A Lynching, an Opera, and a Book

The lynching of ‘Cattle Kate’ is a story most people interested in the history of the west know, yet don’t really know.  It’s a story that’s gone through so many permutations, from “Cattle Kate” becoming the name of a western wear company through the all-star, disastrous three and a half hour re-writing of history called “Heaven’s Gate,” that most people nowadays would probably just relegate it to the annals of The Wild West.  Basically, the tale as it has stood through the years is that on the morning of July 20, 1889, a vigilante party led by one Albert Bothwell accused Ellen Liddy Watson

Ellen Liddy Watson, by kind permission of the Wyoming State Archives

and her ‘lover’ James Averell of cattle rustling and branding, and summarily took them out and hung them.  Subsequently, Bothwell and his cronies were tried but, being wealthy cattlemen and ranchers, members of the prestigious Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, they were let off.  It was left as a shameful episode in the history of Wyoming.

Even as late as 1966, Helen Huntington Smith in her book, The War on Powder River (Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln), was writing from legend rather than fact and calling Watson “ a strumpet with a vocabulary to match.”  Huntington Smith was, and is, a respected writer of western lore; her book, We Pointed Them North:  the Recollections of E.C. ‘Teddy Blue’ Abbott has gone through numerous printings and is a must-have for any reader of western history.  Yet Huntington Smith, while calling the lynching “the most revolting crime in the entire annals of the West,” describes Ella as a “full-bosomed wench” who had “gone west and gone wrong.”

Here is a case of using secondary sources without checking facts.  The Cheyenne papers, which Huntington Smith had consulted, were under the thumb of the wealthy ranchers.  The stories they had printed regarding this episode were nothing more than yellow journalism at its worst.  And the Denver, Chicago and New York papers picked up the sensational stories more or less as written, thereby endowing the account with a prestige and veracity it didn’t deserve. Cheyenne had lifted the soubriquet of ‘Cattle Kate’ from earlier stories regarding a known prostitute who had a reputation as a wild woman who ran a bawdy house and was a known rustler and thief.  They pinned the name on Ellen, along with the other woman’s reputation, in order to legitimize the cattle barons’ actions.  And that is the way the story stood—until George W. Hufsmith came along.

Hufsmith, who had been born in Nebraska, brought up in Brazil, and gone back to his family’s Wyoming roots to ranch, had studied music and was a part-time composer.  He also served for six years in the state’s House of Representatives and was responsible for the formation of both the Wyoming Arts Council and what became the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson.  To celebrate the country’s Bicentennial, Wyoming commissioned Hufsmith to write its first grand opera—‘The Sweetwater Lynching’—and thereby started Hufsmith on a 15 year journey to uncover the truth about Cattle Kate.  The result of his findings became The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate-1889 (High Plains Press, Wyoming).

Hufsmith, who sadly passed away in 2002, did thorough and exhaustive research for fifteen years tracking down records and correspondence and interviewing descendants of the families involved.  He discovered that, rather than the hard-bitten cattle rustler and paramour of ‘Cattle Kate’ that legend would have us believe, James Averell was a well-educated former soldier, a postmaster and surveyor and a justice of the peace.  Ellen Watson was certainly not a prostitute taking unbranded cattle for her favors, but helped Jim run his store and serve cooked meals.  The two were secretly married because the Homestead Act allowed for only one homestead per family.  Few couples paid attention to this, and Ella and Jim weren’t an exception; they traveled to Lander to secretly become man and wife, kept it hush, and signed for two homesteads on the Sweetwater.  And that led to a problem.

Cattle baron Albert Bothwell had been ranching on the Sweetwater using open range he did not own.  When Jim and Ella, combined, applied for homesteads on part of this range, Bothwell lost his water rights.  Ella and Jim controlled over a mile of a year-round spring called Horse Creek and, although Jim had sold Bothwell an easement to the Sweetwater, he had also built four miles of irrigation canals.  In Wyoming, to this day, water rights mean life or death and cause feuds.  Bothwell, an arrogant man full of his own self-importance, was not going to stand for this.   And so, on that fateful morning during a round-up, he gathered six of his closest friends, went over to Ella’s homestead and abducted her before continuing on to Averell’s place and forcing him into a wagon.  And the couple were lynched.

In Hufsmith’s breezy and, at times, humorous style, he goes on to recount the outlandishness of some of the theories previously put forth.  He also shows how witnesses went missing (possibly murdered), how the law was ignored in the case of the six accused, and how history has been hoodwinked by what the press of the day had written.  Hufsmith also finishes the story for us:  of the six lynch men, four sold up and left Wyoming very soon after being found innocent of the crime.  Only Bothwell and his close friend, Tom Sun, stayed on to continue to ranch.  In the case of Tom Sun, his family were still there when Hufsmith published the book in 1993.  As for Bothwell, he hung on to his ranch on the Sweetwater for twenty-odd years before retiring to California.  And then, as legend would have it, he died mad in an institution.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the lynching of Ellen Watson and James Averell proved to be a small battle in a larger war. It was a heinous crime, yes, but it was only the start of what later became the Johnson County War.


Nancy Curtis of the esteemed High Plains Press has VERY kindly offered to award one copy of The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate-1889 by George Hufsmith to one lucky reader of this blog who leaves a comment.  The winner will be chosen on Sept. 23rd.  Or, naturally, you can purchase your won copy here

Nancy has randomly selected Celia Hayes as the winner of the free book.  My sincere thanks to Nancy for donating the book, and to all of you who left comments.


My sincere thanks to the Wyoming State Archives for supplying the above photo, and to Cindy Brown for her help.


23 responses to “A Lynching, an Opera, and a Book

  1. Very interesting. How many other stories fit into that category of corruption by dominance? I’ve read accounts of Cattle Kate, but not the whole story and what I read may not have been about this particular woman. I’d say the couple’s initial dishonesty was what eventually led them to a date with the hangmen. Yet another version of reaping what we sow.


    • If you mean by “initial dishonesty” their filing for two homesteads, I think that might be a bit harsh judgement on them, Eunie, since it was a widespread practice. And Bothwell was running cattle on open range–land he didn’t own. It was bound to be settled by nesters at some stage, if not Averell and Watson, then someone else. But, yes, definitely corruption by dominance.


  2. Fascinating, and just show how important proper research is. I’m learning that in researching The Cimarron Rose for a novella. Legend oft times is more intriguing, but getting to the truth is important too, even in fiction when we’re telling our own story and weaving it amidst the facts. Yet, with history there will always be “stuff we never uncover.” It’s left to our imaginations to fill in the gaps.


  3. What an interesting piece of history. George W. Hufsmith did history a favor by recording the honest facts. Thank you for sharing this!


  4. Carolee Laughton

    Many legends derived from “additions” to the truth from people who never witnessed or were part of the incident. Going to the original sources are the best way to find the truth. Bravo to George Hufsmith for the perseverence to search until he uncovered the truth.


    • “Additions” is a rather kind word in this instance, Carolee. More a cover-up on behalf of the cattle barons by the newspapers whose words are preserved in print for generations. It’s wonderful that someone like Hufsmith could come along so many years later and uncover the truth.


  5. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing!


  6. Going back to original documents, letters and diaries always turns up something a little closer to the truth … as is demonstrated in this case. As for newspapers; how many times have you been close to a situation or a case later written up in the newspaper, and how wildly did the newspaper account differ from what you knew, first-hand?


    • Excellent point Celia. Even with the promo interviews I’m doing, reporters are skimming my book and summarizing it incorrectly. Stuff like that must happen all the time, although in the case of Ellen Watson, of course, the papers were in the pocket of the cattle barons.


      • Hah! My mother used to say ‘Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence’ but in the case of Ellen Watson, I’d have to come down on the side of malice.

        What a tragedy – to be lynched in person and then to have your reputation lynched as well.


      • Wow, that’s a fabulous saying of your mother’s. I’ll have to remember that one. Thanks!


      • It’s an old saying, apparently – some attribute it to Robert Heinlein the science fiction writer, but there are some authorities who say Napoleon said it first.


      • OK, Celia, you’ve opened a can of worms here now. Wiki attributes “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” to Robert Hanlon before Heinlein. It also mentions Napoleon but further says Goethe wrote in 1774 “…misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.” Obviously some ‘Chinese whispers’ as we say in the U.K. have changed things a bit but they all come down to the same thing. This has been interesting! Thanks.


      • I think the sentiments expressed are pretty similiar – just the idiom differs.


      • Yup! Thanks for starting this conversation. It’s been very enlightening!


  7. Andi,
    Nothing better than a little historical controversy from the old west. The west is full of them and they make great stories! They are especially entertaining when they come out as a burr under the saddle of serious historians….


  8. Was there ever an opera composed surrounding the theme of this unfortunate couple?


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