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Author Relitigates Battles of Johnson County War

The story of the Johnson County War is the prototypical Western saga: Big ranchers use their power and influence to bring in an army of hired guns to drive off small competitors and keep the range open for their large herds.

We’ve all seen “Shane.” A few of us have even seen “Heaven’s Gate.”

Wyoming lawyer and author John W. Davis adds considerable detail to that broad outline in “Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County,” including the participation of the state’s governor, U.S. Senators and a future Supreme Court justice.

Davis is an effective storyteller and thorough researcher. But he is not a disinterested party. He is an advocate relitigating the battles of the 1890s, and he is good at it.

Davis applies a prosecutorial mien to the telling of his tale. To counter the claims of the big cattlemen that Johnson County was a lawless outpost peopled by rustlers and their enablers, he researched court and land records for the decade leading up to the invasion. He also delved deeply into local and regional newspapers.

What he found puts the lie to the assertion that the people of Johnson County inhabited a den of thieves. Rather, they come across as much like people everywhere in the United States at the end of the 19th century — living their lives, protecting their families and looking for a way to prosper personally and create economic opportunities for their town.

That conclusion is deeply at odds with the narrative that has come down to us across the decades, perpetuated by stories concocted by less-than-reliable journalists and memoirists.

Davis perhaps overstates this a bit to enhance the need for his revisionist version. There is little room for sympathy in today’s popular imagination for moneyed interests trying to drive small ranchers and farmers off their land (see “Shane” and “Heaven’s Gate”). 

Like any good lawyer, Davis gives little credence to the arguments of the other side. He takes revisionist history up to the edge of polemic — but he also effectively makes the case that the defendants had almost no case to make. Unfortunately for the officials of Johnson County who tried to prosecute the invaders, the defendants had a skilled attorney — Willis Van Devanter, who would one day become the first (and so far only) citizen of Wyoming to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was Van Devanter’s legal acumen, not the justice of their cause, that led to the invaders walking away from the charges they faced.

They also had considerable political firepower on their side.

Acting Gov. Amos Barber (R) was effectively an unindicted co-conspirator in the planning of the invasion. The state’s two Senators, Joseph M. Carey (R) and Francis Warren (R), also used their power and influence to aid the large stockmen, a group to which both men happened to belong. Davis asserts that Carey was more culpable than Warren, and Carey saw his career shattered by his involvement in the plot.

But Warren survived despite doing “everything humanly possible to support and promote” the goals of the cattlemen. He lost his seat in the election of 1892, along with many other Republican supporters of the invasion. But he was returned to the Senate in 1894 when Republicans regained power after Democrats and their Populist allies wasted their 1892 victory.

Warren went on to a long and distinguished Senate career, setting the record for longevity (eventually broken by Arizona’s Carl Hayden) and serving as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Davis nods to the part the Johnson County War played — as one of the last acts — in the narrative of the Wild West. But he puts the incident in a more political context, comparing the invasion conducted by hired guns serving landed interests to another phenomenon of the era, arguing it more closely resembled the class warfare represented by the Haymarket riot, the Homestead and Pullman strikes, and other examples of labor strife than it did New Mexico’s Lincoln County War, maybe the most famous example of violence run amok in the Old West.

There are a few minor problems with the book. The cast of characters is large and varied, and sometimes you barely get introduced to some of them before they’re shot down or leave the scene never to return. Also, Davis cloyingly and repeatedly refers to the larger producers as “big cattle,” an anachronism the story could have done without. (At least it isn’t Big Cattle.)

But those are minor quibbles. Davis’ Johnson County is a sprawling place, and he keeps the action moving forward while retelling a fairly well-known tale from a different angle — the perspective of the regular people who lived through it, or, in some cases, didn’t last that long. Unlike most Westerns, this tale doesn’t really have a happy ending: The bad guys lost the battle but won the war. Still, that doesn’t lessen the gritty charm in the telling.

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