1889: “Cattle Kate” Ella Watson lynched

On this date in 1889, Ella Watson, a homesteader with a small ranch, was demonstratively lynched by vigilantes of Wyoming’s powerful cattlemen.

“Cattle Kate”

In the Western frontier amidst the rapine of the Gilded Age, ranching oligopolists had Wyoming by the throat.

Ellen Watson was a late-30’s escapee of an abusive marriage in Kansas who had homesteaded her own land and set up shop as an independent proprietor.

This put her in a class of people soon to be pitted in a resource war against the big ranchers — the Johnson County War, to erupt in 1892.

Watson was a casualty of the increasingly violent run-up to open “war”, a period when the catchall “cattle rustling” charge did the dirty work of licensing arrests and property seizures (and worse) deemed convenient for Big Cattle. When the latter decided that Watson’s stock was stolen, they seized her and partner James Averell and strung them up.

Hanging from the limb of a stunted pine growing on the summit of a cliff fronting the Sweetwater River, were the bodies of James Averell and Ella Watson. Side by side they swing, their arms touching each other, their tongues protruding and their faces swollen and discolored almost beyond recognition. Common cowboy lariats had been used, and both had died by strangulation, neither fallen over two feet. Judging from signs too plain to be mistaken a desperate struggle had taken place on the cliff, and both man and woman had fought for their lives until the last.

The subsequent trial of the paramilitaries ended in acquittal when potential witnesses were bought off or intimidated into silence, leaving “Cattle Kate” a legendary figure most defined by cattlemen-controlled Cheyenne newspapers. These made her out to be not only a thief but a (literal) whore, an image sharply contested by George Hufsmith’s The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate.

Michael Cimino’s legendary cinematic Hindenburg Heaven’s Gate is about the Johnson County War, and features Isabelle Huppert as Watson, opposite Kris Kristofferson as Jim Averell. The film treats her sympathetically … but she’s also a madam who accepts payment for her cathouse’s services in the form of rustled cattle.

On this day..

4 thoughts on “1889: “Cattle Kate” Ella Watson lynched

  1. This case is extensively discussed by George W. Hufsmith in his 1993 book “The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate 1889” (High Plains Press). Hufsmith points out that Watson and Averell were almost certainly innocent of the accusations leveled against them. They were not rustlers, Watson was not a prostitute, Averell was not a pimp, Watson was not known in her lifetime as “Cattle Kate.” They had taken out a homestead claim on a piece of open range land that one of the wealthy cattle barons wanted to continue to exploit. Their deaths were followed by a well-coordinated propaganda campaign by the incredibly wealthy and powerful Wyoming Cattlemen’s Association

  2. searching for verification concerning the murderous vigilanties that were aquited from the july 25 1889 trial being hunted down and surrounded in a barn by a posse when the us calvary rode in to escort the paid killers out of the barn to safety. requesting cited proof of this happening, along with any other dicrepencies.

  3. There is a lot mystery about Ellen Watson. I have researched her life since 1986 through the family and went to Canada where she was born at. I am her grand nephew and my grandmother Mary Watson was one of the last ones born in Canada before the family moved to Smith County, Kansas in 1876 and homesteaded there. Ellen homesteaded in the middle of a cattleman’s pasture field next to Horse Creek in Carbon County, Wyoming. She controlled the water rights to the creek where she homesteaded. This angered the cattleman who thought all the land belonged to him. He tried to buy her out, she wouldn’t sell. He threatened her by leaving cross bones on her door, which didn’t frighten her. He threatened to drown her in the Sweetwater river. All this was over water and land rights that Ellen owned. The cattleman cut Ellen’s fences and ran her cattle off, and sold them at the auction in Cheyene, Wyoming for one dollar a head, after her death that is. The cattlemen association wanted to discredit her by calling her a whore and selling favors. Which was a lie. She was engaged to Jim Averell and had a small boy living with her so took in. I don’t believe she would of been selling favors with a young boy helping her on the homestead. Ellen Bought her cattle at Independence Rock from a settler that was passing through the area. The cattle had sore foot and couldn’t move any farther on the trail. She started her small herd that way. The big cattleman knew that, she had to pass his ranch house with the herd to her place. Of course she had to brand them before she could sell them at market. The cattleman told lies about Ella and her just bought cattle. She had recepts in Rawlins at the Hugus Bank, but they wouldn’t let her go get them to prove she bought the cattle.
    The old saying goes, “Walk in my shoes, before you talk about me.” The lies about Ella has been past down over 100 years.
    The movie “Heaven’s Gate ” is a joke. Jim Averell was never a Harvard graduate, he came from Canada. He spent a few years in the Army in Wyoming and helped survive the land there where he homesteaded at. His first wife died in child birth. He moved down to the Sweetwater area after his 1st wife died.
    Ellen did not run a bothel, she lived in a two room cabin she had built near Horse Creek, not in the desert where the movie protrayed. Ella was never in Johnson Country, she was in Carbon County and lived in that county from 1886 to 1889. Get the History facts straight before you tell it. History states that her death may of brought about the Johnson County War three years after her death.
    Ellen’s grand nephew

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