Friday, April 10, 2009

The "Cattle Kate" Hangings

by Jean Henry Mead

When I read Mark Danielson's article about the "Misinformation Highway," I was reminded of the "Cattle Kate" hangings and well-placed lies that ruined a couple's reputation for more than a century. Many conflicting reports have been published since James and Ella Watson Averell were hanged on July 20, 1889, by prominent Wyoming cattlemen. Although most people agree the hangings were deplorable, rumors still persist that the Averells were guilty of illicit activities.

James, “Jimmy” Averell, a slightly-built, well-educated Canadian emigrant, served as justice of the peace in his home district of Rawlins, Wyoming. He later relocated to the Sweetwater Valley where he ran a general store, post office, and saloon which catered to cowboys, settlers, and Oregon Trail travelers. Averell was “well and favorably thought of in Rawlins,” according to a Laramie Boomerang news article published two weeks after the hangings.

James and Ella had filed on adjoining homestead claims that had previously been grazed by Albert Bothwell, one of the men who later hanged the couple. The Bothwell Brothers owned large herds of cattle and were also promoting a town bearing their name in Sweetwater Valley, where they reportedly planned to locate not only the county seat but the state capital as well. Although they hired a promoter to sell lots in the non-existent town, they just weren’t selling to out-of-state buyers.

To complicate matters, James Averell had the annoying habit of writing letters to the editor of the Casper Daily Mail, accusing three prominent cattlemen of attempting to illegally take over large tracts of land bordering the Sweetwater River. The letter Averell wrote on February 8, 1889, undoubtedly signed the couple’s death warrants.

Much has been written about how Ella Watson was dragged from her small cabin and forced into a buggy, later accompanied by her husband. They were then herded by at least six cattlemen to a remote spot where they were hanged from a scrub pine tree in Spring Creek Canyon, several miles from home. A witness claimed that he tried to stop the hangings and watched helplessly as the Averells were pushed from a rock and strangled, their feet only inches from the ground.

Those responsible claimed that the Averells were rustlers and that Ella accepted calves in exchange for her “favors.” She has since been referred to as “Cattle Kate.” Witnesses to the couple’s abduction and hangings mysteriously vanished or died under questionable circumstances.

The cattlemen were brought to trail and acquitted because no witnesses could be found to testify. Following the trail, A. J. Bothwell bought the combined 320 acres the Averells had homesteaded, although there was considerable condemnation in newspapers across the country for “the barbaric hanging of a woman in Wyoming.”

I was angered when I first read an account of the hangings, so I did some extensive research, intending to write a book about the tragedy. One day, while in a store in Casper, I met a nephew of Ella Watson, who swore that his great-aunt had been a fallen woman who accepted cattle for her services. A heated argument ensued, but the nephew stubbornly clung to the legend of "Cattle Kate."

How long does it take for rumors and untruths to die? And should we believe anything we hear or read from questionable, unconfirmed sources?


Mark W. Danielson said...

Great article, Jean. Now I know where the writers of the movie "Australia" got their inspiration:) Things were a lot tougher back then.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, Mark. There was a lot of lawlessness back then, but that's also true now, on a much grander scale.

Chester Campbell said...

Interesting story, Jean. I have some witnesses killed in my new book, but there's other evidence to sustain the case. Once a story gets told, though, it's hard to convince people of the truth.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree, Chester, especially if the lie comes from a powerful group.

Rob Wallker said...

Fascinating story, Jean...fascinating stories abound in history...fact stranger than and often more compelling than fction. Are you thinking of writing a novel around this incident or using it in a work in progress? Just nosey.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Yes, Rob, it's my current WIP. Living within 50 miles of the scene of the crime helps tremendously with research, although the hanging site is now under a million acre feet of water in Pathfinder Dam. :)

Anonymous said...

an' more nope