Joe Elliott and the Wyoming Range Wars

shadows of my great-grandfather's life

After the Invasion, Part Two

leave a comment »

… continued from “Joe Elliott’s Story”

I had been buying cattle, and was sitting in a hotel in Belle Fourche figuring up my books one time, when I heard a commotion out in the street. I said, “What’s going on?” “Oh,” someone said, “there’s a fellow out there trying to get in to kill you.” He was drunk; his wife and friends were trying to stop him. They got him stopped. I knew his wife, and I knew him. He wasn’t a tough nut, wasn’t that kind of a fellow at all. I finished up my books, and then left the hotel by the back way.

I bought a good many cattle around Belle Fourche at that time. Reddy Hale, Jack Hales’ brother, put up the money and I did the buying. The day we shipped, cattle dropped fifty cents a hundred on the Chicago market. We just broke even by the skin of our teeth. That was enough for me.

At another time, in Sturgis, a man nearly made me kill him, and he didn’t even know me. Sheriff Jesse Brown came and told me this fellow was trailing me, and said, “Don’t let those fellows run you out of town, Joe.” I took my Winchester into Fred Willard’s butcher shop and hung it there. I said, “If that fellow trails me in here I’m going to kill him.” Willard says, “That’s all right with me, Joe.” Well, he followed me, all right, followed me into the shop. I was standing back there with my hand on my gun when he came in. I could have taken him into my pile, all right. He stood there a minute, and turned around and walked out. And then Willard cussed me because I didn’t kill him. “Joe, why didn’t you kill him?” Well — you can’t do that way. I couldn’t kill them all.

When Ed Memmon went back to South Dakota after visiting me here, he saw this Joe Green, and Green told him, “I”d be glad to shake his hand in friendship.” I was glad to hear that.

I met Calamity Jane again during this time. I was sent up to Miles City after a prisoner. I had a requisition from our governor to the governor of Montana, but there was a flaw in it. I sent it back to South Dakota to get it corrected.

While I was waiting for it to come back, I used to go fishing; used to cross the Yellowtone on a ferry there.

Staying at the hotel where I did, was a nice quiet young man about my age, named Burke. We got acquainted and went fishing together. One day he asked me if i’d ever known Calamity Jane. I said I had. “Well,” he said, “she’s my wife, and she’ll be down here after a while.” He told me she’d been cooking in a logging camp when he met here. She did come down, and we made friends right away — talked about old friends in the Hills. She’d cook our fish for us. They had a little girl, that I assumed was theirs.

Before long I got my papers back, and took my prosoner back to South Dakota. We traveled by wagon. At the Powder River cossing some friends told me that the rustlers had learned I was coming through the country and that they were going to take my prosoner away from me. But I didn’t see anyone till I was out a few miles past Stoneville — Alzade — when I saw a man coming on the road, with a Winchester under his leg. I handed the lines to the prisoner, and held my Windchester across my lap and watched the rider as he went by. He might have been completely innocent — probably was — but I didn’t give him any chance.

I had told the prisoner that if his friends tried to take him away from me I’d kill him first, and he was pretty nervous.

Not long after that the Burkes came down and stayed at Scollard’s hotel in Sturgis. Scollard was mad at me about that — “sending Calamity Jane to my hotel” — but she was all right, she behaved herself. She looked and acted just like a big German housewife.

Later she went up to a mining camp — Terry, above Lead City — and I understand she died there.

I don’t think I ever saw Calamity Jane drunk, or carrying a gun — and look at all the stories they tell about her now. In the early days she was just a town woman, of course, a common prostitute, plying her trade at Pierre and in the Hills. But I think all this shoot-em-up stuff they write about her is pure fiction.

Years later, I saw in the California papers Scollard’s name listed as one of the jurors in the trial of Abe Ruef, the San Francisco political boss.

In Sturgis (“Scoop,” or “Scoop-town,” we called it in the early days) I had a room at V. M. Beaver’s house, and a barn where I could keep my horse, so that I could come into town or leave any time I wanted without attracting attention.

Beaver and Jesse Brown took turns being sheriff there for a long time — all the time I was in that country, at least. The law provided that a man could hold office for only one term — two years, I think — so first one and then the other would be sheriff. Beaver, when he wasn’t sheriff, would be night marshall in Sturgis. I was deputy sheriff under both of them. At one time, I was a deputy sheriff in three counties at once.

I was at Beaver’s the day Fred Willard killed Roy Sewell.

Roy broke jail (he was there for rustling), stole a Winchester from Fred Willard’s butcher shop — walked in and took it off the wall — and went down to the livery stable. I think he told them to saddle his horse. Then he started back up the street. It was said that he was going back to kill a man before he left town. The man ran a little store there — a sort of a confectionery or variety store — and the story was that he’d told something on Roy that wasn’t true.

Fred ran across the street to the hardware store and got a gun and went down the street toward the barn. He told me later that he figured he’d be responsible if anyone was killed with that gun Roy had taken from him. He saw Sewell coming, and ordered him to drop the gun. Sewell fired and missed; Fred shot Sewell and he bled to death in just a little while.

They said that Roy’s sweetheart came where he was lying, and dipped her handkerchief in his blood.

That was a damn fool thing for Roy to do. He could have just walked into the brush there and no one would have hunted him very hard. He was a well-liked young man.


Written by chadwalk

September 16, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

After the Invasion, Part One

leave a comment »

After the Johnson County War, Joe and the other invaders were taken to Cheyenne to be tried. Johnson County eventually ran out of funds to pay for the trial, so Joe (along with the few other invaders who hadn’t fled the state) were released. The following is from “Joe Elliott’s Story,” by B. W. Hope.

After the trial was over [late 1892–early 1893], Mike Shonsey started to Montana to take care of a herd there, and I went along as, I suppose, what you’d call a body guard. We left the train at Morecroft, and Billy Ricketts, of the half Circle L, met us at the 101 with horses. He warned us to turn back, said we’d be killed if we didn’t. The man in charge of the ranch at the 101 asked us if we planned to spend the night there. We said, yes, we’d planned to. He said, “You’re welcome, of course, but if you stay I’m going to take my family and get out of there, because there’ll sure be a battle before morning.” Well, that convinced us, and we turned back.

After this I was sent to work with Sam Moses, near the Nebraska line. Whether I was working for the Wyoming or the South Dakota Association I’m not sure; I made the change about that time

I remember a couple of the cases we handled

There was a fellow we called Spokane, who had a little place on Hat Creek. He’d drive out, shoot down what he wanted, and haul it in to a fellow in Edgemont who’d dispose of it for him. We watched him one day — Sam, Ed Blaikie and me — until he’d made his kill, and then we made a run on him. Sam yelled for him to surrender, but he jumped and grabbed his six-gun, and then jumped back behind the beef. He took a shot at us, and we opened up on him and wounded him in a place or two. He yelled out then; Sam told him to stand up. He did. When we got up there to him, Sam asked him what he started shooting for. “Spoke, what did you do a fool thing like that for?” He said, “I figured you sons of bitches would kill me anyway, so I might as well put up a fight.” That’s the kind of idea they had of us. He got five years I think.

We had another case at about that time over in the northwest corner of Nebraska. A pair of ranchers [rustlers?] over there were driving cattle into an old stable, and butchering them there. Sam and I and another fellow sat up with them until they started their kill in the morning, and then made a run on them. The barn was half dugout, built into the side of a hill, with a hole in the top of it for shoveling hay down to the stock. One of the fellows crawled out of the hole and ran off. We yelled for him to stop, but he was deaf, and it’s a wonder we didn’t kill him. But the other boys got him stopped without hurting him. I jumped down the hole into the stable, where the other man was, with Sam right behind me. It was dark-like, and I couldn’t see this second man. When I did see him, he was standing there with a big Colts .45 in both hands, just paralyzed with fear, too scared even to drop his gun when I yelled at him. I walked up to him and took the gun out of his hands. That was what you can call a hell of a situation — his wife and kids crying and yelling out there, and me afraid I was going to have to kill him.

They were tried at Harrison, I think. Sam didn’t want me to go down there; I had such a reputation in that country that he knew he’d never get a conviction if the jury knew I had anything to do with it. But they were acquitted anway, Sam told me later; a big storm came up during the trial, and the ranchers on the jury wanted to get home to their stock, so they just turned them loose.

It was at about this time that I went up to work for the South Dakota Stockgrowers’ Association. As time went by I discovered that the worst thieves in the country were a few of the men who hired me. One of them told the Association he didn’t want me to come up in his part of the country — “didn’t want to antagonize the people.” I found out later that he had a better reason than that for not wanting me around.

One outfit in Deadwood had a big funace under their slaughter house, where they burned their hides. When someone suggested that they be looked over, this same fellow said, “Oh, they’re too big — they wouldn’t pull anything crooked.”

This man and his partner stole $200,000 worth of cattle in one summer, I was told, stealing from the company this first fellow was working for.

Another pair bought a herd there, and the man in charge of the herd worked with them to rob his company. They bought the inspector in Omaha to get the cattle through, and told the eastern owners that the Indians had stolen their beef.

Another big cattleman took me to his home in Sturgis for dinner, introduced me to his family, treated me nice — and spread-the-news-to-Mary: “Look out — there’s a detective in the country.”

The head of the Association was honest, a front man. He didn’t know anything. He wrote me, when he sent me out on a job, “The success of your mission depends entirely upon your identity remaining unknown.” The biggest thief down there was one of the men who had hired me.

Here in Boise, Bill [Al?] Currington told me this story. He overheard Frank Stewart, the secretary of the Association, and someone else discussing who they should send out on a job. They decided to send me. Bill sent his brother Gene out to warn some friends of theirs that I was coming down.

The first job I did was over on the Belle Fourche, and I sent back for more help — too much ground to cover. They sent me Ed Hart. The thieves were stealing stock in the Short Pine hills, and hauling the beef into Belle Fourche. About all we could manage to do was scare them off, make them quit stealing.

The son of the man who had the beef contract for the reservation told me, “This is rustling country, and the rustlers will do more for you than the cowmen will.”

I knew what that meant. They wanted to buy me.

But I didn’t sell.

I liked that stock detective work. It was a good job. But it got mighty disagreeable in that country. It’s like this: you ride out across country; there’s a ranch here, one over there, ranches strung along the creek. You assume that these cattlemen — you assume that they’re cattlemen when you go in there — you assume that they’re your friends; you’re working for them, working to protect them. Then, gradually, you find out that they’re against you, that they don’t want you in there, that you’re working for your enemies.

There were more thieves between the Black Hills and Pierre than there were cattlemen.

There were men that wanted me, that fought for me and kept me there.

“This is rustling country,” that fellow said. He was right.

Gene Currington, here in Boise, has told me, “I don’t see how you stayed alive in that country, Joe. I knew so many men who said they were going to get you; so many groups of men threatening to kill you.”

That was principally because of the reputation I got over in Wyoming. “Joe Elliott — he’s the man that murdered all those people over there.”

I ran up against that all the time.

Written by chadwalk

September 16, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Joe Elliott hied himself to the country

with 2 comments

Sundance Gazette, 3/28/1885 – Joe Elliott dropped the white apron the first of the week and will hie himself to the range again. It is as natural for a range man to go there in spring, as it is for a duck to take its northward flight.

From the Sundance Gazette, September 12, 1885 — Thursday night last, Joe Elliott took Russell & Barton’s best team and buggy, and hied himself to the country, we presume, to see his girl. He tells the story: that as he had just passed through a gate and had gone back to close it, and thus left the team standing alone, they became scared and ‘vamoosed’ in the darkness, and he was left afoot on the prairie. Himself and others, hunted till noon for the outfit but could find no trace of them, and it was feared they might have gone over an embankment and killed themselves. About three o’clock however, Ike Meeks found the outfit in a gulch, the buggy upside down and the team standing quietly. Strange as it may appear, not a single thing was injured in any way. There were some happy boys when the rig was brought home, but that girl of Joe’s will have to talk mighty nice to him if she ever gets him out another night.

Sundance Gazette, 11/20/1886 — The familiar face of Joe Elliott is again seen on our streets. Joe has been on the range all summer.

Sundance Gazette, 01/25/1889 –Joe Elliott came in from the 6 half-circle this week to meet I. J. Morgan, the manager, who has been spending the winter in his old Delaware home. Mr. Morgan has not arrived yet, but is due here Feb. 1.

Sundance Gazette, 10/17/1890 –Deputy Sheriff Elliott, of Merino, was here several days this week. He says the cattle shipments for the season have nearly closed.

Sundance Gazette, 11/14/1890 –Last Friday Deputy-Sheriff Elliott arrested L. Tettley, a butcher at Merino, and two young men in his employ on the charge of stealing cattle. They were brought to Newcastle for a preliminary hearing. The boys, named Jake Trier and John Timm, had an examination before Henry Leppla, and were bound over to the district court on $900 and $1,000 bonds, in default of which they langush in the brand new county bastile. Tettley got a change of venue and James Shively heard the tale of woe, and bound him over to the tune of $1,500.

Two stories from the Sundance Gazette, 11/21/1890 — L. Tettley, the Merino butcher who was bound over to the district court on the charge of killing range cattle, was released yesterday he having furnished the required bond. T. Waggoner deposited 1,500 in the bank as a bond.
Deputy Sheriff Elliott brought word to town Tuesday that Tim Madden had died that day at Merino of pneumonia. He recently came from Buffalo, where he had been employed as a stage driver and cowboy. He was about 30 years old, and single.

Two Stories from Newcastle Journal 04/10/1891 –The case of the State vs. L. Tettley for rustling cattle was called. Tettley plead not guilty.
Information having been filed against Thomas Waggoner for attempting to influence a witness, the defense objected to the wording of the information and the objection was sustained. The grand jury will report at 2 o’clock this afternoon.

Wyoming Weekly Republican, 06/24/1891 — James Moore, better known as Jimmy, the Butcher, was found lying dead in his underclothes beside a building in Merino Wednesday morning. He has been a hard drinker for years, and for a month sobered up and worked in a meat market at Merino. Losing his job, he went on a spree lasting ten days, winding up in the above condition. He had evidently got up out of bed and gone out doors to vomit when he died from the effects of his debauch.

Newcastle Journal 06/26/1891 –Newcastle, Wyo., June 22 — The great topic of conversation the past week has been the lynching of Tom Wagoner, who is quite freely charged with not only being a horse rustler — this term meaning one who steals horses on the open range and by changing the brands or branding colts makes the property his own — but being the head of a gang operating between Nebraska through the Big Horn basin to Montana….

Cheyanne Weekly Sun, 07/02/1891 –NEWCASTLE, June 27. — Reports reached here to-night that three rustlers held up Deputy Sheriff Elliott at Wagoner’s ranch and orderd him to leave the county. It is feared thy have regained possession of the ranch and are running off horses.

Wyoming Weekly Republican, 07/08/1891 — A premature report of the probable taking off of Fred W. Coates, administrator of the estate of Tom Waggoner, and Deputy Sheriff Joe Elliott, by the rustlers about Waggoner’s ranch, was exploded by the return of Coates, Elliott, Sheriff Stack and Joe Duling, Sunday night at 10pm. The report started from a herder at the ranch, who became frightened at the stampede of the 60 head of horses in the pasture which broke through the wire fence, killing two horses in the melee. The herder came into Merino for assistance and said he had not seen Coates and Elliott for 3 days. Joe Elliott says he was fired on by two men who were supposed to be running off a bunch of horses. A number of shots were exchanged but no one was hurt. The men left the horses and Elliott run them into the ranch. This took place on the divide between Much and Fiddlers creek. Elliott left town on Tuesday with a load of grub and a cowboy to return to the ranch. He thinks rustlers are after some of the stock. Fred Coates will also return to the ranch. — Newcastle News.

All articles made available by the Wyoming Newspaper Project –

Written by chadwalk

September 16, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Lead-up to a War

leave a comment »

The late 1880s in Wyoming saw an increase in tensions between small ranchers and the large cattle corporations, like the ones Joe Elliott worked for as a cowpuncher and cattle drive foreman in the 1880s. There were nearly a million head of cattle on the Wyoming rangelands in the mid-1880s. A successful homesteader might have had a couple thousand cattle on his land (usually much less), but a single cattle corporation might have owned anywhere from a few tens of thousands to 200,000 head of cattle. The large 101 ranch in northeastern Wyoming, owned by Joe Elliott’s friend Elias Whitcomb, “branded 20,000 calves a year for several years” (Hope).

The harsh winter of 1886-1887 had a couple of important consequences. For one, it killed off large numbers of cattle, precipitating the consolidation of some of the large outfits. For another, it was devastating to most small ranchers. Prior to that winter, Joe Elliott was a foreman in charge of large roundups, having as many as 300 hired cowboys under his supervision at one time. When his outfit, the Six Half Circle, merged with another company in ’87, he found himself unemployed. This led him, within a year or so, to take a job as a stock detective for the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association. Here’s what he said of that time:

After the hard winter of ’86-’87, when so many cattle died, the PLR and Six Half Circle were turned over to Billy Ricketts to run with the Half Circle L outfit, and I was out of a job.

I’m not clear on my moves for the next year or so. I jumped around so much at that time that I’m not sure of dates.

I drove one or two herds for the 101. They were driving up onto Beaver Creek in Montana. One, I think, I drove part way and turned over to Doc Long, who was driving a herd ahead of me, and I went back after another bunch.

I took a crew and went over and rounded up Uncle Whit’s (E. W. Whitcomb’s) horses. He wanted me to stay with him, on the expectation that he and his foreman would part company, and that I would take over. But I wouldn’t do it. I told him, “If you’re going to fire George now, I’ll go to work.” But I didn’t want the job otherwise.

Jack Rogers was sheriff of Crook county. He told me that if I wanted to, to come in and work for him as deputy sheriff. I didn’t. I think I went up and got one man, and brought him back to Sundance.

It was about this time that I went to work for the Association as a stock detective. They put me at Merino (now Upton) [in Weston county]. That was my headquarters as long as I worked for the Wyoming Association.

As another consequence of the harsh winter, many of the cowpunchers who had worked for the large ranches also lost their jobs. Many of these cowboys, knowing the land and the cattle business, took advantage of the Homesteader Act and staked out their own claims on the range. These new ranchers were a threat to the big companies, who were now under great pressure from their financial backers in the East to restock their herds, and most of these cow hands-turned-homesteaders were blackballed from further work with the large ranches.

Tensions erupted on all sides. It is undoubtedly true that many new homesteaders grew their herds by stealing cattle, especially by cutting out unbranded calves (mavericks) from the company herds that covered the range. Yet many honest homesteaders would find their own stock missing after a company drive crossed their land and subsumed their stock. This happened when company drovers moved their cattle onto homesteaders’ land in search of better grass on an already over-grazed range. Fences were still a rare thing on the Wyoming range.

What made things even worse was resentment over the “Maverick Bill,” which the WSGA had pushed through the territorial legislature in 1884. The bill fanned the flames of a steadily building class war between the WSGA member ranches and the homesteaders. The bill gave the association “sole authority to conduct roundups in the territory and claim mavericks. This bill… was bitterly resented, flagrantly violated, and practically unenforceable…. The detectives continued to identify stock thieves, develop evidence of their guilt, and arrest them, but it became increasingly difficult to obtain indictments and convictions because of a rising tide of resentment against the Maverick Bill, the big cattlemen, and especially the detectives themselves” (Alias Frank Canton, DeArment, pp. 80-81). This state of affairs led the residents of Johnson county to organized their own stock association, and to schedule their spring roundup of 1892 a month ahead of the regular WSGA roundup. This infuriated WSGA member ranches, who saw it as a ploy to rustle every maverick on the range. By most accounts, the the WSGA’s ill-fated “invasion” of Johnson county in April of 1892 had already been planned, but the announcement of an earlier roundup in Johnson county made the WSGA’s action more urgent and hasty. Joe Elliott, who participated in the invasion, said this:

Something had to be done, yes, but not what we did nor in the way we did it. Our affair was badly planned and badly managed all the way through. What we should have done, when we heard that the rustlers were planning this shot-gun roundup, was to have gone into Buffalo with a few good men, say 20 well armed men, and told the people there that we didn’t want any trouble, but that we were going to see to it that the roundup was held according to custom and law. We’d have had Angus [Johnson county’s sheriff] on our side, I’m sure of it. I believe that suggestion was made, and rejected. I didn’t make it; I was just a hired man.

Written by chadwalk

September 16, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Wyoming Photos

leave a comment »

Here’s a link to some photos I took last summer and fall in Wyoming.

Written by chadwalk

September 16, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Charles Amiah and Mary Elizabeth Davis-Elliott

leave a comment »

Yesterday I received a short e-mail from a granddaughter of Joe Elliott. She attached these photos of Joe’s parents, Charles and Mary Elizabeth. Very cool to recognize some of the features, like Mary Elizabeth’s chin, that can be seen in my family. Thank you, Beth.


Written by chadwalk

September 16, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Invaders

leave a comment »


Taken at Fort Russell, Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1892. Joe Elliott is standing, third from the right.

Larger view of the Invaders photo

Written by chadwalk

September 16, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized