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Gilded Age greed goes Wild West

Gilded Age greed goes Wild West

Been reading up on the Johnson County Invasion of 1892. In “Freedom Around the Corner,” a survey history of America from 1585-1828, historian Walter McDougall addresses the American gift for hustling, a trait shared by those who hustle in the sense of working hard, for themselves, their families, and in shared community endeavors, and those who hustle others, deceitfully, fraudulently, and aggressively for their own gain. The latter, in unsavory, illegal, even unconstitutional form, was practiced by 1880s-1890s Wyoming capitalist ranchers, Social Darwinists who felt they deserved it all, against the smaller settlers in Johnson and nearby counties.

The Johnson County War, in light of being an extraordinary story peopled by a wide array of colorful characters, marked by strong 3 (or 4) act story arc punctuated with dramatic scenes, remarkably has been the subject of relatively few books.  Among the best are:

* Asa Shinn Mercer, Banditti of the Plains, 1894 (suppressed), reprinted 1954, 1975. Mercer was initially the press voice of the big cattlemen. The invasion turned him against them. His book was so inflammatory from big cattle’s viewpoint that they seized nearly all 1st edition copies and, it appears, all 2nd edition copies. Some copies escaped, and the book has been widely available since 1954.

* Helena Huntington Smith, The War on Powder River (1967): the first subsequent comprehensive account. The standard work until recently.

* George W. Hufsmith, The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889 (1993): an account of the cattlemen just getting started against their perceived adversaries.

* Bill O’Neal, The Johnson County War (2004): Well researched and highly entertaining version of events by prolific Western historian.

* Marilynn S. Johnson, Violence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and Ludlow Massacre: A Brief History with Documents (2008), a small (192-page) summary with primary documents of two Western confrontations between capital and smaller operators and unions.

and the new standard work on the subject…

John W. Davis, Wyoming Range War (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2006, reprinted 2012), establishes through largely untapped Johnson County sources that the county was never a rustler haven. Its rich land was a magnet for small ranchers who were stymied by the big cattlemen in their every legitimate attempt to build small herds on homesteaded public land. In reality, the invasion by Wyoming’s biggest cattlemen and their Texas mercenaries was launched to drive out settlers out of their legal homesteads and to cover up previous assassinations and a botched attempt on Nate Champion and others.

Davis mines overlooked sources to reveal how big cattlemen, egged on by two of their number with Hardin-like sociopathic tendencies, assisted by murderer-turned-lawless lawman Frank Canton, aided by a pocketed state government and paid-for press, aimed to quickly murder 70 settlers and local leaders, intimidating other settlers to clear out. They largely failed in this end, but in their later successful perversion of the courts, did selfishly endanger Wyoming’s reputation and future. The best book on Gilded Age greed gone Wild West.