Cattle Kate was raised west of Esbon

Cattle Kate: murder victim or outlaw


The Odessa Cemetery is located on Road K in western Jewell County. Nestled within the confines of the cemetery is the family plot of Thomas Lewis Watson. While the Watson name may not be a familiar one outside of Sherlock Holmes novels, a Watson family member played a pivotal role in one of the most egregious acts of violence committed in the American West.

Thomas was born in Scotland in 1836. He emigrated to the United States as a boy. His family moved from Ohio to Ontario, Canada. Here he married Frances Close. The couple moved to Lebanon in Smith County, Kansas, in the late 1877. By this time they were the parents of Ella, born in 1860, John Calvin, James, Andrew, Frances, Anne and Mary. Jane, Thomas and Bertha were born in Smith County community of Cora.

How does a young woman with family ties to Jewell County become a Western legend?

It goes back to the clashes between large ranchers in Wyoming and small ranchers who attempted to improve their lives by investing in small herds on homesteaded lands. One such clash ended with the hanging of a woman and her husband.

The Homestead Act of 1862 opened vast areas of the country to settlers. In addition, railroads were given large tracts of land as an incentive to construct lines to carry commodities from the country to other areas.

Ellen Liddy Watson was born on July 2, 1860, to Thomas Watson and Frances Close in Arran Township, Bruce County, Ontario, Canada. In 1879, at the age of 18, Ellen married William Pickell, a farmer she had met at Smith Center, Kansas. The couple’s wedding picture survives. Ellen was tall, 5’8”. She had brown hair and blue eyes and spoke with a Scottish burr. It was not a happy marriage. Pickell was physically beating her with a horsewhip, and verbally abusive as well as being a heavy drinker. Ellen returned to her family home. He was dissuaded from going after her by Ellen’s father and brothers. He would have no further contact with her.

Ellen moved to Red Cloud where she worked at a hotel to establish residency. Once she was a Nebraska resident, she filed for divorce from Pickell. Pickell died in Lucerne, Kansas, in 1913.

Once she obtained her divorce, she moved to Denver to live with her brother, James

Ellen then decamped to Cheyenne, Wyo., where she worked as a seamstress and restaurant cook.

Ellen did not like Cheyenne. She departed Cheyenne to move to Rawlins, Wyo. She found employment as a cook and waitress at the Rawlins House, a boarding house.

The lives of Ellen and Averell Watson intersect at this point. Averell filed a homestead claim along the Sweetwater River. The land was located near the Mormon, Oregon and California Trails, an advantageous site for a business. He opened a restaurant and general store. He hired Ellen as a cook at his restaurant,

In May, 1886, Ellen and Averell applied for a marriage license in Lander, Wyo. As married women were not allowed to file a homestead claim, it is thought the marriage was kept secret. Ellen was entitled to buy 160 acres of land. She had five years to prove up the claim with improvements. In August 1886, Ellen filed squatter’s rights to the land adjacent to Averell. In May 1888, she filed a homestead claim on the same parcel. She built a small cabin and corral to meet the homestead requirements. She also worked as a seamstress mending clothes for the area cowboys to earn extra money. Men dropping off and picking up their clothes led to the rumor Ellen was a “soiled dove,’ the euphemism for prostitute. No evidence has been found to substantiate this claim.

Ellen was ambitious. Using funds earned from her side work, she purchased cattle from emigrants traveling the different trails to the west. Ellen used barbed wire to enclose 60 acres of her lands.

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association was formed in 1872 when more than a dozen of the cattlemen owning the largest ranches banded together to protect their rights to open range. They felt that public lands were there for them and resented incursion of newcomers who fenced their land. The winter of 1880-1881 was brutal for the cattlemen. Heavy, continuous snow caused massive herd losses as cattle were unable to graze. To combat this problem, the ranchers began to grow hay. In an area with sparse rainfall, water was a precious commodity.

WSGA exercised its powers in other ways. By law, any unbranded cattle belonged to the association. They made it difficult for small ranchers to buy cattle at auction. They required all ranchers have a registered brand then made it near impossible for them to obtain one. They charged exorbitant fees and controlled the committee which approved brands. Ellen and James applied five times for brands and were denied each time. In 1889, Ellen bought a previously purchased brand from another rancher.

The villain, and he is most certainly that, is one Albert John Bothwell, no known relation to the Jewell County Bothwells, who only held legal title to a small parcel on which his house was situated. One thing that Ellen and James had was water from the Sweetwater River. Bothwell had made several offers to buy out the couple but he was rebuffed by the couple.

Ellen branded 41 cattle in July. Some of them may have been mavericks but that was uncertain.

Ellen filed for approval to build a water ditch for irrigation purposes. The ditch would have reduced the amount of water available to area ranchers including Bothwell.

Bothwell and the WSGA acted as a law unto themselves at times. Bothwell repeatedly fenced public land to which he had no claim. He sent his hired hands to harass the couple.

The WSGA employed range detectives to ferret out rustlers. One Gene Henderson, a range detective employed by the association, stated in a meeting with other area ranchers that he had observed Ellen rustling cattle. Thus was July, 20, 1889, shortly after she had branded her cattle which were in a fenced enclosure.

Bothwell set forth a plan to lynch Ellen and James. Many of the ranchers wanted nothing to do with the affair but Bothwell convinced five others to join him.

Bothwell, along with Earnest McLain, Robert Connor, Thomas Sun, Robert Galbraith and possibly George Henderson, set out to locate Ellen and Averell. The party arrived at Ellen’s cabin. The lynch mob was observed by Gene Crowder. He watched as Ellen was forced onto a buckboard at gunpoint. Crowder rode for help. Frank Buchanan, a friend of the couple, rode out to help. When he arrived at the scene near Independence Rock, Bothwell was swinging up a rope to a lodge pine. When Buchanan arrived the noose was already around Ellen’s neck. Ellen fought as hard as she was able but was no match for her captors as she had her hands bound behind her back.

Buchanan engaged the group with gunfire but the odds were heavily against him and he retreated.

Word soon spread around the state that there had been a hanging.

An official delegation from Casper arrived at the scene. The bodies were still hanging. They were bloated and disfigured from the heat. They were cut down and supposedly buried side by side at Averell’s ranch.

The county sheriff arrested Bothwell and the others. They were charged with murder.

The coroner’s jury heard testimony from Crowder and Buchanan. They testified as to who was present when the two victims were lynched.

A few days after the hanging, a couple ventured out to the hanging site. They found a pair of Native American moccasins. This footwear had belonged to Ellen. They are on display today at the Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne.

The arrested men were indicted by a grand jury. A strange pattern of behavior emerged. Gene Crowder, a 14 year old boy, supposedly died from Bright’s disease. There is speculation he was poisoned. Buchanan was thought to have been murdered. Another witness, Ralph Cole, was hunted down by Henderson and reportedly killed. Another witness disappeared and was never heard form again. As there was no one to testify as to the events, no bill was returned.

Bothwell and his cronies wasted no time in rushing to the newspapers and besmirching the reputations of Watson and Averell. The press depicted them as rustlers. Watson was portrayed as a gambler and prostitute. Newspapers around the country latched onto the lurid stories and presented them as factual.

But what of the men who carried out this foul deed? Did they suffer from divine retribution? No they did not.

Bothwell, through some shady manipulation acquired the Watson and Averell land. He used Ella’s cabin for storage and destroyed the Averell cabin. He lived to the age of 74. He was a wealthy man when he died in Los Angeles, Calif. in 1924. Some say he went insane in his final years but there is little evidence to support this story.

Thomas Sun remained in Wyoming. He watched as his ranch grew in size and he became a wealthy rancher. He died, unrepentant, in 1989, at the age of 65. The ranch remained in his family until 1977.

Robert Connor returned to his home town of Mauch Chunk, Pa., where he also led a prosperous life. He died in 1921, at the age of 72. Mauch Chunk is now known as Jim Thorpe

Robert Galbraith left Wyoming in 1891. He left railroad work and became a wealthy banker in Arkansas. He died in 1948 at the age of 98. His parents moved to Hebron in 1880. They are both buried in the Hebron City Cemetery along with two of their sons.

George Henderson is the only perpetrator to die a violently. He was the general manager of the 71 Cattle Company. Henderson felt a trailhand was being dishonest. He was going to fire him when the cowboy shot Henderson who was sitting on his horse. The irony lies in the fact that Henderson was unarmed. The man who set in motion the events which led to the murder of Ella and was killed while he was unarmed.

Earnest McLain departed Wyoming and was never heard from again.

People who knew Ellen described her as a kind woman with a big heart.

Ellen was the only woman to be hung in Wyoming.

The accepted story was that Cattle Kate was a rustler who got what she deserved. It wasn’t until a composer, George Hufsmith, began gathering information for an opera that the rehabilitation of the Averell’s began. Digging into contemporary sources Hufsmith pieced together the scattered pieces of information and changed the narrative.

The lynching was not about cattle rustling. Much like the lynching of Elizabeth Taylor and her brother at Spring Ranch, it was about a strong, independent woman who stood in the way of a greedy or rejected man. Bothwell was a known womanizer in addition to his other less than noble qualities.

Justice was never served for the Averells. In 1989, descendants of Watson erected a grave marker on the land where her homestead was located. It is probable the actual burial site is below the waters of a reservoir located where the homesteads were.

Should you be driving the back roads of Jewell County and happen by the Odessa Cemetery, stop and visit with Thomas and Francis in the cemetery. Remember their daughter, Ellen, a kind and headstrong young woman who experienced little joy in life who had her reputation sullied for many decades.

A reporter reached out to the son of Thomas Sun. He was the rancher who named the others involved in the lynching. The son, also named Thomas, was asked about the act. His reply was “They were rustlers so I was told.”


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