“Cattle Kate” Watson was one of early Wyoming’s most scandalous outlaws. She was a prostitute, a cattle thief, and a mean, aggressive Amazon who would beat you up as soon as look at you. She was, in short, a public menace. In 1889, her harassed neighbors finally had had enough, and resorted to classic rough frontier justice. Watson, along with her equally disreputable husband/pimp, were captured and strung up. No one mourned them.
It is a colorful story, one which made Watson one of the Old West’s most famous villains. There is just one problem: not one of the “historical facts” listed above is even close to being true.
Aside, unfortunately, for the lynching part.
Ellen Watson was born in Ontario in July 1860. When she was 17, her large family--she was the eldest of ten surviving children--moved to Lebanon, Kansas. Soon afterward, Watson began to work as housekeeper for one H.R. Stone. In 1879, she married a farm laborer named William A. Pickell. During this period, she was described as a tall, solidly-built woman with a pronounced accent inherited from her Scottish parents.
Unfortunately, Ellen’s marriage was a disaster practically from the start. Pickell was an alcoholic who treated his wife with great emotional and physical brutality. In early 1883, Ellen finally had enough, and fled to her parents. Pickell followed her and tried to force her to return to him, but Ellen’s father put such a scare into him, he decided it was wisest to leave Ellen’s life for good.
Finally a free woman again, Ellen moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she made her liberation official with a divorce. She then went to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where she worked as a cook and seamstress. As Cheyenne proved to not be to her liking, Ellen--who seems to have had a decidedly restless and independent personality--moved on to Rawlins, Wyoming, where she found work in the town’s main boarding place, the Rawlins House.
In early 1886, one James Averell claimed land along the Sweetwater River, where he opened a restaurant and general store. He hired Watson as a cook. Several months later, James and Ellen applied for a marriage license. Although there is no proof the pair actually wed, historians have surmised that they did make their relationship legal, but kept it a secret so that Ellen could apply for land through the Homestead Act. (This 1862 legislation allowed women to buy 160 acres of land, but only if they were unmarried.) In May 1888, Ellen filed a homestead claim to land adjacent to her sub rosa spouse. She lived in a small cabin on the property, where she supplemented her income by doing sewing for the many cowboys who passed through the area.
When she had saved enough money, Watson began accumulating a small herd of cattle. Although she never could have dreamed it at the time, this investment was to prove her undoing. It was a tricky time to be a small-scale rancher. At the time, it was common for cattle owners to graze their animals on public land. However, in 1872, owners of the larger ranches came together to create the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and claimed rights to the open range. In the terrible winter of 1880-81, cattle were unable to get enough grass. As a result, ranchers began growing hay to feed their animals in winter. This meant that in this generally arid land, water suddenly became a particularly precious resource. And the land claimed by Ellen and her husband contained one mile of Horse Creek. Thus, the formerly humble Watson/Averell property suddenly became of great value. A wealthy rancher named Albert Bothwell made numerous offers to buy this land from them, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Averell and Ellen began to prosper. James became postmaster, a notary public, a justice of the peace and an election judge. This hardly fits the popular image of Averell as a pimp, outlaw, and cattle thief.
Inevitably, the WSGA used their newfound self-created power to crowd outsiders out of the ranching business. They used their influence to pass a law decreeing that all unbranded calves automatically became WSGA property. They limited independent ranchers from bidding at auctions, and announced that all cattle owners, no matter how small, must have a registered brand. Naturally, they also engineered it so that the cost of these brands was so high that few could afford it. Additionally, the WSGA had the power to have brand applications either accepted or rejected. This all went just about the way you would think.
Watson and Averell filed five different brand applications, only to have them all thrown out. Finally, in 1889, Ellen bought a previously registered brand from a neighbor, John Crowder, and began branding her cattle. Although records show that she had bought only 28 cattle, she branded 41, leading historians to surmise that many of them were calves born in the wild (“mavericks”) which the WSGA considered to be rightfully theirs. Averell had also taken to writing a number of letters to local newspapers, exposing the corrupt practices of the WSGA and its campaign to stifle rival homesteaders.
In short, conditions were ripe for Ellen and her husband to have some sort of showdown with the more powerful ranchers. That showdown began taking place in July 1889, when Ellen filed for permission to build a water ditch to irrigate her land. This would mean less water from Horse Creek would be available to her neighbors, most particularly Albert Bothwell. Bothwell decided it was time to teach this upstart a lesson. He began--entirely unlawfully--fencing in parts of Ellen’s land, and began sending his workers over to harass her and Averell. The beleaguered couple--apparently tragically ignorant of just how far Bothwell was prepared to go--tried ignoring the persecution, and carried on with their lives as best they could.
On July 20, Bothwell had a meeting with other powerful ranchers, where he announced that he had evidence that Watson was a cattle rustler. In 19th century Wyoming, those were, quite literally, hanging words. Although some of Bothwell’s neighbors protested against his assertion that Watson and her partner must be lynched for this crime, five of them agreed.
Bothwell and his cohorts rode to Ellen’s ranch, where at gunpoint they forced her and Averell in their buckboard. Gene Crowder, a young boy who lived with the couple, saw what was happening and ran for help. Tragically, by the time he returned with a neighbor, Frank Buchanan, it was too late. Bothwell’s men began a gunfight that forced the would-be rescuers back long enough for Ellen and James to be hanged.
|"San Francisco Examiner," July 23, 1889, via Newspapers.com. Newspapers of the day--possibly deliberately--confused Watson with a notorious female desperado named Kate Maxwell.|
Bothwell and his five co-murderers were arrested, but before their trial date, Gene Crowder--apparently warned that he would share Watson’s and Averell’s fate if he stuck around--fled town. Although Frank Buchanan had been taken into protective custody, he too disappeared. Whether he, like Crowder, ran for the hills or was murdered was never established. With both witnesses to the lynching now unavailable, the charges against Bothwell and his allies were dropped. Watson’s executor, George Durant, sued Bothwell and another of the lynch mob, John Durbin, accusing them of stealing Watson’s cattle and rebranding them as their own. The case was eventually dismissed. Bothwell wasted no time acquiring the properties of the couple he had murdered. He continued to prosper right up to the time he died in Los Angeles in the 1920s. And I’m willing to bet his conscience never pained him once.
After the couple was hanged, it was naturally advisable for Bothwell and his allies to come up with a good cover story. Even in the Old West, the ruthless murder of innocent people was frowned upon. Happily for them, the WSGA controlled all of the West’s major newspapers. Editors were given their instructions, and the lurid legend of thieving, whoring “Cattle Kate”--a name never given to her in life--was born. The lynching was explained in editorials as merely a “lawless but justifiable deed,” the sort of thing cattlemen were “forced” to do in order to protect their rightful property from desperadoes. In brief, the victims were asking for it. Averell’s brother, R.W. Cahill, tried to set the record straight, telling reporters that the lynching was “cruel and cold-blooded murder,” but he was ignored.
Given the choice between a good story and tedious truth, most will opt for the former. Increasingly colorful and fictitious accounts of Watson’s life spilled over from the newspapers into numerous Western TV shows, movies, and even so-called history books. The myth of “Cattle Kate” would possibly be reigning unchallenged to this day, if, in the late 20th century, a composer named George Hufsmith had not begun researching Watson for an opera he planned to write about her. He learned that the accepted history about Watson was, in his words, “pure fabrication.” Family and friends described Ellen Watson as brave, honest, hard-working, and generous. In the words of one acquaintance, Harry Ward, “Other women looked down on her in those days, but no matter what she was or did she had a big heart. Nobody went hungry around her.” Hufsmith eventually published the fruits of his groundbreaking research in his 1993 book, “The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate.”
Although Watson’s and Averell's murderers were never brought to justice, perhaps history can give them some small measure of reparation.