Joe Elliott was born in Leroy, Dodge County, Wisconsin, on May 2nd, 1860. His father was Charles Amiah Elliott, originally from New York state, and his mother was from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Joe explained how his father had served in the military in the Mexican War…
“under Taylor’s command, I believe, but didn’t get into any of the fighting. For some reason they were in camp for a long time around New Orleans. They left camp, finally, and went across the Gulf to Vera Cruz, but Scott had already taken the city of Mexico, and the war was over. After they returned, to that same camp, my father contracted what they called at that time ‘chronic diarrhea.’ He was discharged from the army on that account, and he was rejected for that reason when he volunteered for service in the Civil War.”
In Joe’s interview with B. W. Hope, he seems to express a life-long respect and admiration for military service. His detailed account of his father’s military service seems significant relative to how few details there are about Charles Amiah. He would reiterate his respect for the military, and military men, in other places in the interview; and Hope, in his character sketch of Joe, commented how he might have been a “retired military man.” Here’s what he wrote about the troops outside of Buffalo who took them into custody.
“When we left Fort McKinney to ride to the railroad, an incident happened that impressed me with the power of the military, of disciplined troops, and I often think of it. Leaving the fort we ran into a bunch of those rustlers blocking way past a patch of willows. The soldiers tried to shove them out of the way; they wouldn’t bove. Major Fechet gave the order, “ready Arms!” and three hundred carbines flashed out. Those fellows moved!”
About these troops Joe would also say how “Those soldiers didn’t like us and they made it plain. They’d been stationed there in that country and their sympathies were on that side.”
A cousin I didn’t know I had found me through my website and sent me photos that she had of Charles Amiah and his wife, Elizabeth Davis. The two look like opposite types. Elizabeth’s pale, boney features, her thin lips and jutting chin, make her look severe and puritanical, and her features — especially her long chin — has been passed on to many in my family. Charles Amiah, on the other hand, had high, rounded cheeks and thick dark hair. Beside her, Charles looks the picture of passion and sensuality. His dark complexion and hair can be seen in my uncle George and his son, my cousin Kirk. My late aunt Carrie shared with George and Kirk an obvious love of life and pleasure and fun, as well as these darker looks. And though Joe himself seemed to have inherited more of his mother’s severity in looks and temperament, he passed down some of Charles’ genes too.
When Joe was about nine or ten the Elliotts moved 400 miles west to Owatonna, Minnesota:
“…drove there in the dead of winter, with a team and bob sled. I remember we crossed the Mississippi at La Crosse, on the ice, and hit the railroad at Rochester. The family was put on the train for Owatonna there, while my father came on the with the team and sled.”
They bought land there, which was mostly wooded. Cutting trees and pulling stumps–”a lot of grubbing”–must have made positive reports from the plains sound inviting, because Charles Amiah sent his two oldest boys, Charles Jr. and Elvin Rogers, “to look the country over.” Their report was favorable, and after two years in Minnesota, the family “sold out, got two yolk of oxen, and traveled overland.” They traveled almost 300 miles to the southeast corner of South Dakota, to Elk Point, and visited Charles Amiah’s brother, David Horatio Elliott, then continued west and crossed the Missouri at Yankton, S.D. But when the family was camped one night about 50 miles west of Yankton, “somewhere about the mouth of the Running Water [Joe uses the translation of the Indian name for the Niobrara River], the Indians had one of their jubilees there, whooping it up in the night, dancing and yelling. My folks had heard that back in Wisconsin; my mother especially got nervous about it. They hitched up in the night and backtrailed. It seems to me that I can remember that — the drums beating and the wagons going in the night.”
The family headed back east for probably less than a week and came to Cedar County, Nebraska, where they heard of an abandoned house. They found the house and “took up a homestead.” Joe must have been twelve or thirteen when he helped to survey the land. At the time of his interview with B.W. Hope, over seventy years later, Joe still remembered the survey figures: “the S1/2 of the SE1/4 and the S1/2 of the SW1/4 of Section 21, Township 31, Range 2 East, on the 6th principal meridian”–a testimony of the staying power of a hands-on education!
Joe helped his father break prairie that summer: “I drove the oxen and my father held the plow.” Brothers Charles and Elvin were “away working for wages.” One of their jobs must have sounded both dangerous and glamorous to the young Joe. They were salvaging goods from a sunken steamboat, the Ida B. Reese II, which sank in 1871, in the dangerous waters of the upper Missouri near Pierre, S.D. These two brothers worked in California for a while around that same time. California must have seemed incredibly far away, and I imagine their adventures must have filled Joe with an impatience to get a little older, and to escape the farm and have his own adventures. But in his brothers’ absence, Joe would now have been big brother to his younger sister, Florence, and the two young boys, Jack and William Marian.
The year he would turn sixteen, Joe got his chance to join his older brothers, who had started freighting the year before between Fort Randall to the agency on White River – “Spot’s camp, they called it, meaning the chief, Spotted Tail” – near the site of the sunken Ida Reese. It was 1876, the country’s centennial year, and the brothers bought a second wagon and some more oxen, aiming to freight all the way to the Black Hills from Pierre. But Custer had lost his battle on the Little Big Horn that summer, and returning parties of warriors scared the young brothers out of the area; they turned back before they were half-way to Rapid City.
Joe remembered some characters from those times in South Dakota, one of which he met with his brothers on the way back to Pierre the summer of ’76: “[C]oming along the Running Water, we hear a voice, ‘Hello boys! Hello boys!’ It turned out to be an old hunter name George Owens. Everyone knew him by his moustache — one side of what white, the other side brown. He had studied to be a priest, but couldn’t stay away from the open country.
“At this time, he was hunting elk. I met him years later, around ’83, killing buffalo out of Terry, Montana. I’ve been told that after the buffalo were gone, he got in among the cowpunchers and the rustlers, and was one of those hung in Granville Stuart’s raids.” [The actions of “Stewart’s Stranglers,”* who shot or hung at least 18 men in Montana in the summer of 1884, would become inspiration to the planners of Johnson County Invasion of 1892.]
In 1877, the Elliott brothers managed to freight through to the Black Hills, and Joe relates a scene that they saw as they came into Rapid City: “I remember, we found four men hanging on a tree out on a hill from town. They’d stolen some stage company horses. A couple of us went up — there they were, four on one limb. Some men were there burying them — they’d let them down on a canvas, then flop them over into a hole. Then they threw the canvas in on top of them. ‘Let them all go to hell together,’ one of the burying party said.” This was probably Joe’s first experience of a lynching, and mentioning it 70 years later shows that the scene had made an impression. And it wouldn’t be the last time that he would witness to such a scene.
The patriarch Charles Amiah was killed that same year, when his team got loose with a wagon. I can only guess at what Joe and his brothers felt about it at the time — he said almost nothing of his relationship to his father — but it was surely a family tragedy. And it changed their lives permanently. Joe said he went back to their farm in Nebraska to stay with his mother for a while. The older brothers, if they went back at all, didn’t stay long. They went together to Washington State shortly after their father’s death and settled near what Joe called the Little Lewis River. A look a the number of Elliotts in the local phone books makes me suspect Joe meant the Lewis River in the southern part of the state, near the Columbia Gorge. Joe would never see them again. He heard that someone in the family, maybe one of his oldest brother’s sons, disappeared there and was thought to have drowned. The last he heard from either of them was a letter he received in 1892 or ’93, while he was in custody at Fort Russell. “My brother heard of a Joe Elliott in that scrap, and wrote me, saying he had a brother in that country by that name, and saying something like this, ‘If you are he, I’m glad you’re on the side you are.’ I answered that letter, and I don’t think I heard from them again.”
His sister, Ida May, visited him at Fort Russell. She had come all the way from Sacramento, California, where she lived with her husband. Sometime in the mid-to-late 1890s, when Joe was working for the South Dakota Stock Growers Association, his sister Florence visited him in Sturgis. He only commented how he didn’t think she had ever married – or this is all B. W. Hope recorded about her.
About his next youngest brother, he said, “At the time of the Johnson County scrap, I believe my brother Jack was around Buffalo someplace.” It seems he never saw Jack again after 1892. The town of Buffalo (the seat of Johnson County) and many of its prominent citizens were targets of the Johnson County invasion. Knowing what happened in those few spring days outside Buffalo, I have to wonder whether Jack had been among the hundreds of men who surrounded the TA Ranch, where Joe and the invaders were besieged. Jack, several years younger than Joe, would have been in his mid-to-late twenties in 1892, and would have suspected or known that Joe was among the invaders. Maybe he was employed by one of the ranchers/rustlers on the invaders’ “daisy list.” In any case, I think that Joe’s actions around Buffalo in ’91 and ’92 could have created some uncomfortable feelings between the two, if not outright conflict. Writings on the subject give the clear impression that, with a few exceptions, the residents of Buffalo were generally against the big Cattlemen for whom Joe worked. And the town’s feelings ran high against Joe, personally, for the two or so months he was held in Buffalo’s jail just before the invasion, awaiting trial for the attempted murder of Nate Champion. He was also suspected by many townspeople of involvement in the December ’91 murders of Ranger Jones and John A. Tisdale (Author John W. Davis thinks there’s a good chance that Elliott killed John A Tisdale, yet acknowledges the greater suspicion surrounding Frank Canton). And those same feelings among Buffalo residents ran high for a long time afterward. Joe’s trial was never brought to an actual conclusion, and many felt sure that he got away with murder. Jack’s relation to Joe would have been known, and likely caused some social awkwardness for the younger Elliott.
“The last I knew of my youngest brother, William Marian, I think he was working at Fort Meade, at Sturgis.” Considering that Joe was sometimes based in Sturgis during the five or so years before his disappearance in 1898, he might have had a chance to know William. Joe was thirty-eight when he left his life in South Dakota and Wyoming behind. Having not been born until the family reached Nebraska, William would have been, at most, twenty-six years old in 1898.
After Charles and Elvin left for Washington, Joe continued in the South Dakota freighting business, working the same route between Pierre and the Black Hills. He said that in all the time he was in the Black Hills, “I never panned a pan of dirt or stuck a pick in gravel. There was plenty of other work — making shingles, getting out wood, hauling hay for ore haulers and hacks.” This was also the time when he first met Calamity Jane, though they wouldn’t become friends until about fifteen years later, after the Invasion, when he befriended her husband.
During his freighting days, between ’77 and ’81, he mostly worked for a man named John Doherty, whom he admired greatly. With his father and older brothers gone, Doherty must have become a surrogate father to Joe, who was still a teenager when they met. “In the winter we’d go out to some place we had picked, put up a tent and hunt, and tan deerskins, while the oxen wintered out. We generally wintered on the Cheyenne or its tributaries, or over on Bad River. Doherty had ranches in that country.”
In 1879 Joe became involved in a freighter’s union (“‘Bull Union,’ they called it”) when a forwarding agent from Pierre named Fred Evans refused to pay the freighters the rate they had agreed upon. The freighters struck, and Evans used mule teams to move the freight. Joe said, “after they got out on the road a day or two the burrs on their wagons would get lost, and they’d be bogged down. I helped steal some of those burrs off those wagons.” It went to court and, with the help of a lawyer from Deadwood, the freighters won out in the end.
“In ’81 the railroad came into Belle Fourche from Chadron, and it was Molly-bar-the-door for the freighters.” Some of owners of the freighting companies, including John Doherty, thought they would go into the cattle business, so at 21 years old, Joe was sent west, apparently alone, to “scout around for a good range to locate on.” This occasioned perhaps the most memorable paragraph in his story:
“I’ve often thought of the little things that change a man’s whole life. At a fork in the road a mile or two west of Spearfish I drove my pack horse ahead of me and let him decide whether I went to Wyoming or Montana. He took the left-hand fork, and I went to Wyoming.”
Joe didn’t go into business with John Doherty, as far as I know, but this was the start of his long career in the cattle business. He hired out to a man named Bacon, manager of a cattle corporation based in the east — Laurel, Delaware — like many of the large Wyoming cattle ranches. The year before (’80), the company “had turned loose over on the head of Black Thunder.”
“My first Job for Bacon was cutting and hauling poles for a branding corral. Bacon came up and helped me carry them out to where we could get at them with a team.” Joe didn’t ride on the roundup that year, but was charged at one point with trailing the roundup in order to deliver a letter to Bacon, who immediately “lit right out for the east.” Though they worked together for only a short time, the two must have become friends: “Years later, in Boise, I heard of a prominent sheepman name O. F. Bacon (O. Frank Bacon, he used to sign his checks, and ‘Oooo Frank Bacon,’ the cowpunchers on the roundup would yell), I looked him up, and found it was the same man.”
In ’82, Joe and two other men, Charley Andrews and Dave Bickle, ran the outfit until the company sent a man out to take Bacon’s place. I. J. Morgan was “green but willing. At first he was lost all the time. We always had a man or two out looking for Morgan. But in time he turned out to be a crack cowman, and one of the best ropers I ever saw. He was always practicing, and after he learned how the rest of us would just stand back and watch when Morgan took down his rope.”
Joe fell into a leadership roll among the hired men. He gave orders in the daily work, even to Morgan, who kept the books and paid the wages. “I did the hiring and firing,” Joe says. The way he describes the work and the men he worked with, Joe clearly liked his life on the range. “Winters there, for the most part, we just laid around, ate and slept, and looked after our saddle horses. We’d go out every week or so and see where they were. We’d go into Sundance, of course, to the saloons — about all there was for a cowpuncher to do. At the ranch, we used to sit out and watch for a rider to come along, bringing news or mail. Life got pretty monotonous; we were always glad to see anyone.”
After Morgan’s first range foreman quit, Joe got the job, and did that for a year or two before being appointed foreman of their district’s general roundup. “The Wyoming Stockman’s Association appointed a commissioner for each roundup district in the state, as I remember it, and he appointed the roundup foreman for that district. I believe that was the way I got my job.”
Joe’s descriptions of cattle drives are worth quoting at length (and I’m not the first author to think so):
“It was the roundup foreman’s job to scatter his men out so as to cover the country, and to select a point to which each day’s drive would be made. The drives from different localities would be held back, and worked separately. Each outfit would work rotation around the different herds, so that they were all being worked at once.
“The 101–the Standard Cattle Company–alone branded 20,000 calves there every year for a number of years. I’ve had as high as 300 men on one roundup, and we rounded up as many as 12,000 head in one day. That was below the head of the Belle Fourche, up near Pumpkin Buttes. That was the biggest roundup I ever saw.
“I’ve seen the 101 lose as many as a thousand calves in one day. There’s only one way to drive cows and calves–get behind them and let them go. If you start crowding them they’ll split–the cows get separated from the calves, and then they start milling back to look for them. John Wintreling [presumably a drive foreman], on this day, started handling too many cattle with too few men. He had 10,000 cows and calves, working short handed, and when he tried to move them, away they’d go. You’d find a dead calf behind every sagebrush, after that drive.”
Of course a national idealization has built up around the cowboy life, an appreciation for the heartiness and prowess needed to live it. Joe, looking back over 50 years, would revel in that life, the men he worked with, and his own pride at having been a part of it. “Right there at Smithwick, I performed my best feat as a cowpuncher. We often had stampedes while crossing railroad tracks with cattle. A hoof would strike a rail, the herd would throw up their heads, and be gone. We used to cover the rails with sand to try to prevent that. At this time I speak of, our beef herd stampeded there at Smithwick while we were crossing the tracks, and I tied down three steers in half a mile.” This, despite a childhood injury that forever kept him from making a fist with his right hand.
That same injury slowed his pistol shooting too, but he says how “a couple of chance circumstances helped give me a reputation as a pistol shot…. It was the job of the roundup foreman to get rid of all the big-jaws that showed up. Once on a roundup I ran a big-jaw steer out of the herd, and killed him with a snap pistol shot. Another time a dog came by chasing a rabbit, off quite a distance, and I pulled my gun and shot that rabbit. I could have fired all day and not hit that rabbit again. Both times in a crowd, just where it would do me the most good. With a rifle, I didn’t care whether I had a reputation or not; I was good enough to get along without one.” I think to readers with knowledge of the 1891-92 events in Johnson County, this last boast stands out ominously. Indeed, Hope’s interview, these detail serve as a segue to the subject of rustlers. Here are his four paragraphs that introduce us to the subject, ending with another comment that stands out to researchers.
“A big problem on the roundup, of course, was the disposal of the mavericks–unbranded stock that wasn’t running with its mother, so that it could be claimed on that basis. Originally, we followed what was called the rule of the accustomed range: the maverick was put in the brand of the man who claimed the range where it was found. That worked fine as long as it worked at all. But there came to be plenty of room for contention there, with several men perhaps able to claim the range where the maverick was picked up. So the practice was adopted of selling all mavericks to the highest bidder, the proceeds going to the Association [the WSGA] to take care of the roundup expenses. The mavericks were bid for each day in advance, and it was my job as roundup foreman to see to it that they were branded with the brand of the highest bidder.
“The rustlers could deal me a lot of misery, by cutting out the mavericks and hiding them from me. The punchers wouldn’t help me–they weren’t paid 40 a month to fight thieves. I didn’t blame them.
“Down at Pumpkin Buttes, one time, we were rounding up cattle. Some fellows cut out some cattle and put them in another bunch. I put the steel to my horse and put them back where they belonged. They cut them out again, and I put them back again. Two of the outfit got off their horses with their Winchesters in their hands while the others were cutting them back and said, ‘If you want those cattle, cut them out again.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I think I made a mistake on the brands.’
“Do you think a man would take those kinds of things and then not want to get back at the men that did them? It’s human nature to want to get back.”
The November 1892 election in Wyoming was a disaster for the Republican party, whose leadership, right up to the state’s governor, was implicated in the Invasion of Johnson county. Moreover, the press campaign by the cattlemen to paint settlers as outlaws had caused a decline in immigration and investment into the state, so when the Panic of 1893 (the US’s worst economic depression to date) arrived, Wyoming was hit especially hard. Then, as today, the party that had just been voted out seized the moment to turn the blame for the economic troubles on the newly-elected Democratic leaders. And it worked: in the election of 1894, the Republicans swamped the Democrats, winning a large majority of the state’s legislative seats and the its two senate seats.
It can be argued that the Democratic government earned their defeat through scandal and infighting. The sale of their largest newspaper, the Cheyenne Daily Leader, in 1894, was no doubt a factor. Nonetheless, as John Davis points out, the Republican leadership recognized that Wyomingites “would not tolerate shenanigans such as the Johnson County invasion.” And though more lynchings and murders would happen as a result of fights over the Wyoming range in the coming decades, never again did leaders of the state make attempts to defend or justify such actions. So in Wyoming, anyway, 1892 marked the effective end of the rule of Judge Lynch.
Davis, John W. Wyoming Range War. University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.
By the late 1880s, the big cattlemen of Wyoming recognized that they had a problem on their hands: more and more settlers were taking up government land through Lincoln’s Homestead Act. Often they settled in areas which the owners of large ranches had long considered their own. The vast ranges they had virtually had to themselves were getting peopled and fenced. The settlers, many of them out-of-work cowboys, tried to make their way by starting small ranches. The WSGA responded to this almost always by blacklisting the small ranchers, meaning that they were barred from membership to the association, and therefore were forbidden from participating cattle drives. This mostly spelled ruin for the small ranchers, who had few other ways to get their beef to the markets.
And blacklists weren’t the only weapons employed by the big cattlemen. They had early on started a press campaign to spin stories about “rustlers” that needed to be run off of the range. They saw the herds of small ranchers as proof that they (the small ranchers) must be stealing cattle from the WSGA herds. In the absence of facts, they spread unfounded rumors of how these small ranchers’ herd could only have increased in size through rustling or “mavericking” – the appropriation of unbranded calves – when, in fact, many of the publicized accusations by cattlemen could be shown as a herd’s natural increase.
It’s hard these days to comprehend the cattlemen’s anti-rustler zealotry and the insane actions that it led to in 1889-1892. How the awful facts of the “Cattle Kate” murders could have been known (as they were at the time) and tolerated by a relatively large portion of the population is proof of the cattlemen’s power to influence popular opinion. For most of that time, they controlled the editorial boards of the largest newspapers in the state, and forwarded, along with outright lies, a party line that justified the extra-judicial killing of their enemies, no matter if their victims were rustlers or innocent settlers trying to make a livelihood. In any case, their victims were always painted as rustlers.
And the cattlemen’s tactics worked, right on through the invasion of Johnson County in April 1892. But Johnson County and its settlers would prove, in the end, to be formidable beyond the hubristic expectations of the cattle barons.
Two local men worked hard to identify and persecute individuals they saw as rustlers. One was an Englishman named Fred Hesse, a landowner associated with a large ranching interests. The other was the former sheriff of Johnson County, Frank Canton (a.k.a. Joe Horner). Joe Horner was a Texas outlaw who reinvented himself in Wyoming as Frank Canton. Voted out of his sheriff position in 1887 largely because of his heavy-handed tactics and lack of personal charm, he found work as a WSGA stock detective. Canton was bitter toward the residents of Johnson County, especially when they elected William G. “Red” Angus – a man he saw as part of the saloon and brothel crowd, not as a law man. But this would show his growing disconnect with the community of Buffalo, Johnson County’s seat, for Red Angus would prove from the beginning to take his duties as sheriff very seriously. He was widely admired, even by Joe Elliott, whom Angus would arrest in February of 1892 for the attempt on the lives of Nate Champion and Nick Ray the previous November.
Canton found in his cattlemen friends ready ears for stories of Angus’ laxity when it came to arresting cattle thieves, and his complaints of Angus’ and the settlers’ sympathies with rustlers and their reluctance to make convictions. The truth was that there had been few rustling cases brought before the county’s courts, and juries were known to judge the existing cases on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice. But this isn’t the kind of intelligence that the cattlemen wanted, and Canton knew this. He knew what information served them, and in serving them he served himself.
These are the men who brought in Joe Elliott, a former cowboy recently hired on as a stock detective, to work for them in 1891, when it became clear that certain Johnson County residents were becoming a problem for the cattlemen.
That spring, the big cattlemen had confiscated the herds of some of the small ranchers around Buffalo who had defied the WSGA’s boycott and participated in the drive with their own wagons. The big ranchers were sending the clear message that they were the law, and despite their propaganda that the confiscated herds were made up of stolen cattle, the residents of Buffalo knew better. The men branded as “rustlers” were some of Buffalo’s prominent citizens, known for their integrity and civic responsibility. They were men in their 20s and 30s trying to make homes and a stable community in a beautiful place. They had acquired their land legally and with no small amount of investment. None of them had ever been accused of rustling, and they weren’t going to be slandered and bullied by the likes of Frank Canton, a man they knew, and whom they clearly saw as the attack dog of their powerful enemies. So throughout 1891, they fought the confiscation of their cattle in the courts, and their side was defended in the editorial pages of the Buffalo press – unlike the Cheyenne press, which mostly parroted the party line of the big cattlemen.
It was this community effort to protect and assert the rights of its members that so rankled the big cattlemen, and it made them come to see virtually all of the county’s residents as their enemies. They became determined to teach the settlers a lesson.
Statewide, the cattlemen were beating the drum of the rustler problem, among themselves and in editorial columns. The rustlers had become so numerous, and settlers so sympathetic to the rustlers, that cattlemen started openly advocating lynching as a way to deal with suspected rustlers. But rustling was never as widespread as they claimed. The record shows that the people most persecuted by the anti-rustler campaigns of the time were honest settlers. Most got the message and left, but there were also a few high-profile lynchings. And though the communities decried these injustices, their voices were drowned out by the cattlemen’s control of public opinion through the Cheyenne press, whose columns were reprinted in newspapers all over the state.
So why would the cattlemen need to create these lies? Doesn’t it seem feasible that they would have recognized that times were changing, settlement was inevitable, and that they would also need to adapt? They didn’t seem to see this. To them, to adapt would mean to become more like the settlers: range their cattle on smaller pieces of land, spend money on hay for the winter, and accept the fencing of the range. There were a couple of reasons for their resistance to this change, which were philosophical as well as economical.
For many of the educated elite of the late 19th century, a kind of social Darwinism ruled the day. They took the idea of “survival of the fittest” to justify a might-is-right approach in the world. They looked at themselves, by virtue of their positions in society, as superior to, and therefore “fitter” than, settlers and homesteaders whom they felt they could either control or chase from “their” land at will. It is akin to the Nazi’s appropriation of the Nietzschian concept of the Übermensch (superman) to justify the extermination of Jews, minorities, gays, the handicapped, etc. Most of them knew better than to be too open about this belief in their own superiority, but it undoubtedly drove them in their ruthless scapegoating of homesteaders and small ranchers, even when they knew they (the homesteaders) weren’t rustling cattle.
One large economic reason for this scapegoating had to do with the hard winter of 1886-87, which killed about half of all the cattle on the Wyoming range, from small and large ranches alike. Many of the largest ranches went under, or were forced into buyouts by other outfits. No doubt many of the owners and overseers of such ranches came under a lot of pressure from their investors, who were often headquartered in the East, and as far away as England. These remote owners and investors became impatient and fearful, and probably tired of hearing about a natural disaster, the extent of which they could scarcely comprehend. As time went on, the cattlemen of Wyoming began to see in “the rustlers” a new, multi-purpose excuse for their depleted herds. The new influx of settlers, and the problems they posed for the cattlemen, set the stage for an the epic conflict – and new level of fabrication by the cattlemen when it came to the “rustler problem.”
March 17, 2010
In June of 1891, at the time Tom Waggoner was murdered, Joe Elliott was working as a stock detective for the the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association (WSGA), and served as a deputy sheriff for Weston County. It was a stock detective’s job to investigate and arrest cattle and horse thieves, and according to Joe, Tom Waggoner “was one of the worse thieves I ever knew of.” Joe knew Waggoner, and had heard stories of Waggoner’s thieving; but because Waggoner only kept cleanly-branded horses on his land, it was hard to make a case against him. And if a detective could make a case against a stock thief, juries at the time (increasingly unsympathetic to the WSGA and their agents) were reluctant to convict.
Readers can argue about what kind of man Tom Waggoner was, and whether the following story is true, but I think it illustrates how a shrewd horse rustler might have operated: ”Billy Lykins told me of one of Waggoner’s stunts. A bunch of emigrants came through that country with big fine horses, and Tom Waggoner slipped out and set them afoot – ran off their stock. When he thought they’d soaked long enough, he went down there, in a neighborly way – “Hello, folks.” They told him their horses had been stolen. “Oh yes,” he said, “it’s these big cattlemen over here. I’ve got a little ranch here, and they’re stealing from me, too.” Well, since he lived in the country, and knew who had their horses, they made arrangements with him to look for them, and so that he could get them when he found them, they gave him a bill of sale for the missing stock. He brought them some cayuses to get them out of the hills. And they were no sooner out of there than he was shipping those horses out and selling them down around Lincoln, Nebraska.”
Although Joe Elliott was never an official suspect in the murder (he says he was on official duty at the time of the murder, transporting a prisoner to another part of the state), it was nonetheless believed by many people then (and by many writers on the subject) that Joe Elliott was one of the men who killed Tom Waggoner. As Joe explained it, the suspicion that fell on him stemmed from his publicly threatening Waggoner in Merino shortly before the murder. Joe explains:
“He stole a fine team of horses from me there, and changed their brands, but they got away and came back to me. A couple of boys working for Waggoner told me all about it. I found Waggoner in a wholesale liquor store in Merino where he was sitting on a barrel. I told him about it – when he stole them, where he’d changed the brands, and so forth. He said, ‘What the hell are you going to do about it?’ I took off my hat and slapped him across the face with it. I thought he’d get up , but he didn’t. I threatened then to get him, and when he turned up missing everybody put two and two together and knew that I was the man who had done that job. ‘Elliott said he’d get him – and he’s done it.’ “
Joe denied involvement in the murder, but failed to mention another area of contention between him and Waggoner, which I found in an 1891 edition of theNewcastle Journal: Shortly before the murder, Waggoner was brought to court for “unlawfully influencing witnesses” in the cattle rustling case of a man named Tettley, whom Joe Elliott had arrested.
Not long after the incident in the liquor store, three men wearing goggles and bandanas over their faces (common garb for riders on the prairie) arrived at the Waggoner ranch about an hour after sunrise and, claiming to be officers from Sundance, took Waggoner away. His wife and brother assumed he had been arrested, but then reported him missing when his horse turned up back at the ranch. Almost 2 weeks after he was taken away, Waggoner’s body was found in a gulch about two miles from his home.
Joe Elliott, acting as deputy, was part of the search party. He claims to have been the first to find the body, but because of the suspicion that surrounded him, he kept quiet and waited for others in the party discover it. In the interviews he gave in the 1940s with B. W. Hope (the source of everything quoted here), Joe says he questioned Mrs. Waggoner himself about the men who took her husband away.
After Waggoner’s death, men with ties to the WSGA, including Joe’s friend Fred Coates, were put in charge of the Waggoner ranch. Joe was in charge of rounding up and securing Waggoner’s horse herd, which he estimated at about 1200 animals: “They were shipped out and sold, some of them, I think, way down in the south. I don’t think she got much out of them, because horses weren’t worth anything at that time, nor for years after, not until the Boer War.” Joe notes how the book, The Longest Rope, by D. F. Baber, contradicts this. Baber says that “The officials took over the horse herd and refused to settle with Tom’s widow.” Joe responds:
“She was his widow, and Tom was “head of a family,” as the book says–they had two children–because the authorities had come up there that spring and made Tom take her into town and marry her. They knew what was coming.”
Joe states unequivocally that the “stock men” killed Waggoner. Some would have considered Joe, an employee of the WSGA, a “stock man.” But Joe wore many hats — deputy sheriff, detective, surveyor, cowpuncher — and at that time seems to have considered himself a lawman first and foremost. I think that he knew about the plot to kill Waggoner, and maybe even had something to do with it. The liquor store incident shows his hatred of Waggoner, but with his ambitions in law enforcement, he couldn’t afford to go above the law. His alibi, which placed him in another part of the state with reliable witnesses (including Johnson County’s Sheriff Red Angus), suggests perhaps that he had foreknowledge of the murder, and arranged the errand in order to deflect the official suspicion that would inevitably surround him. Besides, there was likely little reason to get blood on his hands: at the time, there would have been plenty of lesser-known men who would gladly have done the job: out-of-work cowboys willing to do whatever it took to get in good with the WSGA. Around that same time, other equally high-profile killings were going on in other parts of the state, such as the notorious “Cattle Kate” killings. Such lynchings were widely seen as the WSGA showing the settlers (many of whom routinely and proudly rustled cattle from the big WSGA ranches) what would happen to stock thieves.
So, in my opinion, Joe had foreknowledge of Waggoner’s murder, and may have played an indirect role in it, but I don’t currently believe that he was one of the three men who took him away and hung him that morning in June of 1891.
Continued from “Joe Elliott’s Story”:
I was up at Jack Boyden’s, hunting and fishing. I left my horse and saddle and other stuff right there, took my Winchester and struck out, headed south and west. The first night I stayed at a house in Bear Gulch, the next I camped out, the third I stopped at a section house below Merino. In the fifth day I walked right by where we’d buried Waggoner nearly ten years before. That night I saw a storm was coming, so I built a wickiup in a cottonwood grove and slept there. It snowed like blazes and the next day, I came to a sheep wagon, and built me a fire near it. The owner and his wife came up there, bringing grub to the herder, and they told me to go on in the wagon, but I waited for the herder to come in, and spent the night there with him.
The next day, I believe, I made it into Douglas. The man at the livery stable there thought I was Joe Elliott — he’d worked with me — but I talked him out of it. He said, “Aren’t you Joe Elliott?” I said no. I told him I’d come up with a herd, and made an ass of myself, and wanted to get back home.
On the way south from Douglas, a Frenchmen by the name of Cully — Calais — overtook me in a wagon, and picked me up. He had a place up on the head of La Bonte. I spent a few days up there with him, pretending to prospect for copper. There was a good deal of it in there, all right.
I left there and headed on south. It was snowing, and it kept getting deeper. I saw a light, finally, that turned out to be a ranch owned by a couple of railroaders — two fine fellows. They told me a story of pawning a diamond ring with Johnny Owens, and of Owens refusing to give it back to them. I left my Winchester with them — told them I’d send back for it, though I knew I never would.
I went on from there to a mail carrier’s. He rented me a horse, and we struck out together across the plains to Rock Creek. I was glad I didn’t try that on foot. There was no timber, and it was cold. It took us till after dark to make it on horseback.
The agent at Rock Creek sent to Omaha for my ticket, and had it sent through with the conductor on the train for me. It cost me just half as much to buy a ticket for Sacramento from Omaha as from Rock Creek.
I arrived there on Christmas day. It was warm, and I shed my overcoat and caught pneumonia. I stayed at a hotel — the Great Western — until I was well, then paid my bill and left. I went over to Davisville. I walked into a hotel there, put my valisee on the counter, and said, “I’d like to speak to the proprietor.” The man at the desk said, “I’m the proprietor.” I said, “I need a room for the night, but I’m broke.” He turned the book around to me. “Sign right here.”
I signed, and he gave me a room. The next morning I was eating in the dining room and the man waiting table said, “Are you on the road? — meaning are you broke. I said yes, and he gave me enough food to last a man two or three days. Frank Hunt was the name of the man who ran that hotel. I went back to the desk and said, “I’d like to have some underwear out of my suitcase.” He said, “Take the suitcase, I don’t want it. Take it along.” Well, I didn’t take it; I didn’t want it.
I slept in a barn that night. A hobo I met on the road showed me how to burrow down in the hay, but I nearly froze. The next day I went over to Dunnegan. I walked into a hotel; a man sat there reading a newspaper. I said, “I need a room, and I haven’t any money.” He put the papter down. “Oh, I get that forty times a day,” and put the paper back up. I said, “Thank you,” and turned to go. He called to me, “Wait a minute. Will you work?” I said, “Yes.” Within a week he went to San Francisco, leaving his girl Cammy in charge of the kitchen, and me in charge of the office and stable. Then for a time I worked for his son in a vineyard. I almost had to sneak away from there to leave them.
Over Red Bluff, I stacked hay for an old man, who wanted me to go into the hog business with him. He wanted me to take charge of the hogs, and take an interest in them for my pay. But I didn’t want to raise hogs; I wanted to get into the mines.
Continuation of “Joe Elliott’s Story”:
I helped arrest and convict the men who murdered old Johnny Myers on his ranch there, southeast of Sturgis. I had known old Johnny years before, when we were both freighting into the hills. After the freighting days were over, he’d bought himself a little place where he could cut a lot of wild hay, and went into the cattle business.
He was feeding calves there one evening when three men came along. He invited them to stop in, and went to getting super for them, while they sat on a bunk watching him. Jay Hicks, one of the three, pulled his pistol and yelled, “Hey, old man!” Johnny turned and threw up his hands, and Jay shot him – claimed he thought he was going to put up a fight. While he lay there on the floor they demanded his money; he gave them all he had — 36 dollars. They insisted he had more, but he didn’t. He had shipped cattle, and they assumed he had the money for them.
They left him lying there, and built a fire in the middle of the room, intending to burn the house down, but it just burned a hole in the floor and went out.
He was found within a few days. We discovered the date he was killed by checking on a bottle of mediine he had there. We knew when he got it — Jim Bard had got it for him — and the dose, and we measured it out and found just how long it had been before he was killed. He was a very methodical old fellow, and we knew he would have taken it just according to the prescription. We found later that we had figured it just right.
We discovered that Jay Hicks and his friends had bought a pistol — “to shoot coyotes,” they’d said at the time. They all had Winchesters. That just about meant a man-killing.
Then an old man, who lived in the same neighborhood — I believe he was married to Jay Hicks’ sister — suspicioned that they had done it, and came and told us so.
To get the goods on them, I went down one night and crawled up on one of their dirt-roofed cabins, where they were all gathered playing cards, and listened down the stove pipe to them talking, and heard them tell the whole thing.
We got out warrants for them, and Sheriff Beaver and me rode out there. Jay was chopping wood. He gave us no trouble. When we took his gun we found it was empty. I asked him, “Why are you carrying an empty gun, Jay?” He said, “Better empty than loaded, sometimes.” Which was true enough, all right.
Then we went up and got the others — Bob Hicks, Will Walker, and Bob Walker. Bob Walker had nothing to do with it, but we wanted him anyway.
We were razzed about those arrests. No one believed they’d done it. On the way in with the prisoners, we stopped at Gene Holcomb’s ranch, and they’d razzed me about it. “You don’t really believe those boys are guilty. You’re just trying to build up a reputation for yourself.”
I told Tom Howry, the prosecuting attorney, what I knew, but I also told him I wouldn’t get up on the stand and tell that story; no one would have believed it.
We kept the prisoners apart. We kept Jay Hicks and Bob Walker in Sturgis, I believe, Bob Hicks at Rapid, and Will Walker in Custer. We cautioned the jailer never to speak to Bob Walker, and not to let anyone else talk to him.
Our problem was to hold them until we got more and better evidence. The examining magistrate was Judge Ash. It was his custom to stop in at Whittenbaught’s saloon early afternoon and get a drink. I got the sheriff and the prosecuting attorney to go with me to where he was, in the back room, and talked to him. We had a drink or two, and then we asked him, Can you hold them for us?” He waid, “Well, boys, you haven’t enought evidence.” I said, “I know positively that they did it.”
He fidgeted a little while, and then said, “I’ve known you for a long time, Joe, and I never knew you to pull a bad stunt. I’ll hold them for you.”
We kept getting razzed about those arrests. The school children took a vote, and voted them not guilty.
In a few weeks Bob Walker began asking for the sheriff, but we let him sweat a while, until finally he told the whole story. Then we showed Will Walker his brother Bob’s confession, and he admitted it all.
When the trial came up, Will Walker and Bob Hicks got prison sentences, and Jay Hicks was sentenced to hang. I sat in the window behind the judge when sentence was pronounced. Jay was as calm as any man, but the judge’s legs were trembling. At the hanging, I put on the black cap, and when I pulled Jay’s legs together it threw him a little off balance, and Conklin put out his hand to steady him. Jay smiled and said, “I’m a little unsteady this morning.” He was the calmest man of us all.
The fall of 1900 I decided to leave that country, and I decided that the best way to go was just to walk out — to disappear. I wanted to make a clean break with the whole thing, to put it all behind me. I was tired of having to be on the watch every minute, tired of making enemies.
[Joe remembered the year wrong; on October 28, 1898, the Sundance Gazette printed this: "The mysterious disappearance of Joe Elliott on the 16th last, has caused no little comment. It is said that he left Jack Boyden's ranch on on Sand creek for a short hunt and nothing is know of his present whereabouts." A week later, the Gazette printed this: "Nothing definite has been heard since our last issue concerning the whereabouts of Joe Elliott. The general opinion is that he has either taken his own life or met with foul play at the hands of enemies."]
Continuation of “Joe Elliott’s Story”:
I was in Sundance the time Jack O’Hara was killed in the fight at Stoneville. Jack had said to Fred Willard, “First time you want a posse, give me a chance. I’d like to go out with you.” I think Fred was a deputy U. S. marshall at that time.
Sometime after that Fred had a warrant for Axelbee, and heard that him and his horsethieves were over at Stoneville. He took his brother Cap — I think Cap was sheriff at Custer — and Jack O’Hara, and went out there. When they came into town they didn’t stop at the saloon, but went on over to the hotel — Stone’s place. They hadn’t much more than got there than Axelbee’s bunch, over at the saloon, pulled out — got in the brush along the river. Fred and Cap and Jack ran out and the ball opened. Some of the Axelbee’s pack animals got loose and ran back, and the boys at the saloon commenced shooting in front of them trying to scare them back to the outlaws. Like all fool cowpunchers, they favored the outlaw against the officer. Axelbee’s gang thought the boys in the saloon were shooting at them, and opened up on them — I think they killed two of their friends there.
O’Hara was killed about the first fire. Fred and Cap thought the shot came from the saloon. O’Hara knew he couln’t live but a few minutes. He said, “Remember me to the wife and kids.” It was about Christmas time, and he said, “I’ll miss the Tom and Jerries, won’t I?”
One of the outlaws was wounded but got away to a ranch down the river. The foreman sent word he was there. Fred went down and got him — killed him there.
I asked Fred later what became of Axelbee, and he told me this: “Cap and me found him in a cabin down on O’Fallon Creek, and left him there.”
At one time, Lew Stone was suspected of being in with the rustlers. The vigilantes had hung a couple of them — strung them up with their money and watches piled under their feet, it was said, to show that this killing wasn’t for money. Then they sent word to Lew Stone to leave the country. He posted a notice, to this effect: “Whoever has investigated me has made a mistake. I’m not guilty, and I’m going to stay.” And he did stay.
Lew Stone was a fine man. There ought to be a monument to him in that country.