The Infamous Johnson County War – The papers of Fred G.S. Hesse

This month is the 124th anniversary of the culminating conflict of the Johnson County War. On the morning of April 9, 1892, small-time rancher Nate Champion and itinerant cowboy Nick Ray were beset by an army of cattlemen and Texas hired guns, numbering about fifty, who had come to Johnson County to clear out the “rustlers.” Champion and Ray were shot and killed during the day long siege. Trouble between small-time ranchers, recalcitrant cowboys,  and owners of larger holdings had been brewing for nearly a decade . Problems arose out of the loss of open range and by alleged rustling by small “nesters.” Large-scale ranchers took steps, sometimes violent, to maintain their dominance in the industry, using arrests, hangings, blacklisting and more, but the small growers managed to find ways around them. Nate Champion had been a particular thorn in their sides. Among other offenses, he had recently formed the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers’ Association to meet the needs of small-time ranchers and farmers.

Enough was enough in the minds of the large-scale ranchers, who were some of the leading men in Wyoming. Their primary network, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA), was composed of the state’s wealthiest and most influential residents, and the WSGA held a great deal of political sway in the state and region. WSGA members were accustomed to getting their way.

Early in 1892, a group of WSGA ranchers and supporters devised a plan to send an expeditionary force into Johnson County to clean out the rustlers. The “Invaders” as the force came to be known organized in Cheyenne and proceeded by train on April 8, 1892 to Casper and then toward Johnson County on horseback. Nate Champion and Nick Ray were their first victims. After their deaths, the group went on toward Buffalo to continue its show of strength. By now a posse led by Johnson County Sheriff Red Angus composed of small-time farmers and ranchers and state lawmen had formed to fight back. The posse met the Invaders at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek and a stand-off ensued. Wyoming Governor Amos Barber was contacted by a member of the WSGA group and frantic efforts to save the Invaders followed with the governor telegraphing U.S. President Benjamin Harrison with a plea for help. United States Cavalry were sent to diffuse the situation. Ultimately, the Invaders were never tried for their actions. Many left the country before prosecution could occur, but one prominent Invader, Fred G.S. Hesse, remained in Wyoming and, after several years, returned to Johnson County with his family to manage his ranch. It was a risky move and he and his family suffered the aftereffects for years, from social ostracism to bullying of the Hesse children.

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Photograph of the Johnson County Invaders, taken at Fort D.A. Russel, May 4, 1982. Hesse is identified in the photograph as #33.  From the AHC photographic files.

Recently the AHC processed the papers of Fred G.S. Hesse. The collection covers the period beginning in 1881, a time when the cattle industry was flush with capital and land was open for the taking. Hesse was British-born and immigrated to the U.S. in 1873. In 1876 he became foreman at the 76 Ranch belonging to brothers Moreton and Richard Frewen, who were members of an English landed-gentry family. In 1882 Moreton established the Powder River Cattle Company with Hesse as foreman. In 1884, Hesse filed for his own homestead and established the 28 Ranch while remaining foreman of the 76 Ranch. Both ranches were located on Crazy Woman Creek near the town of Buffalo. Soon Hesse became a major figure in Wyoming’s cattle industry and was seen as someone not to mess with.  It was rumored in Johnson County that Hesse was behind the bushwhacking of two local cowboys, one of whom had embarrassed Hesse in a local saloon and the other who had voiced opposition to the large ranchers.

What you can find in this collection are Hesse’s detailed notes and correspondence during the years leading up to the events of 1892 in which he discusses incidences of rustling, hiring and firing of cowhands, and, generally, the activities of the Powder River Cattle Company and the growth of his ranches. One of the most interesting items is a manuscript written by Fred G.S. Hesse’s son Fred W. Hesse about his life, the experiences of the Hesse family, and the effects of the Johnson County War on the family. It is in this manuscript that you find evidence of how the family experienced and dealt with the consequences of Fred G.S. Hesse’s stand during the range conflict.

In addition to the Hesse papers, other AHC collections to consult about the Johnson County War include the Wyoming Stock Growers Association records, Hay family papers, Carey family papers, Charles B. Penrose papers, J. Elmer Brock papers, Mark A. Chapman collection, and Dean Fenton Krakel papers.

– Leslie Waggener –  Associate Archivist

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