Watson, Ellen (1861–1889)

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Watson, Ellen (1861–1889)

American homesteader accused of cattle rustling who became the first woman lynched in Wyoming Territory, in a hanging carried out by a group of ranchers for their self-interests . Name variations: Ella Watson; Ellen Liddy Pickell; "Cattle Kate"; also mistakenly known as Kate Champion and Kate Maxwell (see below). Born Ellen Liddy Watson on July 2, 1861, in Arran Township, Ontario, Canada; died on July 20, 1889, in Sweetwater Valley of Wyoming Territory, by hanging; daughter of Thomas Lewis (a farmer) and Frances (Close) Watson; learned to read and write at homestead school; married William A. Pickell, on November 24, 1879 (divorced 1886); married James Averell or Averill, on May 17, 1886; no children.

Moved with family to farm near Lebanon, Kansas (1877); after leaving first marriage, worked as cook and domestic employee in Nebraska and Wyoming until filing a homestead claim in Sweetwater Valley, Wyoming; accused, with Averell, of cattle rustling by cattle ranchers who seized and lynched them (1889); newspapers owned by cattle interests charged her with being a prostitute and accepting stolen cattle as payment.

On July 20, 1889, a bright Saturday afternoon in the Sweetwater Valley of Wyoming Territory, a small group of men pulled Ellen Watson and Jim Averell from their separate homes, accused the couple of rustling cattle, and took them to a secluded area nearby where they hanged them. A day and a half later, the bodies were taken down and buried on Averell's homestead. Ellen Watson was the first woman to be hanged in Wyoming, and only the third in the frontier history of America's West; the other two had committed murder.

These are the bare facts at the heart of an incident that still causes animated debate among area residents and historians alike. In the frontier code of law, rustling was not a capital offense and hanging a woman was not acceptable under any but the most appalling circumstances. Subsequent newspaper and personal accounts of the incident demonstrate considerable differences about the events leading up to the lynching, and cast doubt on the traditional characterizations of the primary participants. One point of dispute revolves around whether the legendary "Cattle Kate" ran a "hog ranch," or bordello, to supplement the income of the store and saloon run by her lover and husband, Jim Averell. If a cowhand had no cash, this frontier madame was alleged to accept cattle stolen from the boss rancher's herd or mavericks captured before the spring roundup.

Ellen Watson was a tall woman for her time, probably 5'8" or so; the few photos of her show her to be a large, attractive, capable-looking young woman. The first description published after the lynching portrayed her as "the equal of any man on the range. Of robust physique she was a daredevil in the saddle, handy with a sixshooter and adept with the lariat and branding iron. … [T]hat she was a holy terror all agreed." Descriptions by friends and family members, however, suggest a very different person, and cast doubt on the motives of the perpetrators, and the truth of the early reports that became the legend of "Cattle Kate."

Ellen Liddy Watson was born on July 2, 1861, in Arran Township, Ontario, Canada. Her father Thomas Lewis Watson had immigrated to Ohio from Scotland with his family in 1837, then run away to Canada where he met and married Frances Close . Of Ellen's nine siblings, seven were born in Canada and three in America, after the family's move to Kansas in 1877. Thomas filed a homestead claim there and developed a small farm where the children worked hard and learned to read and write at an elementary school nearby. The siblings reportedly had thick Scottish accents, and Ellen was said to have had a brogue throughout her life.

About 1878, Ellen was sent to Smith Center, Kansas, to work as cook and housekeeper for a local banker. She would keep in touch with her family, however, until shortly before her death. In Smith Center, she caught the attention of a young homesteader, William A. Pickell, and married him in 1879, at age 18. Pickell was alcoholic,

and it was common knowledge that he beat Ellen when drinking. Within two years, she went back to her family and obtained a job as cook and domestic worker on a neighboring farm, while Pickell tried to convince her to return to him.

In 1883, Ellen moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, just over the state border, to get away from Pickell's continued attention. She took a job in the Royal Hotel and filed for divorce the following year, after establishing legal residency, on grounds of extreme cruelty and infidelity. The divorce would not be finalized until March 1886, when she was living in Wyoming, and then only on Pickell's grounds of desertion. After filing her divorce request, Ellen reverted to using her family name, Watson, shortly before leaving Red Cloud for Denver City, Colorado, where her brother lived. Before the end of 1884, she moved north to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where the cattle industry economy was booming, and took another job as a cook and servant at Rawlins House in Cheyenne, where she worked from 1884 to 1886.

During this time, an incident occurred that later created a confusion of identities affecting Ellen Watson's story. In Fetterman, Wyoming, a prostitute named Ella Wilson was involved in a widely reported shooting incident in a saloon. The similarity in names later caused some people to claim that Watson had a history of prostitution. But it is extremely unlikely that Watson was involved in the episode, which occurred during the period she was en route from Nebraska through Colorado to Cheyenne, since she was new to the area and reports of the shooting indicate that Wilson was well established. Watson was a common name and easily confused with Wilson. "Ella," the family's nickname for Watson, was a popular name of that era, but the name "Ellen," which Watson always used for her signature, was not. Ellen Watson was literate, though Ella Wilson was not, a fact shown by official documents signed by Wilson with an X as her mark.

This notorious and significant historical tragedy must now be viewed in a fresh, new light, and from an altogether different perspective.

—George W. Hufsmith

Physical descriptions of the two women are also quite different. Watson was tall and Celtic in appearance, weighed about 160 pounds, and was 23 years old at the time. Wilson was described as fair and frail, a "half-breed," and 40 years old. Family members of Watson in Ohio received letters written from various places along her travel route, but none from Fetterman, and, following the lynching, no one interviewed in Fetterman acknowledged knowing an Ellen Watson. In practical terms, Fetterman was a defunct military town, not on any main route, and a woman planning to go into business as a prostitute would have little reason to go there instead of the booming city of Cheyenne.

In February 1886, Watson met James Averell when he made a trip into Cheyenne to file for a second homestead. Averell was a widower who operated a combination store and saloon, known as a road ranch, on his first homestead, and was also postmaster and justice of the peace in the sparsely populated Sweetwater Valley.

Despite claims after their deaths that Watson and Averell were not married, official documents show that a marriage license was granted to them on May 17, 1886, in Lander, Wyoming, a few months after Watson's divorce became final. Watson and Averell probably kept the marriage secret for the same reason that many other homesteaders did: Watson planned to make a homestead filing in the Sweetwater Valley town of Rawlins, the logical place for the marriage, and it was not legal for people of the same family to file individual claims. Probably as a further disguise, Watson used a different surname, Andrews, although she continued to use her actual first and middle names, Ellen Liddy, and gave her correct age and address. In so sparsely populated an area, the likelihood of another "Ellen Liddy" of her age and address is almost nil. Marriage licenses of the time were in three parts—the application, the license and the certificate—and the first two parts made the marriage legal. Many people did not go through with the ceremony to complete the third part, and this appears to be what Watson and Averell did.

When Ellen Watson filed for a homestead adjoining Averell's, close to Horse Creek, the location of their properties probably had more to do with precipitating subsequent events than any other single factor in their story. The problem was that both homesteads lay in an area desired for grazing by the local cattle baron Albert Bothwell.

Before homesteaders moved into Wyoming Territory, herds of cattle were grazed over the entire range, with two roundups per year to sort out the animals before they were driven to market. The new cattle of that year, as yet unbranded, were called mavericks, and were rounded up each spring with the branded animals, then divided up among the ranchers according to the relative size of their herds. With the arrival of the homesteaders and small ranchers, this division became increasingly inequitable, because larger owners still got most of the mavericks while the small owners were prevented even from keeping the mavericks they could identify as born to animals in their herds. When the homesteaders began putting up fences to keep their animals separate and designate their property claims, the cattle barons began bringing their power and money to bear to institute laws through the Territorial Legislature for the protection of their herds. In the resulting conflict, some ranchers attempted to intimidate and run off the homesteaders, or at least prevent them from proving up their claims, while homesteaders found that they could file for water rights which allowed them to divert out of the range cattle's reach rivers and streams that were formerly freerunning. This period of conflict lasted from 1875 to 1900, and became known as the range wars.

Informal testimony from the homesteading neighbors and regular customers of Ellen Watson and Jim Averell suggest that they were good neighbors, unassuming and hardworking. Watson went at least once to stay for several days with a sick neighbor, and Averell's customers said he was well liked, even by most of the cowmen in the area. Watson and Averell may have taken in a young boy, Gene Crowder, from a family whose widowed father was a drunkard. Crowder worked and lived at Watson's homestead. Watson may have worked both her own place and Averell's during the day, returning to her own small home at night, in order to meet residency requirements.

But the homestead improvements that Watson and Averell undertook, including putting up fencing and digging irrigation ditches, were guaranteed to arouse the ire of other ranchers and particularly Bothwell, who was reputed to have a volatile personality. Later testimony asserted that Bothwell and others had attempted on several occasions to intimidate Watson, Averell and other homesteaders. In 1887, a rancher friend of Bothwell's filed a claim against Watson, but she won the case in court. Then, in February 1889, Averell wrote a letter to the Casper Weekly Mail protesting the illegal practices of the large cattlemen in the Sweetwater Valley. Averell was a Democrat who had received several state and federal appointments in the territory, among ranchers who were generally Republican. He was also vocal in his support of homesteaders and small ranchers who favored a proposal that was controversial at the time, to split Carbon County into two smaller counties.

In the spring of 1889, Watson purchased some cattle. Witnesses and records indicate that they were legally purchased, although it is possible that some rustled calves were included in the small herd. Cattle rustling was always a serious

issue among ranchers. Rustling took many forms, but the most common practice, collecting unbranded calves before the spring roundup, had been made illegal by the Maverick Law of 1884. The law, especially after modifications in 1886, had handed the advantage to large ranch owners over the homesteaders by making all unbranded cattle that got loose the property of the Wyoming Cattle Growers Association, even if the original owner could identify the animals. The usual drastic market fluctuations had meanwhile been intensified in 1886–87 by extreme weather conditions, and the advent of the homesteaders had changed ranching forever. Unemployed ranch hands wandered the territory, looking for any means of livelihood; while working cowboys and owners of smaller ranches rustled to make extra money or to increase their own herds.

Watson's cattle were not newly marked with her brand until early in the summer of 1889, probably because she had bought them between February 15 and the beginning of spring roundup, when branding was illegal. Her purchase would have taken place shortly before many of the cows gave birth, or when they were still weakened by the conditions of the winter, and branding would have imposed an extra hardship on the animals, risking the loss of some cows or calves. The lasting question, once the accusation of rustling was made against Watson, is whether the charge was due to a conspiracy, or was simply a mistake. Witnesses aware of the conflict between Watson and Bothwell reported that Bothwell tried on several occasions to buy Watson out or to give her money to prove up her claim early. He therefore had opportunities to see her herd and to know that it was legally hers, and if he truly believed otherwise, he could have brought legal action against her long before July.

On Saturday, July 20, Watson had left her homestead to visit an Indian encampment nearby, to purchase beadwork. A group of six men, including ranchers and their hands, arrived on her property and began running her cattle out of the fenced pasture. When Watson returned, they accused her of rustling and pulled her into a wagon, despite her request to change her dress and pleas to be taken to Rawlins, where she could show proof of purchase. The group then rode to Averell's road ranch and took him.

According to the version given by the ranchers and their supporters, they had found the couple sitting in Averell's house, drinking and smoking, with guns lying about the room. Eyewitness testimony given in legal proceedings, including statements by Gene Crowder and John DeCorey, declared the ranchers' story untrue. According to Crowder and DeCorey, they rounded up the cattle, patched the fence, and headed for Averell's. Finding Averell gone, they alerted his nephew, Ralph Cole, and a friend, Frank Buchanan. Buchanan rode off in search of the ranchers, hid behind some rocks at the lynching site and fired at the group, hitting one man, but he was outnumbered and ran out of ammunition. Helpless, he crouched and watched the lynching of Watson and Averell.

Some who were witnesses to the abduction but not to the lynching indicate some degree of conspiracy. The editor of the Sweetwater Chief newspaper and his assistant apparently had been alerted to the ranchers' plans when they stood atop their building in the newly established town of Bothwell and watched the procession depart from Averell's place. On climbing down, they told some cowboys that "Averell and Watson were hung," without actually seeing the lynching and before reports of it reached town.

It may be that the original plan was to only frighten Watson and Averell, then escalated in the heat of the moment. According to witnesses, when Averell and Watson realized their captors were going to carry out their threats, Averell began to beg for mercy and Watson fought against her abductors. They were placed on a low rock, unbound, and the ropes around their necks were thrown over the tree branch. When their feet were pushed off the rock, there was not enough height to break their necks and bring immediate death, and they strangled slowly while struggling to free themselves.

While Buchanan fled for his life from the scene, one of the perpetrators rode into Rawlins to tell the news and have it telegraphed to Cheyenne. The next day, the first newspaper account appeared in the Cheyenne Daily Leader. Written by Edward Towse, it characterized Averell as "always feared because he was a murderous coward" and Watson as "a virago who had been living with him as his wife for some months." In the form that was fed to Towse, the story may have been an attempt to justify lynching a woman; at any rate, his article contains the seed upon which the legend of "Cattle Kate" was built. Towse continued these characterizations in succeeding articles that were picked up by newspapers around the country, repeating the images of Watson and Averell as hard-living, drunken rustlers, and the ranchers as victims driven to extremes by thieving trickery.

In Sweetwater Valley, an inquest was instated the next evening prior to the burial of the couple at Averell's homestead. Eyewitnesses identified the abductors as six cowboys and ranchers, including Bothwell, and all were arrested within days but allowed to post bail for each other and return home. In the next several months, all who had been witnesses disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances. While a second inquest did not dislodge the findings of the first, it was revised to state that the lynching was done by "persons unknown." In August, Watson's father arrived to find out what happened, and he stayed for some time. But upon his return to Kansas, the continued reports about his daughter's character caused him to forbid mention of her.

In October, when a grand jury was impaneled, Frank Buchanan, the only witness for the prosecution left alive, disappeared. Whether he was murdered, bribed, or fled was never discovered, although numerous theories and suggestions of evidence were advanced by contemporaries and in later research.

Soon after the lynching, all but two of the accused, ostracized and feared by their neighbors, left the Sweetwater area. Albert Bothwell, alleged to be the instigator of the entire scheme, took over the land and buildings developed by Watson and Averell, and continued to squabble over land issues with other residents and the federal government into the next century. When he died many years later in California, it was said among some of the Sweetwater Valley oldtimers that he died "utterly insane."

No information ever gave credence to the view that Ellen Watson had been a prostitute. The charge began with Towse's stories in the Daily Leader, which seemed deliberately to confuse Watson with Kate Maxwell , who operated a gambling hall, saloon, dance hall and brothel in Bessemer, Wyoming, some ten miles south of Casper and a day's ride northeast of the Sweetwater post office where Jim Averell was postmaster.

Maxwell, Kate (fl. 1886)

American frontier woman . Name variations: "Cattle Kate." Flourished around 1886; married a man named Maxwell.

Kate Maxwell, a seriocomic singer from Chicago, was brought to Wyoming about 1886 by a cattleman named Maxwell, and apparently married him after she arrived. Kate Maxwell operated a gambling hall, saloon, dance hall and brothel in Bessemer, Wyoming, some ten miles south of Casper and a day's ride northeast of the Sweet-water post office where Jim Averell was postmaster and had his homestead next to Ellen Watson 's.

Maxwell was referred to in the press as "Cattle Kate" long before the lynching of Ellen Watson and Jim Averell. Perhaps the first to make such reference was the Bessemer Journal. Some of the print reports state that she did associate with rustlers, shoot a man, rob a gambler, and operate various businesses in Bessemer. Prostitution was not illegal in the frontier West; rather it was tolerated as a business that would develop, regardless of laws, in a territory where there were few women. It was not, however, an acceptable job for a decent woman.

In his newspaper articles after the Watson-Averell lynching, Edward Towse seemed deliberately to confuse Watson with Kate Maxwell. He identified Maxwell and Watson as the same person, giving them the same background. Towse said Maxwell imported race horses and jockeys who raced against Native Americans, as well as bulldogs to fight coyotes and wolves. According to Towse, Maxwell was said to have poisoned her husband, and allowed the ranch to become a center for thieves. Eventually, she was robbed of horses and jewels, her cattle scattered, the foreman and others left. Then, Towse said, she joined Averell at his road house.

Reporter W.R. Hunt, working for the Chicago Inter Ocean at the time of the lynching, wrote in a personal notebook about his 1890 trip to the Sweetwater Valley to interview residents and witnesses. The journal was discovered in the Kansas City attic of a woman whose sister was said to be a friend of Hunt's. He wrote, on April 12, 1890, during an investigative trip to Casper, that "Kate Maxwell was another woman altogether, … [who s]old her services to the Army stationed [at Bessemer City]," and that she was at that time "[s]till alive."

The men of the Wyoming Cattle Growers Association were thus successful, not only at killing Watson but at branding her with an unwarranted reputation lasting down through the years. As late as 1981, a book by Jay Robert Nash, with the interesting title Look for the Woman, carried this portrayal:

Not too bright, Ella Watson had been a bar shill and prostitute until moving to Rawlins, Wyoming, where she met cattle rustler Jim Averill who set her up with her very own whorehouse. The bordello was really a front. Into the large pens behind the property, Averill and Ella herded hundreds of cows they had stolen from neighboring ranches, selling the beef for quick and heavy profits. Ella was soon known in the area as "Cattle Kate."

In 1980, the movie Heaven's Gate, loosely based on the homesteader conflict known as the Johnson County wars, added a further level of confusion to the actual identity of the murdered homesteader, depicting Ella Watson as a "notorious brothel keeper" in love with both Jim Averill and Nate Champion. In reality, there was a Nate Champion, reputed variously to be a cattle rustler and a defender of the rights of the homesteaders and small ranchers. Champion was indeed hanged by the men of the Wyoming Cattle Growers Association, but in 1892, three years after the death of Ellen Watson.

More reliably, contemporary interviews of Sweetwater residents, and later ones recording what descendants related of their family histories, indicate that the legend of "Cattle Kate" is at least partly a fabrication that served cattleranching interests. At best, the life of Ellen Watson deserves to be reclaimed as that of a hardworking and courageous homesteader like many who lived and died in the Wyoming Territory.


Clay, John. My Life on the Range. Introduction by Donald R. Ornduff. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Hufsmith, George W. The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889. Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 1993.

Nash, Jay Robert. Look for the Woman. NY: M. Evans, 1981.

Ray, Grace Ernestine. Wily Women of the West. San Antonio, TX: Naylor, 1972.

suggested reading:

Horan, James D., and Paul Sann. Pictorial History of the Wild West. NY: Crown, 1954.

Lamar, Howard R., ed. The Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977.

McLoughlin, Denis. Wild and Woolly: An Encyclopedia of the Old West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.

Myres, Sandra L. Westering Women and the Frontier Experience: 1800–1915. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.


Newspaper reports, legal documents and photographs concerning this incident and the range wars are collected in the Wyoming State Archives and Historical Department in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and in the Historical Research Division, Coe Library, University of Wyoming, Laramie. Private collection of correspondence and papers about Ellen Watson is held by George W. Hufsmith of Jackson, Wyoming.

Margaret L. Meggs , independent scholar on women's and disability issues and on feminism and religion, Havre, Montana