#Lookback: Ellen Watson/Cattle Kate

A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

The story of Cattle Kate is a legend of the Wyoming West; it is a mixture of historical fact, intentional deception, legends, lies, tall tales and murder. It is a story of greed, corruption, and cruelty. In the late 1880s newspapers started referring to Ellen Watson as “Cattle Kate.”

Ella Watson and James Averell were lynched by a group of cowboys on July 20th, 1889 along the Lower Sweetwater River where they had both filed separate homestead claims adjacent to each other. They were hung about a quarter of a mile south and east from Independence Rock on top of some ledges along the Sweetwater River.

Their homesteads were filed on land that some large cattle barons considered open range. Ella and James’ homesteads controlled water on Dry Creek and Horse Creek which made them very valuable properties. One such baron, Albert Bothwell had put in 60 miles of barbed wire fence, around the land he did not own, in the Sweetwater valley before Ella and Jim filed their homestead claims.

John DeCorey was a hired boy working for Ella Watson; he witnessed the abduction of Ella. Gene Crowder was a fourteen-year-old boy who was trying to catch a horse at Ella’s place when the lynch mob arrived. They both gave depositions about what they saw. The boys identified AJ Bothwell, the son of a wealthy New York businessman, John Durbin, a pillar of the Methodist church in Cheyenne, Tom Sun, an old pioneer scout and guide. They also identified R.M. Galbreath, Bob Conners, a man named McLean, and a man they did not know. The boys reported that Durbin had driven Ella’s cattle out of their enclosures and forced Ella into a buggy.

Crowder rode over to Averell’s place to find help. A cowboy and neighbor named James Buchanan followed the mob. He witnessed the mob taking Averell from his wagon; Averell had been on his way to Casper for supplies. Buchanan followed the lynch mob and fired shots at them from behind some rocks when they tried to lynch Averell. He wounded Durbin in the hip in the exchange of gunfire. Buchanan was also able to identify the members of the lynch mob. Since he was outnumbered, Buchanan retreated; he was unable to prevent the lynching.

Afterward, Buchanan rode to find the sheriff and report the crimes. When Sheriff Watson arrived three days after the crime, Ella and James’ bodies were still hanging from the tree side by side, and the moccasins Ella had been wearing were on the ground beneath her body. Lariats had been used to hang them, but their necks were not broken; they had died of strangulation. Ella and James were buried in one coffin on their homestead.

The sheriff first talked to Tom Sun who readily admitted to the crime but felt it was justified. A coroner’s jury was called and arrests were made. The trial was to take place in Rawlins, but witnesses mysteriously disappeared or died. One witness died of poison just hours before he was to testify. No one was ever held accountable for the crimes.

The year after the lynching Sun and Bothwell were elected to the executive committee of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. Galbraith was elected to the legislature, and Durbin served on committees for The Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.

In the months before the lynching, Bothwell had made several offers to buy Ella out but had been rebuffed. After the lynching, newspapers out of Cheyenne accused Ella of being a prostitute and accepting rustled cattle in exchange for her favors. 

Ella and James were accused of living in sin without the benefit of marriage, but in the museum is a copy of an application for a marriage license and a marriage license; however, no marriage was ever recorded. If Ella remained single she could file for her own homestead, but if she were married the couple would only qualify for one homestead, so perhaps they married in secret or just never registered the marriage.

In the 1930s, a convict named Tom Vernon claimed to be the son of Ella Watson and James Averell, but there is no evidence the pair ever had a child. An old-timer totally rejected this claim.

Two years after the lynching, the courts determined that Ella’s homestead had been abandoned. Bothwell ended up owning the land he coveted so much. Bothwell ended up moving to Los Angeles and died in 1928. He was never held accountable for the hangings. 

The hangings of “Cattle Kate” and James Averell were two incidents among others that led to the Johnson County Wars.

Cattle Kate Photo courtesy of the Wyoming State Museum

Next up for the Fremont County Museum

December 3, 9-5 pm at the Dubois Museum, Pioneer Museum in Lander & the Riverton Museum

           “First Fridays” Lander State Farm – Riverton State Farm

December 4, 11-4 pm at the Dubois Museum, “Christmas Open House”

December 11, 1-4 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Christmas Open House”

December 11, 1-4 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Toy Building”

           Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

December 17, 6:30 pm at the Dubois Museum, “Christmas Caroling at the Museum”

           Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

December 18, 5-7 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Old Fashioned Christmas Open House”

           Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

Thru December 30, 9-5 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “The Arapaho Way” By Sara Wiles

           Photography on exhibit in the Western Gallery through December

Thru October 2022, 9-5 pm Monday-Saturday, at the Pioneer Museum, “Hurrah for The Cowboy: Men of the Open Range” Art Exhibition

The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum need your financial support. In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years. Please make your tax-deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

Related Posts

Have a news tip or an awesome photo to share?