Editor’s note: WyoFile is pleased to present the third installment in our special project: “The Pete Simpson Forum,” a conversation about how our state can best deal with a host of challenges and opportunities. People with different backgrounds are invited to write about a particular topic. WyoFile publishes a pair of columns each month. 

A note from Pete: This month’s forum contributors are Wyoming neighbors from either side of the Owl Creek Mountains – John Davis of Worland and Dave Raynolds of Lander.  John practices law, among many other things, and Dave raises buffalo, among equally many other things, and, though their backgrounds differ, both share a passion for Wyoming history and both have insights, albeit somewhat contrary to each other, about Wyoming culture and the nature of Wyoming’s political identity.  They welcome comments – as do I! Keep ‘em coming!

Pete Simpson Forum: Wyoming’s political identity and the Johnson County War

By John Davis
— October 8, 2013 
John Davis

In April, 1892, a group of 25 big cattlemen and their hired guns from Texas climbed on a private, secret train to Casper. At Casper, they disembarked and rode north, headed for Buffalo. Their purpose was to lynch 70 men, including the three Johnson County Commissioners (Buffalo is the county seat of Johnson County), the Johnson County Sheriff and allhis deputies, the editor of one of the Buffalo newspapers, at least one downtown merchant, and a whole bunch of small ranchers identified as “rustlers.” They did kill two men in what is now Kaycee, Wyoming, but one of the men, Nate Champion, put up such a fight that the invaders were delayed, and Champion’s neighbors were alerted; they were given the time to form an immense posse, which surrounded and besieged the invaders, and turned them over to the United States Army.

The invasion of Johnson County shocked and angered most of the people of the fledgling state of Wyoming (only two years old in 1892). The invasion did not create Wyoming’s political identity – that was already well formed – but this unpopular raid did have profound political consequences. It quickly became an albatross about the necks of Wyoming’s Republicans. Most of the cattle barons who conducted and supported the invasion were Republicans much appreciated by the rest of the party. They were the elite of Wyoming society and held an outsize portion of the wealth of the state.

A large number of big cattlemen served in the Wyoming legislature in the 1870s and 1880s and Wyoming’s two most important politicians, Republican Senators Francis E. Warren and Joseph M. Carey, were especially close to Wyoming’s cattle industry. Carey served as the President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (the group almost all Wyoming big cattlemen belonged to) during the 1880s. More than this, the responses of Republicans to the invasion put them on the wrong side of the issue. Democrats immediately denounced the invasion of Johnson County. The Republicans, though, tried to ignore it, at one point saying it was only a local issue. And Republican politicians, from Warren to Carey to Acting Governor Amos Barber, rushed to lend aid and comfort to the men who conducted the raid.

The citizens of Wyoming had little trouble identifying which political party had responded wrongly to the invasion. And, overwhelmingly, they voted against that party, the Republican party. Democrats were elected in every state-wide election. The Wyoming legislature went to the Democrats and the People’s Party (Populists), which had run joint tickets, referred to as a “fusion ticket.” Within the state, especially in northern Wyoming, the overwhelming majority of local offices went to the fusion ticket.

The only reason Republicans were not swept out of almost every Wyoming elective office was that not all the offices were up for election. Although all state-wide contests went to Democrats, only three top seats were up in the election:, for governor, U.S. Rrepresentative and Supreme Court judge. The Wyoming State Senate only elected half its members. These results were enough to throw Francis E. Warren out of the U.S. Senate, however. Senators were then chosen by the state legislature and, in 1893, Warren was up for renewal of his senate seat. After the 1892 election produced a majority of non-Republicans in the state legislature, Francis E. Warren knew he would not be returned to Washington. This was a profound shock to Warren who, in early 1892, reasonably expected that his return to the nation’s capitol would be just a formality.

In 1892, and, indeed, from the beginning of the Wyoming territory in 1868, Republicans had been dominant in Wyoming, much as they are today. It is hard to know exactly why Wyoming was so quickly and completely gobbled up by one party, but one reason was surely that the leading office holders in Wyoming were appointed by the federal administration in power. And after the Civil War, one Republican after another was elected to the presidency, so that with only one exception, all the Wyoming territorial governors were Republicans appointed by a Republican president.

But more than this, the people who came to Wyoming were mostly from the northern states, places that had supported the Republican Party since it was led by Abraham Lincoln. Regardless of the reason, the local offices and the Wyoming legislature were mostly filled with Republicans year after year. But political parties without serious opposition have a special set of problems.

One problem is that they tend to become complacent, to sometimes take the electorate for granted and assume that whatever they do will be contentedly accepted by their constituents. Another is that a big tent sometimes includes people who may embarrass the party. In 1892 Wyoming’s cattle barons became a deep embarrassment to the Republican party. But what were Wyoming’s Republicans to do about it? The cattlemen were the backbone of the party and could not easily be shed. But in 1892, following the Johnson County invasion, the cozy relationship between big cattlemen and the Republican party became a very bad bargain.

Although Wyoming Republicans in 1892 could not have known it, however, they were in for a run of good luck. Just when they needed it most, events came to their rescue, so that while they were certainly cast into the political wilderness in 1892, their exile was of much shorter duration than they could have hoped.

The first stroke of good luck was that the Democrats and Populists elected to the Wyoming legislature handled their opportunity badly. The remaining Republicans fought them tooth and nail and the fusionists seemed surprised that the members of the opposite party did not quietly accept the judgment of the electorate. The Republicans were better tacticians, probably because the opposition parties had virtually no experience trying to legislate. The legislative sessions dissolved into ugly bickering in which Democrats and Populists were frequently embarrassed. They could get legislation through the State House but were frustrated in the State Senate.

Too, the Democrats soon learned that the combination with the People’s Party was a mistake. They had naively assumed that the agenda of the two political parties was so similar there would be no problem running and governing together. But the two parties had somewhat different agendas, which provided openings for Republicans to divide and conquer. The worst failure of the 1893 Wyoming legislative session was that no one was selected as a United States Senator for Wyoming; for two years, the State of Wyoming, entitled to two out of the 90 senators in the U. S. Senate, had only one. It was a great result for Francis E. Warren, but not for the State of Wyoming, and it was a prime example of political incompetence.

Probably the best bit of luck for Wyoming Republicans was the Panic of 1893. It was the deepest depression suffered by Americans to that time and in 1894 Wyoming voters did what American voters do during almost every deep economic downturn;, they threw out the members of the party in power when the economy went sour. In 1894, Wyoming Republicans won 48 out of the 55 legislative seats, and in 1895, Francis E. Warren was sent back to the United States Senate, to resume what became a legendary career.

But it was not a return to business as usual for Wyoming’s Republicans. They had suffered a severe jolt, which for many years inhibited any free and easy return to complacency. The Wyoming electorate had sent them a strong message. Yes, Wyoming people were usually more comfortable with the Republican Party than the Democratic Party and normally they would vote Republican in great numbers. But that support could not be taken for granted. If Republicans became too extreme, straying too far from what the Wyoming electorate viewed as fundamental fairness, Wyoming voters would insist on a change.

Such a declaration of independence by Wyoming voters has not been confined to the Johnson County War. During the depression and after Watergate, Wyoming people turned away from Republicans to the Democratic Party, at least for a few years. The lesson was, and is, that if Wyoming Republican politicians fail to heed their constituency and those politicians insist on venturing into extremism, the Wyoming electorate will emphatically declare that they have erred. It’s a lesson modern politicians would do well to heed.

(For more on the Johnson County War, read “The Johnson County War: 1892 Invasion of Northern Wyoming,” by John Davis, published at WyoHistory.org)
— John Davis is the author of Wyoming Range War, the Infamous Invasion of Johnson County, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2010. The book was given an award for 2010 non-fiction by the Wyoming State Historical Society. Davis is also the author of Sadie and Charlie, a book about the early days of Worland, and A Vast Amount of Trouble, a History of the Spring Creek Raid, and Goodbye, Judge Lynch, the End of a Lawless Era in the Big Horn Basin. He is completing a manuscript about the 1902 murder trial of Tom Horn. Davis is an attorney who has practiced law in Worland for the last 40 years. He is married to Celia Davis and they have two grown sons. He served as the chairman of the Washakie County Democratic Party between 1974 and 1978.
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  1. The Republican Party has become athwart to the interests of the people at large, yet still commands large support from the Wyoming electorate. They hold these people hostage politically via a smokescreen of religion and social “values”. They lack morality, however as most large donors and their congressional servants would sell their grandmothers for better profit margins. They also control the Board of Trustees of the University of Wyoming, but are so ignorant of the academic process that they stick their noses into places they have no business. The heart of hearts of the Republican power structure in this state has not changed since 1892. Indeed, it is far more corrupt and heartless today.