Johnson County War

From Wyoming Tales and Trails

This page: Johnson County War continued, the siege of the KC and murder of Nick Ray and Nate Champion, "the bravest man in Johnson County."

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About This Site

Nate Champion on left-most horse, Dudley Champion at far right, 1880's.

On the morning of April 5, 1892, a three car special Union Pacific Train pulled out of Denver bound for Cheyenne. On board were Tom Smith, 22 hired Texas gunmen including former Johnson County Sheriff Frank Canton, the 225 lb. Jim Dudley, clad only in trousers, shoes and a light shirt, and the expedition physician, Charles Penrose.

Frank Canton

Canton had served as sheriff for four years, 1882-1886, and was unrelenting in his opposition to rustlers. He was responsible for a territory that included not only present day Johnson and Sheridan Counties, but parts of present day Washakie, Big Horn and Hot Springs Counties. During his term he captured the notorious Teton Jackson (see The Grand Tetons), and hanged the murderer Bill Booth who poisoned his victims (the only legal hanging ever conducted in Johnson County). It cost the county $44.03 for the lumber for the scaffold. It often required two stage coaches at a time to carry his prisoners off to the territorial prison. After Canton left office, there was certainly no friendship lost between Champion and Canton. Canton took employment as a stock detective with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. On November 1, 1891, four gunmen attacked Ross Gilbertson and Nate Champion who were in a line shack on Powder River. Champion accused Canton of being one of the gunmen. It is now believed that the four were Joe Elliott, Tom Smith, Frank Canton, and Fred Coates. Elliott was also in the employ of the WSGA as a cattle detective and had previously worked for the 101 near present day Moorcroft. Harry Sinclair Drago in his The Great Range Wars: Violence on the Grasslands, University of Nebraska Press, 1985, summed up Canton, "Frank Canton was a merciless, congenital, emotionless killer. For pay, he murdered eight -- very likely ten men." Drago concluded, "Even Jesse James was kind to his mother."

At Cheyenne, a baggage car, three stockcars, a caboose, and a flatcar bearing three Studebaker freight wagons laden with dynamite and other supplies, were added to the special. At Cheyenne, various stockmen including W. C. Irvine, Bob Tisdale, and John Tisdale (unrelated to the Tisdale that had been murdered) boarded the train, along with two newspaper reporters, Ed Towse of the Cheyenne Sun and Sam T. Clover of the Chicago Herald. Off into the night, with the stockmen and the Texans separated, the train proceeding north, under the command of Wolcott. The special stopped once to confirm that the telegraph line to the sleeping town of Buffalo was down.

Mike Shonsey

Matters almost from the beginning went awry. Major Wolcott got into an argument with Smith and Canton, which resulted in Wolcott resigning his command. Smith became the leader of the Texans, and Canton commander of the expedition. The expedition detrained at Casper. There, difficulties were encountered in finding a horse big enough for Dudley. But soon the party was underway, but going was slow. First there was the mud. Then, at breakfast the horses broke loose. One of the heavily laden Studebakers broke through a bridge. Then the party ran into an unexpected snowstorm. It took two days to reach the anticipated first night's destination, Tisdale's ranch. There, Canton, concerned about the delay, urged attacking Buffalo directly. Mike Shonsey appeared. He reported that he had spent the previous night at the KC and Champion was there with Ray and two trappers. [Writer's note, some sources indicate that Shonsey lied and told the expedition that there were 14 rustlers holed up in the cabin.] With the prospect of a bird in hand, the party voted to attack Champion's KC, fifteen miles away. The snow worsened and it took six hours to make it to the KC.

Tom Smith

Meanwhile, at the KC, a modest establishment consisting of little more than a cabin and a stable, there were four occupants, Nate Champion; Nick Ray, an unemployed itinerant Missouri cowboy, perhaps "working the line;" and two trappers, Ben Jones and Bill Walker, spending the night because of the raging blizzard. Wyoming, because of distances, desolation, and loneliness, has had a tradition of hospitality. Thus, travelers were always welcome for a meal. In the winter before spring roundup when there was little work, waddies or itinerant cowboys would "work the grub line" by stopping at cabins and ranches where they knew they could receive a warm meal and be welcome.

During the predawn hours, the expedition occupied the stable, a creek bed and ravine near the cabin and lay in wait. In the morning, Jones came out to get a pail of water and was promptly captured by the self-styled "regulators." Walker came out looking for his partner and was also taken. Champion busied himself fixing breakfast and Ray emerged to get firewood. A shot, allegedly fired by a young regulator, D. E. "the Texas Kid" Brooke. hit Ray. The Kid was so called because he was barely old enough to shave. Champion grabbed Ray, pulling him back into the cabin. During the day, Champion and the "regulators" exchanged shots. During lulls, Champion kept a log in an old notebook, later printed by Sam Clover:

"Me and Nick was getting breakfast when the attack took place. Two men was with us- Bill Jones and another man. The old man went after water and did not come back. His friend went to see what was the matter and he did not come back. Nick started out and I told him to look out, that I thought there was someone at the stable and would not let them come back.

Nick is shot but not dead yet. He is awful sick. I must go and wait on him.

It is now about two hours since the first shot. Nick is still alive.

Boys, there is bullets coming like hail. They are shooting from the stable and river and back of the house.

Them fellows is in such shape I canít get at them. They are shooting from the stable and river and back of the house. Nick is dead, he died about 9 o'clock. I see a smoke down at the stable. I think they have fired it. I don't think they intend to let me get away this time.

Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now, I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once.

Bar C Round-up Wagon
Left to Right, Standing: H. W. "Hank" Devoe, Ray Peters; George Gordon; Cheston Morris; Nate Champion; Joe Vincent.
Seated: Buck Jackson, Jack Donahue, (Edward H.?) Hall, Hice McCarty, Segal "Sig" Donahue, Martin Allison "Johnny" Tisdale, Bill Rankin, Jack Flagg.

Hank Devoe was the foreman of the Bar C. The Bar C was a small British-owned outfit. About three o'clock, Champion notes in the log that two men had passed by and were fired on, "I seen lots of men come out on horses on the other side of river and take after them." Unbeknownst to Champion, the men passing by were Oscar Hite "Jack" Flagg and his stepson. Flagg was a neighbor and one with whom Champion had ridden roundup on the old Bar C Ranch before it went broke. Flagg was one of the cowboys that had been blacklisted by the WSGA as was Johnny Tisdale. Flagg took up a homestead on the Red Fork of Powder River a short distance below the mouth of Devoe Canyon. [Writer's note, Flagg was also a distant cousin of the writer's mother-in-law.]

Jack Donahue previously had been foreman for Sir Horace Plunkett but was fired and replaced by Phil DuFran. After Johnny Tisdale was bushwhacked, Donahue, with two others, discovered the body. Johnny's body was lying over Christmas toys he was taking home for his children.

Flagg and his stepson made good their escape and raced to Trabing's Postoffice about 16 miles southeast of Buffalo to raise the alarm. There, they raised a small posse to come to the relief of Champion. On the way back to the K C they met another posse who had learned of the invasion from Terrence Smith, a neighbor of the K C. Smith had heard the shooting coming from the K C and realized its import. The two groups of men combined their forces. Smith raced the 60 miles to Buffalo to alert Sheriff Angus. With another posse of 12 men, the Sheriff rode to the K C where they found the body of Champion and with the burned cabin the charred remains of Ray. With the word out, the Sheriff was able to raise a posse of over two hundred men, all of whom were deputized by Sheriff Angus. Indeed, it appears that some in the posse may have actually taken up arms against their employers. Thus, John J. Baker, joined Sheriff Angus's posse. Baker, a Texan, had been orphaned at age 9. By age 13 he was a cowboy. Later he trailed cattle up from Texas and joined the Niedringhaus Brothers' N Bar N. By 1892, he was riding for the W L Ranch in Johnson County, but was fired when he refused to join the regulators. Instead, he joined with Sheriff Angus.

The Posse can be traced back to pre-Norman Conquest England. There the sheriff could raise a "hue and cry" in which the sheriff could require able-bodied men to join in chasing violators of the law. The office of sheriff can be traced back to at least the 9th Century. Indeed, the office is the second oldest in the English-speaking world; only the office of the Crown is older.

But enough of the digression. Meanwhile back at the ranch, the battle continued with Champion writing:

"I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house to-night.

I think I will make a break when night comes if alive.

The regulators took a wagon and loaded it with flamables and shoved it into the cabin. Champion's final message written in the notebook:

The house is all fired. Goodbye boys, if I never see you again.

Nathan D. Champion

Champion dashed out the rear door of the cabin and was hit in the leg by a shot. Then a shot from Shonsey hit Champion, but the regulators kept firing, ultimately there were more than 24 bullets in Champion. And there his body lay for several days, and, according to the New York Times, April 14, 1892, coyotes ate "nearly all of it." Of Ray's corpse there was "left but the skull and part of the shoulders."

Next page, Johnson County War continued, the seige at the TA.