Ellen Watson

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Cattle Kate
Ella Watson.jpg
"Cattle Kate" Watson
BornJuly 2, 1860
DiedJuly 20, 1889 (aged 29)
Other namesElla Watson, Cattle Kate, Mrs. James Averell
Known forlynched for political reasons

Ellen Liddy Watson (July 2, 1860[1] – July 20, 1889) was a pioneer of Wyoming who became known as Cattle Kate, an alleged outlaw of the Old West. The "outlaw" characterization is a dubious one, as she was not violent and was never charged with any crime during her life. Accused of cattle rustling, she was ultimately lynched by agents of powerful cattle ranchers as an example of what happens to those who opposed them or who threatened their interests. Her life has become an Old West legend.

Early life[edit]

Ellen Liddy Watson was born about July 1860.[1] It is likely that she was the daughter of Thomas Lewis Watson and Francis Close, who married the next year on May 15, 1861, in Grey County, Ontario.[1] The eldest of ten surviving children, Watson helped at home and attended school, learning to read and write in a small one-room building. In 1877, the family moved to Lebanon, Kansas.[1]

Soon after the move, Watson went to Smith Center, Kansas to work as a cook and housekeeper for H.R. Stone. While there, she met farm laborer William A. Pickell. They married on November 24, 1879.[1] Their wedding portrait survives, depicting a "tall, square-faced woman",[2] Watson was probably 5 foot 8 inches tall, and weighed about 165 pounds (75 kg). She had brown hair, blue eyes and a Scottish accent, inherited from her parents.[3]

Pickell was verbally and physically abusive and drank heavily. He would often beat Ella with a horsewhip. In January 1883, Watson fled to back to her parents' home. Pickell came after her, but was intimidated by her father and fled, and had no contact with her afterwards.[4][5] Watson moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, 12 miles (19 km) north of her family's homestead. She worked at the Royal Hotel for a year while establishing residency and then filed for divorce.[1]

That same year she moved, against her family's wishes, to Denver, Colorado to join one of her brothers who lived there. She then moved on to Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was unusual during that period in American history for a woman to move independently and alone, but she found work as a seamstress and a cook.[4][5]

Watson disliked Cheyenne and in late 1885 or early 1886 followed the railroad to Rawlins, Wyoming where she began working as cook and waitress in the premier boarding-house in town, the Rawlins House.[6][4][5]

Life with Averell[edit]

On February 24, 1886, Watson met James "Jim" Averell, who was in Rawlins to file a homestead claim for land along the Sweetwater River, about 1 mile (1.6 km) from the Oregon, Mormon, and California Trails. There he opened a restaurant and general store catering to cowboys and to people traveling west. He quickly hired Watson to cook at his restaurant; customers paid 50 cents each for a meal.[6]

In May, she and Averell applied for a marriage license 100 miles (160 km) away, in Lander, Wyoming.[7] The license listed her as "Ellen Liddy Andrews".[8] It is unclear whether the two were legally married,[8] although historians think it likely that the marriage did take place, but was kept a secret. This allowed Watson to apply for land through the Homestead Act of 1862, which permitted single women, but not married women, to buy 160 acres of land, provided they improved it within five years. In August 1886 Watson filed squatter's rights to the land adjacent to Averell's.[7] In May 1888, she filed her homestead claim to the same piece of land.[9] To meet the requirements of the Homestead Act, Watson had a small cabin and corral constructed on her property.[10]

To earn extra money, Watson mended clothing for cowboys. The fact that men frequently visited her cabin, "may have led to rumors" that she was actually a prostitute.[11]

Confrontations with WSGA[edit]

With her savings, Watson bought cattle from emigrants on the trails.[12] She fenced about 60 acres of her land with barbed wire, but this would not have been enough grazing area for her small herd. In this era, many ranchers grazed their cattle on public land. In 1872, about two dozen of the cattlemen with the largest ranches banded together to create the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) to protect their rights to the open range.[13] After suffering massive losses in the Snow Winter of 1880–1881, when cattle were unable to get to the grass under the snowdrifts, ranchers began growing hay as an alternative way of feeding the animals during the winter. For an area with little rainfall, this meant that access to water was now crucial to the survival of the ranches.[14] The land claimed by Watson and Averell controlled 1 mile (1.6 km) of water along Horse Creek.[10] A neighbor, the powerful cattleman Albert John Bothwell, made several offers to buy Watson and Averell's land from them. They repeatedly declined.[14]

The wealthy cattlemen began to build portable cabins on unclaimed land, declaring homesteads and registering them, thus acquiring the land and then moving the portable cabin to another location and repeating the process. Averell, being the local justice of the peace, began writing about these acts to a newspaper in Casper, Wyoming,[4][5] and seemed to reference Bothwell directly.[15]

A law at the time stated that unbranded calves became the property of the WSGA. The cattlemen's associations limited small ranchers from bidding at auctions, and insisted that all ranchers, small and large, have a registered brand. The cost for registering a brand was exorbitant, ensuring that few small ranchers could afford it. Also, a brand had to be "accepted", and the cattlemen's associations had substantial power inside the committee that either rejected or accepted brands, thus locking out smaller ranchers.[4][5] Over a three-year period Watson and Averell filed applications for five different brands and were denied each time.[15] In 1889 she bought a previously registered brand, "L-U", (an altered pronunciation of 'Ella') from John Crowder.[14]

In a move that may have been retaliation for the repeated denial of her brand applications, Watson filed for approval to construct a water ditch to irrigate more of her land. This ditch, if built, would reduce the amount of water available to neighboring ranchers, including Bothwell.[16]

With a brand of her own, Watson was now able to mark her own cattle. In July 1889, just as the spring roundup was ending, Watson branded her cattle.[15][17] Forty-one cattle were branded, a relatively high number considering the year before she had purchased only 28, all specifically described as being in poor health. Although it is possible that some cattle had broken through her fence and were accidentally mixed in with her own, it is also likely that many of the calves were mavericks, which the WSGA considered their property.[18]

Bothwell began to fence in parts of Ella's ranch and sent his cowboys to harass the couple. On July 20, 1889, a range detective, George Henderson, working for Bothwell, accused Ella of rustling cattle from Bothwell and branding them with her own brand. The cattlemen sent riders to arrest Ella. While young Gene Crowder watched, they forced her into a wagon, telling her they were going to Rawlins.[4][5]

Crowder rode for help, reporting the news to the couple's friend Frank Buchanan, who immediately rode after the wagon. By the time Buchanan arrived, the riders were in the process of lynching both Ella and Jim. Buchanan rode in and opened fire. At least one of them was wounded, but Buchanan was forced to withdraw, as the odds were ten to one. Buchanan then rode back to the ranch, where he was met by Ralph Coe and the two boys. By that time, both Jim and Ella were dead.[4][5]

Aftermath of killings[edit]

County Sheriff Frank Hadsell and Deputy Sheriff Phil Watson (no relation to Ella) arrested six men for lynching. Though a trial date was set, several witnesses were intimidated and threatened, and several others were mysteriously killed. One of those who disappeared was young Gene Crowder, who was never seen again. Buchanan fled after another shoot-out with unknown suspects. Though he was seen periodically over the next two or three years, he eventually changed his name and disappeared altogether. Ralph Cole, who was a nephew to Averell, died on the day of the trial from poisoning.[4][5]

Another witness, Dan Fitger, had observed the lynchings, and had seen the riders arrive 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 later, for fear of the cattlemen. At the time of the trial, he stated he had been plowing in a field when the incident happened.[4][5]

In the end, the Averells' possessions were sold off at auction, and their property eventually claimed by members of the cattlemen's association. This was one of many events that eventually sparked the Johnson County War.[4][5]

Cattle Kate[edit]

The day that Watson and Averell were lynched, George Henderson received a telegram. He immediately went to the Cheyenne Daily Sun and then other papers controlled by the WSGA. The next day, those papers published lurid accounts of the crimes of prostitute and cattle rustler "Cattle Kate" Maxwell and her partner-in-crime, James Averell. Daily Sun editor Ed Towse's 1,300-word article justified the "lawless but justifiable deed" of lynching Averell and "Maxwell." He stated that "the cattlemen have been forced to this and more hangings will follow unless there is less thieving."[19] The articles and those that followed marked the first time that the cattlemen had used the press as a tool to justify and glorify their violence. The tactic was so successful that it was resurrected during the violence of 1891 and 1892.[20]


Those who knew her spoke highly of Watson. A stage station operator, Harry Ward, described Watson as "a fine looking woman", saying: "Other women looked down on her in those days, but no matter what she was or did she had a big heart. Nobody went hungry around her."[11]

Watson is the only woman to have been hanged in Wyoming. Her death, and that of Averell, "became symbols of the societal contempt raging against rustlers during the latter part of the nineteenth century."[21] The Cattle Kate myth was largely accepted until the late 20th century, when composer George Hufsmith began researching Watson's life for an opera, The Lynching of Sweetwater. He received a lot of information from her family and eventually used his research in writing a biography of Watson.[22]

Watson's relatives erected a marker in 1989 at her grave site to commemorate her death.[23]

The 1953 movie The Redhead from Wyoming was loosely based on the myth of Watson as Kate Maxwell. Maureen O'Hara played a madam who inadvertently helped Averell (William Bishop (actor)) run a cattle rustling empire.[24] Another highly fictionalized version of the lives of Ella Watson and James Averell was produced in 1980. Heaven's Gate, directed by Michael Cimino and starring Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert, was "one of the most costly films ever made - and one of Hollywood's biggest box office failures".[25]

Watson's story appears in Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountain by Jan MacKell and includes an illustration of her made by Herndon Davis.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Van Pelt, p. 157.
  2. ^ Van Pelt, p. 154.
  3. ^ Davis, p. 69.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hufsnmith, George W. (1993). The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889. Glendo, WY: High Plains Press. ISBN 0931271169. Retrieved December 23, 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "The Lynching of my great Aunt". Daniel W. Brumbaugh. Watsonkin.com website. 1998. Archived from the original on December 2, 2010. Retrieved December 23, 2009.
  6. ^ a b Van Pelt, p. 158.
  7. ^ a b Van Pelt, p. 160.
  8. ^ a b McLure, p. 273.
  9. ^ Van Pelt, p. 163.
  10. ^ a b Wilson, p. 61.
  11. ^ a b Van Pelt, p. 162.
  12. ^ Van Pelt, p. 165.
  13. ^ Wilson, p. 59.
  14. ^ a b c McLure, p. 274.
  15. ^ a b c Davis, p. 72.
  16. ^ Van Pelt, p. 166.
  17. ^ Davis, p. 73.
  18. ^ Van Pelt, p. 168.
  19. ^ Davis, p. 68.
  20. ^ Davis, p. 75.
  21. ^ Van Pelt, p. 155.
  22. ^ Van Pelt, p 156.
  23. ^ Find a Grave: Ellen Liddy "Ella" Watson Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  24. ^ Franscell, p. 279.
  25. ^ Lackmann, p. 52.
  26. ^ Jan MacKell (12 October 2011). Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains. UNM Press. p. 360. ISBN 978-0-8263-4612-4.


  • Davis, John W. (2012), Wyoming Range War: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County, University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 9780806183800
  • Franscell, Ron (2008), The Darkest Night: Two Sisters, a Brutal Murder, and the Loss of Innocence, Macmillan, ISBN 9780312948467
  • Lackmann, Ronald W. (1997), Women of the Western Frontier in Fact, Fiction, and Film, McFarland, ISBN 9780786404001
  • McLure, Helen (2007), "Bad Men, Unsexed Women, and Good Citizens: Outlaws and Vigilantes in the American West", in Peter Mancall; Benjamin Heber Johnson (eds.), Making of the American West: People and Perspective, Perspectives in American Social History, ABC-CLIO, ISBN 9781851097630
  • Van Pelt, Lori (2003), "Cattle Kate: Homesteader or Cattle Thief?", in Riley, Glenda; Richard W. Etulain (eds.), Wild Women of the Old West, Notable Westerners, 4, Fulcrum Publishing, ISBN 9781555912956
  • Wilson, R. Michael (2013), Outlaw Tales of Wyoming, 2nd: True Stories of the Cowboy State's Most Infamous Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats, Globe Pequot, ISBN 9781493004355

External links[edit]