothwell, the bosses on that roundup, may have been talking for months about what to do about Averell and Watson.
On Saturday morning, the 20th of July, Durbin, Sun, Bothwell, Galbraith, and McLean rode east toward Horse Creek. Sun was driving his buggy. The rest were on horseback. They stopped at the office of the Sweetwater Chief, where they found Conner talking with the newspaper editor. Then the six men rode to Watson’s ranch, where they tore down her fence, let her cattle out, and threatened to kill her unless she got in the buggy. She got in. They headed south toward Averell’s store but met him first, driving an empty wagon toward Casper for supplies. At gunpoint they forced him, too, into the buggy. To stay out of sight of the store, the cattlemen took a roundabout route to the Sweetwater River, and then headed west, upstream, for two miles. A friend of Averell’s named Frank Buchanan followed them at a safe distance. Finally they left the river and headed up a gulch in the rocky hills south of Independence Rock. Buchanan got close enough to see Averell and Watson standing on a large rock under a limber pine tree. Two lariats had been slung over the biggest branch. A rope was around Averell’s neck. Watson was trying to keep McLean from getting the other rope around her neck, too.
Buchanan fired his revolver until he ran out of bullets. The lynchers fired back with rifles. Buchanan fled, and rode as far as he could toward Casper, to the ranch of a man named Healy, who rode to Casper the next morning with the news. A man and a woman, he reported, had been hanged near the Sweetwater River.
“DOUBLE LYNCHING,” ran the headline that Tuesday in the Cheyenne Sun. The story was datelined Douglas, implying that it had been sent by telegraph from there.
Averell, it said, “kept a ‘hog’ ranch,” that is, a rural brothel. Watson, it added, “was a prostitute who lived with him and is the person who recently figured in the dispatches as Cattle Kate …”
A much longer story in the Cheyenne Daily Leader the same day charged Averell “and a virago who has been living with him as his wife” with cattle stealing. When the ranchers learned that her corral held fifty head of newly branded steers, the paper reported, they decided they had to act. At night, ten to twenty men snuck up on the cabin. Inside, Watson and Averell were playing cards and drinking whiskey.
(Left, Ella Watson's cabin on Horse Creek, 1912. Hanna Museum photo.)
The leader stationed a man with a rifle at each window, and then led a rush on the door. “The sound of ‘Hands up!’ sounded above the crash of glass as the rifles were levelled at the strangely assorted pair of thieves,” the Daily Leader reported.
They were hanged, said the paper, from the limb of a big cottonwood tree by the riverbank. Averell supposedly whined and begged for his life. The woman stayed defiant, and “died with curses on her foul lips.”
Among all these inaccuracies and exaggerations, perhaps most interesting are the ones surrounding Watson’s name. The Sun confused her with a notorious and probably fictitious prostitute named Kate Maxwell, of the town of Bessemer, Wyoming, west of Casper. Maxwell had figured in news stories earlier that year about the theft of money from a gambler. Thought the nickname “Cattle Kate” was used earlier about Maxwell, there is no evidence it was ever used about Watson in her lifetime. A close reading of the story in the Daily Leader shows that it uses no name for Watson at all. Nor does it call her a prostitute. (A “virago” is just a strong, loud woman.) And even though the other Cheyenne paper, the Sun, completely reversed its tone and gave a fairly factual account in a second story on July 24, the charge that she was a prostitute and the name “Cattle Kate” have stuck ever since.
As long as there have been crimes, criminals have tried to avoid responsibility by making it look as though the victims deserved what happened to them. This seems to have been what the cattlemen were doing.
Word of the hanging, said the Daily Leader, came to Rawlins by “a special courier,”—a rider, that would mean. From Rawlins, the news was telegraphed to George Henderson, “who happened to be in the capital.” Henderson was foreman of the 71 Ranch on the Sweetwater, and a friend of Sun, Durbin, and Bothwell. The “courier” was probably Ernie McLean, Durbin’s cowboy. Henderson was sympathetic with the lynchers, and his boss years later wrote that Henderson was partly involved. So it would make sense that Henderson was in Cheyenne on purpose, to make sure the papers printed a version the cattlemen liked. They did just that, and papers all over the country took their tone from the Leader.
Immediately, the story went national, with a story in the New York World the same day. Three weeks later, the National Police Gazette, the National Enquirer of its time, went much further—“Border Beauty Barbarously Boosted Branchward”—ran its headline, with a full page of dramatic illustrations of the capture and the gruesome death.
The Casper and Rawlins papers worked more slowly. They talked to people who knew what happened. Already, it was clear to some that land disputes, not cattle theft, were what the lynching was about. And the later events show they may have been right. Bothwell in the next few years absorbed Averell’s and Watson’s land claims into his own ranch. No papers ever reported that.
As so often happens, the most lurid version of the story, the one with sex in it, had the most staying power over time. John Clay, George Henderson’s boss was an influential, well-connected man and a good writer. In the early 1920s he wrote that Watson “known as ‘Cattle Kate’ … was a prostitute of the lowest type, and while Averill and a man called Buchanan were her intimates, she was common property of the cowboys for miles around.. …” And when longtime Casper newspaperman A.J. Mokler wrote his History of Natrona County in 1922, he wrote that it was Watson, not Averell who ran a “hog ranch,” that she had taken the name of Kate Maxwell, and that she was known to her friends as “Cattle Kate.”
Later writers picked up that version. When University of Wyoming Professor T.A. Larson first published his History of Wyoming in 1965, he was careful to separate fact from allegation. “Ella Watson, who was known thereafter as Cattle Kate, was variously described as a prostitute and Averell’s paramour [girlfriend]. … It was said also that she accepted stolen cattle from cowboys in return for her favors.” (Larson, 269) It’s true that such things were said, but the newspapers said them first.
The War on Powder River, published in 1966, is an excellent history of the so-called Johnson County War, when about 50 Wyoming ranchers and hired Texas gunmen invaded Johnson County in northern Wyoming in 1892, to kill rustlers. The Watson-Averell lynching caused a lot of the bad feeling that led to the invasion. In her chapter on the hanging, author Helena Huntington Smith severely criticizes the Cheyenne papers. But even Smith writes “Ella was a prostitute who accepted recompense for her favors in the form of stolen yearlings and may have gotten in deeper. That is the accusation against her.” (121)
Watson may have been a prostitute. There’s no way to know for sure. But by the time she was hanged, all her recorded actions—taking up a homestead claim, protesting the illegal claims of her neighbors, buying a brand for her cattle, signing a political petition, applying for a marriage license—show her only as a woman who wanted to own land and be secure, and who wasn’t shy about her ambitions. These strong, clear character traits may have been what got her killed.
As Wyoming moved that year toward statehood, the lynching must have made its women nervous—must have made everyone nervous, for that matter. Here they were, living in the only territory or state that allowed women to vote. At the same time they were living in the only territory or state where a woman was ever hanged from the branch of a tree. It’s a troubling pair of facts. The papers owed it to their readers to get the facts right the first time out. Historians owe it to their readers to correct earlier errors. It’s never too late to get things right.
Newspapers and Magazines:
“A DOUBLE LYNCHING, Postmaster Averill and His Wife Hang for Cattle Stealing,” Cheyenne Daily Leader, July 23, 1889. This account is reprinted in Armstrong, J. Reuel, Documents of Wyoming Heritage. Cheyenne: Wyoming Bicentennial Commission, 1976, which is in most Wyoming libaries.
"CATTLE KATE'S CAREER, A Blaspheming Border Beauty Barbarously Boosted Branchward," The National Police Gazette, Aug. 10, 1889, p. 6. Heavily illustrated. Kevin Anderson maintains an electronic copy at the Western History Center at Casper College.
“Press Comments on the Lynching Affair,” Casper Weekly Mail, August 2, 1889, and other stories without headlines in the same publication, Aug. 16, 1889, Aug. 23, 1889, and Sept. 20, 1889.
Daniel Meschter’s book, Sweetwater Sunset (see below), reprints verbatim most of Wyoming newspaper stories on the lynching that ran at the time.
The office of the District Court in Rawlins has kept copies of a number of documents from 1889 relating to the Watson-Averell lynching. These include inventories of Watson’s and Averell’s property and household goods after they died, records of one of the two coroner’s inquests, records of a lawsuit brought against Durbin and Bothwell for having stolen Watson’s cattle, and records of the criminal case that was brought against all six lynchers in October, 1889. The case was dropped because all witnesses by then had died or left.
A rare photo of Watson and her first husband, William Pickell, as well as some land-claim maps Averell worked up for survey customers, are in the Hufsmith and Anderson collections at the Casper College/Western History Center.
The Wyoming State Archives has a head-and-shoulders photo of Averell, a photo of Watson on horseback, and at least two photos of Tom Sun.
Hufsmith, George W. The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate. Glendo, Wyoming: High Plains Press, 1993. Hufsmith was the first author to go back to the land-claims evidence to show that land, personalities, and economics drove the lynchers to their crime much more than cattle rustling did. This book is in all Wyoming libraries.
Meschter, Daniel Y. Sweetwater Sunset: A History of the Lynching of James Averell and Ella Watson near Independence Rock Wyoming on July 20, 1889. Wenatchee, WA.: privately published, 1996. Meschter’s was the second book to do the same thing, and he does a more careful, organized and thorough job. This book is in the Carbon County, Natrona County, and Casper College libraries, and not many others.
Smith, Helena Huntington. The War on Powder River: The History of an Insurrection. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966. See pp. 121-134 for Chapter Eighteen, “The Crime on the Sweetwater.” Smith comes down hard on the newspapers.
See “The Lynching of My Great Aunt,” a website first put up about 10 years ago by Ella Watson’s great nephew, Dan Brumbaugh. The site is full of information but it gives few sources for its facts.
See listings above for the Carbon County Courthouse and the Casper College library’s Western History Collection.
The Sweetwater Valley itself looks much the same as it must have in 1889. From the top of Independence Rock, a person with field glasses can see almost all the sites important to this story—the site of Averell’s store, the old crossing of the Sweetwater, Watson’s ranch, and the hanging gulch.
PHOTO CREDITS:The photos of Jim Averell (negative # 1360), Ella Watson on horseback, and Tom Sun (negative # 27787) are from the Wyoming State Archives. The photo of the moccasins is from the Wyoming State Museum's website. The photo of Ella Watson and her first husband, William Pickell, is from Dan Brumbaugh's "The Lynching of My Great Aunt" website. The1912 photo of Watson's cabin is from the Lora Nichols collection at the Grand Encampment Museum in Encampment, Wyo., with thanks to Nancy and Victor Anderson. The photo of the hanging tree is mine.