Over the past week, I've been running the events of the Johnson County War on a day by day basis. This event may be the single most significant event in Wyoming's history, if measured in terms of popularity. It's been the subject of several books, most recently Davis' "Wyoming Range War", and it's formed the basic plot outline, in a highly developed and adulterated way, for endless novels and movies, including such famous ones as The Virginian (the only one to really take the large stockman's side) and Shane.
The popular concept of the war is that it represented an armed expression of unadulterated greed. While greed cannot be dismissed as an element, the larger question remains. What was it all about?
The cattle industry, as we know it, didn't really come about until the conclusion of the Civil War. Prior to that, the most significant meat livestock in the US was pork. Swine production produced the basic farm meat for most Americans, which is not to say that they didn't eat cattle, they did, but cattle production was fairly small scale in the East, and much of it was focused on dairy and mixed production. Meat cattle were more common in the South, and while it's popular to note that American ranching was a development of Mexican ranching, it was also very much a development of Southern ranching practices. This, in fact, partially gave rise to the Johnson County War, as will be seen.
At any rate, the American Beef Cattle industry was born when the railroads penetrated into Kansas after the Civil War, and returning Texas cattlemen found that the herds in their state had gone wild, and greatly increased. Cattle in Texas, up until that time, had followed the Mexican practice of being raised principally for their hides, not for meat, but the introduction of rail into Kansas meant that cattle could now be driven, albeit a long ways, to a railhead and then shipped to market. An explosion in urban centers in the East provided a natural market, and soon the cattle industry in Texas had switched over to being focused on shipping cattle for beef.
The Texas industry spread north as well and by the 1870s it was making inroads into Wyoming, although really only southern Wyoming for the most part. At the same time, and often forgotten, a dramatic increase in herds in Oregon, the byproduct of early farm herds and pioneer oxen herds, produced a surplus there that caused herds to be driven back east into Wyoming at the very moment that northern Wyoming opened up for ranching.
But what was ranching like here, at the time?
It was dominated by the fact of the Homestead Act, a bill passed during the Civil War in order to encourage western emigration into the vast public domain. But the bill had been written by men familiar only with Eastern farming, and it used the Eastern agricultural unit, 40 acres, as a model. That amount of acreage was perfectly adequate for a yeoman farmer, and indeed after the Civil War "40 acres and a mule" was the dream of the liberated slave, which they hoped to obtain from the Federal government. But 40 acres wasn't anywhere near adequate for any sort of livestock unit in the West, and most of the West wasn't suitable for farming. In the West, additionally, the Federal homesteading provisions oddly dovetailed with State and Territorial water law.
Water law was the domain of states or territories exclusively, and evolved in the mining districts of California, which accepted that claiming water in one place and moving it to another was a necessary right. This type of water law, much different from that existing in the well watered East, spread to the West, and a "first in time, first in right" concept of water law evolved. This was to be a significant factor in Western homesteading. Additionally, the Federal government allowed open use of unappropriated public lands for grazing. States and Territories, accepting this system, sought to organize the public grazing by district, and soon an entire legal system evolved which accepted the homesteading of a small acreage, usually for the control of water, and the use of vast surrounding public areas, perhaps collectively, but under the administration of some grazing body, some of which, particularly in Wyoming, were legally recognized. In the case of Wyoming, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association controlled the public grazing, and had quasi legal status in that livestock detectives, who policed the system, were recognized at law as stock detectives.
This was the system that the large ranching interests accepted, developed and became use to in the 1870s and 1880s. Large foreign corporations bought into Western ranching accepting that this was, in fact the system. It had apparent legal status.
But nothing made additional small homesteading illegal. And the penalty for failing to cooperate in the grazing districts mostly amounted to being shunned, or having no entry into annual roundups. This continued to encourage some to file small homesteads. Homesteading was actually extremely expensive, and it was difficult for many to do much more than that. Ironically, small homesteading was aided by the large ranchers practice of paying good hands partially in livestock, giving them the ability to start up where they otherwise would not have been. It was the dream of many a top hand, even if it had not been when they first took up employment as a cowboy, to get a large enough, albeit small, herd together and start out on their own. Indeed, if they hoped to marry, and most men did, they had little other choice, the only other option being to get out of ranch work entirely, as the pay for a cowhand was simply not great enough to allow for very many married men to engage in it.
By the 1880s this was beginning to cause a conflict between the well established ranchers, who tended to be large, and the newer ones, who tended to be small. The large stockmen were distressed by the carving up of what they regarded as their range, with some justification, and sought to combat it by legal means. One such method was the exclusion of smaller stockmen from the large regional roundups, which were done collectively at that time, and which were fairly controlled events. Exclusion for a roundup could be very problematic for a small stockman grazing on the public domain, as they all were, and this forced them into smaller unofficial roundups. Soon this created the idea that they were engaging in theft. To make matters even more problematic, Wyoming and other areas attempted to combat this through "Maverick" laws, which allowed any unbranded, un-cow attended, calf to be branded with the brand of its discoverer. This law, it was thought, would allow large stockmen to claim the strays found on their ranges, which they assumed, because of their larger herds, to be most likely to be theirs (a not unreasonable assumption), but in fact the law actually encouraged theft, as it allowed anybody with a brand to brand a calf, unattended or not, as long as nobody was watching. Soon a situation developed in which large stockmen were convinced that smaller stockmen were acting illegally or semi illegally, and that certain areas of the state were controlled by thieves or near thieves, while the small stockmen rightly regarded their livelihoods as being under siege. Soon, they'd be under defacto siege.
This forms the backdrop of the Johnson County War. Yes, it represent ed an effort by the landed and large to preserve what they had against the small entrant. But their belief that they were acting within the near confines of the law, if not solidly within it, was not wholly irrational. They convinced themselves that their opponents were all thieves, but their belief that they were protecting a recognized legal system, or nearly protecting it, had some basis in fact. This is not to excuse their efforts, but from their prospective, the break up by recognized grazing districts by small entrants was not only an obvious threat to its existence (and indeed it would come to and end), but an act protecting what they had conceived of as a legal right. Their opponents, for that matter, were largely acting within the confines of the law as well, and naturally saw the attack as motivated by greed.
As with many things, the conflict in systems of laws gave each side a basis to see their own acts as fully valid. The small stockmen had the high side of the fight, but the fight itself was more ambiguous in motivations, to some degree, than it is typically portrayed as being.
The fight didn't start with the invasion at all, but actually a campaign of assassinations was started by somebody. It cannot be assumed that the WGSA had ratified this, but certainly whoever commenced it was on that side of the fight. It proved unsuccessful, and if anything it made Johnson County residents nervous, but all the more opposed to those aligning against them. Finally, as we have seen, events transpired to the point where the WSGA actually sponsored an invasion, albeit one of the most ineptly planned and executed ones every conducted by anyone.
The invasion, as we've seen, was a total failure in terms of execution. It succeeded in taking the lives of two men, with some loss of life on its part as well, but it did nothing to address the perceived problem it was intended to address. The invaders were much more successful in avoiding the legal implications of their acts, through brilliant legal maneuvering on the part of their lawyers, but the act of attempting the invasion brought so much attention to their actions that they effectively lost the war by loosing the public relations aspect of it. For the most part, the men involved in it were able to continue on in their occupations without any ill effect on those careers, a fairly amazing fact under the circumstances, and, outside of Gov. Barber, whose political career was destroyed, even the political impacts of the invasion were only temporary. Willis Vandevanter was even able to go on to serve on the United States Supreme Court, in spite of the unpopularity of this clinets in the defense of the matter. Violence continued on for some time, however, with some killings, again engaged in with unknown sponsors, occurring. However, not only a change in public opinion occurred, but soon a change in perceived enemies occurred, and a new range war would erupt against a new enemy, that one being sheep. The range itself would continue to be broken up unabated until the Taylor Grazing Act was passed early in Franklin Roosevelt's administration, which saved the range from further homesteading, and which ultimately lead to a reconsolidation of much of the range land.