Wyoming Legends: The Tragic Tale of ‘Cattle Kate’
Over a century later, her story remains one of the most tragic tales in Wyoming history.
After her death in 1889, she was falsely painted in the press as a violent outlaw. In fact, she was never charged with a crime during her lifetime and her name wasn't even Kate.
Her real name was Ellen Watson. Born in Canada, she first arrived in Cheyenne in the 1880s, where she found work as a seamstress. She later moved to Rawlins, working at a boarding home called The Rawlins House.
In 1886, she fell in love with James Averell, who ran a restaurant and general store on the Sweetwater River, just off the Oregon and California Trails.
They married in Lander, but the union was kept secret so Watson could apply for land under the Homestead Act, which allocated 160 acres for single women.
Together, Averell and Watson raised cattle on the property. Unfortunately, they would become involved in a conflict with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a group of wealthy cattle barons who yielded power and influence across the territory.
At the time, the law allowed the Wyoming Stock Growers Association to claim unbranded cattle as their property. After unsuccessfully applying for a brand on several occasions, Watson purchased the registered "L-U" brand from another rancher.
In the summer of 1889, the Stock Growers Association leveled accusations of cattle rustling against Watson, noting that 41 head of cattle bore her brand only a year after she had purchased 28.
A group of cattlemen representing the Stock Growers Association were sent to apprehend Watson and Averell. By the time help arrived from neighboring ranchers, both Watson and Averell had been lynched.
Six men were later arrested for the killings. However, due to the influence of the Stock Growers Association, several witnesses were either killed or disappeared. Others recanted their testimony and the group of vigilantes was set free.
To add insult to injury, Watson's possessions were sold at auction to the same group of wealthy cattlemen who were responsible for her death.
To prevent a public outcry, the Stock Growers Association planted a story in the Cheyenne Daily Sun, falsely identifying Watson as a cattle rustler and prostitute named "Cattle Kate" Maxwell. The story depicted several accounts of her fictitious crimes and concluded that the killings were justified.
It would be the first of many times the powerful group of cattle barons would use to the press to influence public opinion.
In spite of their efforts, the lynchings would mark the beginning of the Johnson County War, which would last for several years.