Just a few months before Wyoming changed status from “Territory” to “State”—the unthinkable happened. A lynch mob composed of six cattle ranchers (“barons” actually) lynched two homesteaders in the Sweetwater Valley near Independence Rock in late July of 1889. Lynching is bad enough, but the lies told by the Cheyenne newspapers—which were virtually bought and paid for by those cattle barons made things much worse for the aspersions cast upon the two homesteaders. What was even more criminal in this matter was one of those homesteaders was a woman, Ellen Watson.
I purchased George Huffsmith’s book The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate when our vacation party visited the Territorial Prison in Laramie. Huffsmith is lifelong Wyoming native and his approach to this heinous crime was part true detective writing and part prosecutorial stating of the facts. This lynching wasn’t about stolen (rustled) cattle. Huffsmith makes the compelling argument that this was about land and water rights—and water was the lifeblood of Wyoming, then as it is now. Ellen Watson was not the “loose woman” the cattlemen claimed she was, and she certainly wasn’t bartering sex for maverick calves. Watson’s husband did not run a bawdy house. And the six men who were involved in this crime never faced justice, because all of the witnesses strangely disappeared or died. (Can’t make this stuff up, because if I did, no one would believe it.)
I started reading this book while we were camping on our property and finished it in one afternoon. With the wind whispering over the sage and scrub grasses—and often times whistling as it rose and created whirling dust-devils, I found myself transported to another time. Our small slice of Wyoming isn’t that far from the Sweetwater River valley. I could easily imagine what it must have been like to homestead this area at the turn of the previous century. And, I found myself offering up a prayer for the two murdered homesteaders.
For more reading on the people involved with these murders, follow this link: http://www.wyohistory.org/essays/covering-cattle-kate