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Violence in the West: Remembering the Western Narrative

Info: 2086 words (8 pages) Essay
Published: 18th May 2020 in History

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Violence in the Old West was prominent during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In Johnson’s book, she explores why the violence occurred, the meanings behind it, and why only some of the history has been remembered and appealed to the public. The strife of this period developed as a product of the incorporation of industrialization into the previously untouched frontier.

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Previously to this era vigilantism already served as a precursor to the outburst of fighting as law enforcement remained weak in the rural lands of the West. Overtime the source of conflicts shifted however as a national struggle “between rising capitalist interests…and restive workers and agrarian populists who defied their power…[1]” The first examples of corporate interest bringing about conflict start with the formation of the cattle industry. It served to show the large-scale businesses that would soon take root in the West as after only twenty years cattle towns would develop to the point of being able to send more than two million heads of cattle to market to feed the nation. This relative success would attract smaller farmers and homesteaders who wished to profit off the boon quickly creating a problem of overgrazing as the amount of cattle soon outgrew the land’s ability to provide. From eighteen eighty-five to eighteen eighty-seven this lack of provisions along with harsh winters and drought would result in a large die off of cattle bankrupting many businesses and causing others to close. The remaining large cattle owners became increasingly protective of their operations and fought anyone who could cause potential harm leading to the formation of deals between large owners to band together against the threat of small ranchers infringing upon their business. This continued threat of small farmer’s herds using the now limited resources led to large scale owners purchasing the previously shared land or blocking others from using water sources. By the eighteen nineties small ranchers struggled as these previously accessible lands were continually claimed by large landholders. Soon they began getting revenge by cutting apart landholders’ fences to gain access into grazing lands or taking unbranded cows from cattle owners. As the financial situation increased in the eighteen eighties stock owners began employing detectives to hunt down those who claimed their unbranded cattle or would organize vigilantes to lynch the offenders. One such group led by Granville Stuart resulted in them “killing more than a hundred horse thieves and range squatters. [2]” Actions such as these would later fuel the Johnson County War.

The second example of western violence committed by corporations is the Johnson County War and the actions leading up to it. By eighteen seventy-nine with the cattle barons organizing the Wyoming Stock Growers Association the cattle industry took on a bigger role in the local economy. The WSGA began lobbying state government, registering brands to prevent theft of cattle, and other things to push their interests. After harsh winters in eighteen eighty-five and eighty-six they began cutting wages after cattle prices began falling and many faced a financial loss. The result was a strike which ended with the restoration of wages to the cowhands. However, the cowhand’s victory would not last as another winter would devastate the industry killing thousands of cattle leading to layoffs. Former cowboys would go on to try and form ranches; an action that would spark a great deal of irritation from big stock growers. The large cattle owners resented the new homesteaders and tried to discredit them as being thieves who stole unbranded cattle for themselves. The coveting of their enterprise would spark lynchings such as that of James Averell and Ellen Watson whom were suspected of “rustling” unbranded cattle. Local residents became outraged with the acts while most large growers would approve the violence. The WSGA then got the Wyoming Livestock Commission to begin seizing and impounding any cattle believed to be “rustled.” Documentation of proof of purchase were not recognized and appeals to authority would be ignored leading enraged small ranchers to band together and form their own organization, the Northern Wyoming Farmer’s and Stock Growers Association. Soon two supporters of the new organization would be killed fueling the anger and the small ranchers declared they would start a round up of their own. Cattle operators hired gunmen from Texas to stop it and on April fifth eighteen ninety-two just before the April roundup the “regulators” arrived at Cheyenne station. The next morning, they rode to Johnson County to hunt down and execute alleged rustlers. On April ninth they arrived at KC Ranch and killed Nate Champion and Nick Ray. By the next day furious residents formed together to fight the regulators would had taken refuge at the TA Ranch. A two-day standoff occurred before the Governor, Amos Barber, got word and asked the president for help. One hundred troop came from Fort McKinney and placed the regulators in custody before escorting the back to the fort. Governor Barber would order the removal of the regulators from Johnson County because they were in danger. Residents were outraged as they wished for a local jury to try them, and with close associates of those in custody openly bragging about organizing another invasion; residents began attacking, looting, and vandalizing several large ranches. Martial law was declared and with the Sixth Cavalry at Fort McKinney being sympathetic to residents they decided to send in the all-black Ninth Cavalry due to the urging of cattle operators. The antipathy towards federal troops who protected cattle owners and racial tensions would explode into a gunfight on June seventeenth between the townspeople and the soldiers. One soldier would be killed, and two others wounded in what was to be some of the last casualties from the Johnson County War. The regulators would never be tried or convicted for the violence and big cattle owners would continue to hire detectives and gunmen to hunt down alleged rustlers.

Another example of violence sprouting from the growing corporations in the west is the Colorado coal strike. Several strikes would take place throughout the years as the United Mine Workers of America would fight for rights and unionize workers. Of these strikes the most important to take note of would be the unionization campaign started in July of nineteen thirteen. As with previous coal strikes employers hired mine guards and detectives to fight back against unions and keep workers in line. Hostilities quickly escalated however leading to an Italian American organizer, Gerald Lippiatt, to be killed by Baldwin-Felts detectives. A coroner’s jury declared the death a justifiable homicide enraging workers. Lippiatt’s death advanced the union’s efforts and on September sixteenth they decided to strike the following week. Coal companies immediately began evicting striking workers “leaving eleven thousand workers homeless.[3]” Tent colonies were formed the largest being the Ludlow camp where over a thousand men and their families took residence. Violence outbroke almost instantly between the families and mine guards. The next month found at least nine killed in these conflicts throughout the different camps. Martial law was declared by Governor Elias Ammons and on October twenty ninth troops, infantry, and artillery units were dispatched to the strike zone under General John Chase. Strikers originally “welcomed the troops as protectors [but], relations quickly soured, with strikers killing three mine guards and a strikebreaker…[4]” Over the next few months strikers suffered numerous violations of civil rights from the troops. By mid-April 1914 Governor Ammons withdrew most troops unable to overcome the amount of controversy and fiscal burdens being generated. Thirty-five soldiers remained to be joined on April 18 by one hundred men on the payroll of local coal companies to form an additional troop. Two days later violence would break out after gunfire from an unknown source began. Soon the miners fled to the hills while women and children escaped to nearby ranches or hid in pits beneath the camp tents. That evening the tents would catch fire burning Ludlow to the ground, the next day twenty would lay dead, “including two women and eleven children whose bodies were recovered from a pit beneath one of the tents.[5]” Unions leaders would urge a call to arms to protect against those that would kill women and children. The story of the Ludlow Massacre would spread leading to mass protests in several cities. Finally, Governor Ammons would ask President Woodrow Wilson to send in federal troops and on April twenty eighth more than sixteen hundred troops were deployed and brought an end to the violence. The UMWA would be forced to admit defeat and call off the strike by December tenth nineteen fourteen.

The accounts of both these events would be publicized widely but with varying statements from both sides. One account from George P. West’s “Report on the Colorado Strike” explained the events from a union sympathizers viewpoint stating the revolt was because of the “economic, political and social domination by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company and the smaller coal mining companies that followed its lead.[6]” He explains how not just the government, but the state was influenced by the companies and flouted the civil rights of the people. West’s account goes into detail about the strikers’ inability of freedom when it came to choosing where to live, shop, or go to the doctor. When looking over court cases against the companies he points out that personal injury suits are practically unknown, and after consulting a former undersheriff of Huerfano County that there were no cases to speak of where the company was held accountable by a coroner’s jury. He writes that the obvious corruption of justice is the reason for the strikes and is utterly justifiable[7]. In contrast documentation between John D. Rockefeller Jr. and L. M. Bowers insinuates they were corresponding throughout the Colorado Strike and that Rockefeller was aware of the plights suffered by the workers and was seemingly trying to comply with their needs. Although Rockefeller was more well known the words written do not match the actions taken and are not very convincing and credible compared to other accounts.

In the end documentation from more prominent figures like Rockefeller helped shape the memory of western violence. America in the decades after the Ludlow Massacre was pro-business and therefore didn’t opt to keep the memory in the forefront and laid it aside for a more thrilling retelling of the west. In this sense the range war unlike the Colorado coal strike was able to be separated from its ties to unionization and striking. Instead it was able to be transformed throughout the decades to relate western violence in the way people wished to remember it as with saloon fights and rugged independence in the frontier.

Works Cited

  • Johnson, Marilynn S. Violence in the West The Johnson County Range War and the Ludlow Massacre: A Brief History with Documents. Long Grove: Waveland Press, 2014.

[1] Marilynn S. Johnson, Violence in the West The Johnson County Range War and the Ludlow Massacre: A Brief History with Documents (Long Grove: Waveland Press, 2014), 9

[2] Johnson, Violence in the West, 12

[3] Johnson, 25

[4] Johnson, 25

[5] Johnson, 26

[6] George P. West, “Report on the Colorado Strike”, in Johnson, 84

[7] George P. West, “Report on the Colorado Strike”, in Johnson, 90


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