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Year
1889

Homesteaders murdered by Wyoming ranchers

Having made the mistake of homesteading on land previously controlled by a Wyoming cattle king, homesteaders Ella Watson and James Averell are accused of rustling and hanged.

As the days of the open range cattle industry faded, conflicts between powerful western cattle barons and the homesteaders who were settling on “their” lands were inevitable. The homesteaders had every right to claim their 320 acres of windswept grasslands but some old-time ranchers tried to discourage the settlers in hopes of preserving more rangeland for their cattle. Usually, such discouragement was limited to cowboys cutting the settlers’ barbed wire fences or diverting irrigation water, but the tactics occasionally became more violent.

A common complaint among ranchers was that many of the homesteaders were actually rustlers who stole their cows and horses. The ranchers’ accusations were surely exaggerated, but the charge of rustling allowed them to take drastic actions. Such may have been the case with Ella Watson and James Averell. Watson, who was alleged to be a former prostitute from Kansas, came to Wyoming Territory in 1886. That same year, she received a license to wed James Averell, a Wyoming saloonkeeper who had a homestead on the Sweetwater River. The couple either never married or kept the union secret so that Watson could file a second homestead near Averell’s place. Both claims were located on lands claimed by the powerful rancher Albert Bothwell without legal foundation, and Bothwell used the lands for grazing his herds.

Bothwell–described as one of the most arrogant cattleman in the region–eventually accused both Watson and Averell of rustling. On this day in 1889, Bothwell and five of his men took the couple prisoner and hanged them. Although the men were later charged with murder, a pro-rancher jury acquitted them of any wrongdoing. It was the only incidence of a woman being executed–legally or illegally–in the history of Wyoming.

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