Cattle Kate was born Ellen Liddy Watson on July 2, 1861, in Arran Lake, Bruce County, Ontario, Canada. Her parents were Francis [nee Close} and Thomas Lewis Watson. She was called Ella in her youth, and she was the eldest of ten children born to the Watson family, the later four of which were born in Kansas after the family moved there in 1877.
The family homesteaded near Lebanon, Kansas. At the age of sixteen, Ella was courted by a local farmer named William A. Pickell, who was three years older than she. The two were married on November 4, 1879. However, Pickell was abusive, both verbally and physically, and drank heavily. He often would beat Ella with a horsewhip. In January 1883, Ella fled to her parents’ home. Pickell came after her, but was intimidated by her father and fled, having no contact with her afterward. Ella filed for divorce and moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, fourteen miles north of her family’s homestead.
That same year she moved to Denver, Colorado. One of her brothers lived there, and she stayed with him for a time, then moved on to Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was unusual during that period in American history for a woman to move independently and alone. However, she did so, finding work as both a seamstress and a cook.
Ella later moved on to Rawlins, Wyoming. While in Rawlins she began working as cook and waitress in the premier boarding-house/hostelry in town, the Rawlins House. It has been alleged that the Rawlins House was a brothel and Ella worked as a prostitute there, but it was not a brothel, and there is no evidence Ella ever worked as a prostitute anywhere. The canard that Ella was a prostitute was circulated in newspaper articles later on by the influential cattle barons, in order to discredit her.
On February 24, 1886, Ella met a homesteader named James “Jim” Averell, who was in town on business. The two began a romance, and she moved with him to his homestead near the Sweetwater River country. According to those who knew him, no one ever went hungry from Jim Averell’s door and his house was always open for all. He was formerly postmaster and held the office of justice of the peace. He was obliging, socialable and always a friend to the poor man.
He had previously married Sophia Jaeger after his second service in the army was up. The two had a child together, but both Sophia and the infant died from fever in August 1882. Devastated, Averell began homesteading fifteen miles north of the homestead he had worked while married to Sophia. He began to frequent the Rawlins House, where he became acquainted with Ella, who then moved to his home.
Jim had built and opened a “road ranch” (a combination eating place and general store) on his homestead property, serving both cowboys and settlers who traveled through headed to Oregon and other locations west. Ella served as the cook, and she was allowed to keep the money she made, fifty cents a meal. In March 1886, Ella’s divorce became final. Ella and Averell applied for a marriage license in Lander, Wyoming that same year, but it is unclear whether the two ever legally married, as the license was never filed. On June 26, 1886, Averell was appointed postmaster of the community. Ella, however, expressed her desire to have her own ranch, working independently from his.
Ella filed on a homestead adjacent to Averell’s in August 1886 and built a small two-room cabin. At the time, the Maverick Law stated that unbranded calves found on a property were to be branded with an “M” and became the property of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a powerful group of cattlemen at the time. The cattlemen’s association limited small ranchers from bidding on cattle at auctions, and insisted that all ranchers, small and large, have a registered brand. The cost for registering a brand was set quite high, to ensure that few smaller ranchers could afford it. Also, a brand had to be “accepted”, and the cattlemen’s association had substantial power inside the committee that either rejected or accepted brands. Essentially, this locked out many smaller ranchers from operating within the scope of the law of the time.
The wealthy cattlemen began to build portable cabins on land, claiming it as homesteads, thus making the land theirs, and after registering it with the county, they would simply move the portable cabins to another location and repeat the same process over again. Averell, being the local justice of the peace, began writing about these acts to a newspaper in Casper, Wyoming. This infuriated the cattlemen.
On March 23, 1888, Ella filed her claim for her homestead, where she had built her cabin two years before. By law, this made the property hers. Between her claim and Averell’s, the two owned 320 acres. She fenced much of the property and built a livery stable and several corrals. In 1888, under extreme pressure from small ranchers and homesteaders, the governor repealed the Maverick Law, bringing on heavy opposition from the wealthy cattlemen. By now, Ella had been dubbed by local newspapers as “Cattle Kate”.
In the fall of 1888, Ella purchased 28 cattle from a man who was driving them from Nebraska to Salt Lake City, Utah. On December 3, 1888, Ella applied for the “WT” brand, but was rejected. On March 16, 1889, likely feeling her own brand would never be accepted, she bought a brand already registered, thus now having a legal operating brand.
That same year she unofficially adopted an eleven-year-old boy named Gene Crowder, whose father, a heavy drinker who was unable to properly care for his son, had worked for her previously. Gene and another boy, fourteen-year-old John DeCorey, worked her steadily increasing ranch. By the middle of July 1889, she had forty-one head of cattle, and she hired Frank Buchanan to mend fences.
Albert John Bothwell, a wealthy cattleman and member of the cattlemen’s association, lived only about a mile from the ranch. Although he had never owned the area of land on which Ella’s ranch was now located, he had used it from time to time in years past. He now greatly resented the presence of her ranch.
The winter of 1888-89 was a harsh winter for the cattlemen. It was one of the worst in its history. The big cattle barons lost over three fourth of their herds on the open range. This put them in a state of disarray.
During this winter, Ellen slaughtered a couple of cows, and gave the meat to some of the neighbors. Some of the other homesteaders around the area didn’t have enough to eat and she made sure that they did, by supplying them with meat. One neighbor’s wife came down with a fever during this time, and Ellen went to her home and sat with the woman for about a week until she was back on her feet. Ellen made her own dresses, and used her sewing machine to make clothes for other people, which helped her earn a little money.
Jim Averell had granted Bothwell right-of-way so that Bothwell could irrigate his property. Bothwell began to fence in parts of Ella’s ranch and sent cowboys working for him to harass the couple.
On July 20, 1889, a range detective, George Henderson, who was working for Bothwell, accused Ella of rustling cattle from Bothwell and branding them with her own brand. The cattlemen sent riders to arrest Ella. The six ranchers were: M. Ernest McLean, Robert “Captain” M. Galbraith, John Henry Durbin, Robert Conner, and Tom Sun. Albert J. Bothwell was the ringleader. There are reports that there were more cattlemen at the early morning meeting than the original six. Some didn’t want to take part in the lynching party, so left. While young Gene Crowder watched, they forced Ella into a wagon, telling her they were going to Rawlins.
The following is from a eyewitness account: Gene Crowder, a lad about 14 years was interviewed by the writer of the CASPER MAIL. It appeared in the August 3, 1889 CARBON COUNTY JOURNAL.
“I was at Ella’s (Watson) trying to catch a pony when the men rode up. John Durbin took down the wire fence and drove the cattle out while McLain and Conners kept Ella from going into the house. After a while they told her to get into the wagon and she asked them where they were going. They told her to Rawlins. She wanted to go into the house and change her clothes, but they would not permit her to do so and made her get into the wagon. She got in then and we all started toward Jim’s (Averell). I tried to ride around the cattle and get ahead, but Bothwell took hold of my pony’s bridle and made me stay with them. I then stayed with Durbin and helped him drive the cattle and the others went ahead and met Jim, who was starting to Casper, just inside his second gate. They made him throw up his hands and I think told him they had a warrant for his arrest, for after they made him unhitch his team, they all came up where the cattle were and Jim asked Durbin where the warrant was. Durbin and Bothwell both drew their guns on him and told him that was warrant enough. They made Jim get in the wagon and then drove back a ways and around the north side of the rocks. John DeCory and I hurried down to Jim’s house and told the folks there that they had taken Jim and Ella and were driving around the rocks with them. Frank Buchanan got on a horse and followed them, and was gone several hours. When he came back, he told us they had hung Jim and Ella”.
By the time Buchanan arrived, the group of riders were lynching both Ella and Jim. Buchanan rode in and opened fire on the riders, and a shoot-out followed. At least one of the vigilante riders was wounded, but Buchanan was forced to withdraw because he was outnumbered. He rode to the ranch, where he was met by employee Ralph Coe and the two teenage boys. By that time, both Jim and Ella were dead.
County sheriff Frank Hadsell and deputy sheriff Phil Watson (no relation to Ella) arrested six men for the hangings. A trial date was set, but prior to the date several witnesses were intimidated and threatened, and several people were killed mysteriously. One of those who disappeared was young Gene Crowder, who was never seen again. Buchanan fled after another shoot-out with unknown suspects, and was seen periodically over the next two to three years, eventually changing his name and disappearing altogether. Ralph Coe, who was a nephew to Averell, died from poisoning the very day of the trial.
Another witness, Dan Fitger, had observed the lynchings, and had seen the riders arrive at the location with Buchanan riding far behind. He also witnessed the shoot-out between Buchanan and the riders, stating that at least one of the vigilante riders was wounded, possibly two. However, he did not come forward until years after the incident, for fear of the cattlemen. At the time of the trial, it was unknown that Fitger had witnessed this. He stated he had been plowing in a field when the incident happened.
In the end, Jim and Ella’s possessions were sold off in auction, and their property eventually became the property of members of the cattlemen’s association.
In Helena Huntington Smith’s book THE WAR ON POWDER RIVER, she states: “No attempts were made to investigate these three disappearances or the boys death, nor were any questions ever asked of the men most likely to be involved. Upheld by most of the money and all of the influence in the Territory and openly applauded for what they had done they were completely immune to consequences and their arrogance knew no bounds. They were even rewarded. Bothwell and Tom Sun had been named to the executive committee of the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association in the spring of 1889, Sun served until 1910 and Bothwell until 1902. John Durbin was appointed to the committee the following spring.”
This was one of many events that eventually sparked the Johnson County War.