Colorful characters, Johnson Co played host to historic people and events
Johnson County – Johnson County was the site of a variety of colorful characters and events in its early years as a settled territory.
Many of the current residents are descendants of homesteaders who survived the early years, and they enjoy retelling the stories passed down through the generations.
“In the late 1800s the railroad ended in Montana. A lot of thugs and undesirables from back east were given a one-way ticket to the end of the line, and Montana filled up with unsavory characters. The vigilantes came to be up there because there was no law, and a lot of those robbers, thugs and thieves ended up down here,” explains Johnson County rancher John Hanson of how some of the more notorious people arrived in the county.
“Some people walked here to get away from the vigilantes, and they settled down here, also. The true homesteaders and settlers were just people trying to make a living the best they could. They had to get along with the less desirable characters – if they didn’t they’d be killed. Many furnished fresh horses, and a lot of people would wake up to a bunch of worn out horses in their herd one morning, and all the fresh horses, which had been left previously, would be gone,” adds John.
“Our family had a post office in their cabin from 1894 to 1898, and that’s where the Hole in the Wall gang, and a lot of other people like that, got their mail, so the family knew all those guys,” says Brock Hanson.
“Flat Nose George was our family favorite, and would come by and help out on the ranch quite a bit. Butch Cassidy was okay, and sorry to say the Sundance Kid and Harvey Logan were mean, and no good,” he adds.
“Flat Nose George is probably who put together the Wilcox train robbery, and he and Harvey Logan and the Sundance Kid came north from that robbery and Harvey Logan killed a sheriff down on Castle Creek near Midwest. At that point the posse got between the outlaws and their horses, and the outlaws had to walk the rest of the way up to this area. They got horses from John Nolen, where Kaycee is now, and were eating supper at his place on the south side of the river.
“On the other side of the river the posse was eating supper at the Potts’ house, and neither side knew the other was there until a kid came over from the Potts’ house to trade some baked goods for meat. The river was high, so the kids had a wire strung across it and they would stand in a washtub and pull themselves back and forth.
“John Nolen asked the kid if his mother had company, and the kid said yes, it was the ‘sheriff and his posse.’ At that point the curtains were drawn and the lights turned down and they got their horses and got out of there,” explains Brock. Today’s Hanson family notes this incident may have occurred after a different robbery.
“Lots of people have the misconception that the Johnson County War was between sheep and cattle men. Well, it wasn’t. It was between absentee landowners, or investors, and settlers. It was a grass and water war. The big outfits were stealing grass and water, and in some cases the little outfits were stealing cattle to survive,” says John. “The thievery wasn’t nearly as rampant as some think.”
“It was a property rights issue, with a lot of politics involved, just like today. The press was completely controlled by the big outfits, and sympathized with eastern and foreign interests, also much like today. The newspapers had everyone believing that the people in Johnson County needed to be killed without trial by jury,” adds Brock.
“The war finished here in the barn,” notes TA Ranch owner Barbara Madsen.
“Two years after a big party at the TA Ranch, with all the neighbors and homesteaders there, they were all shooting at each other, right back at the TA Ranch. Three hundred homesteaders took on 50 invaders for three days,” adds Brock.
“When the invaders were rescued by U.S. troops out of Fort McKinney, they were hauled off for trial in Cheyenne. Johnson County was not allowed to keep jurisdiction over them,” notes Barbara.
“They were eventually let go for lack of funds. Johnson County went bankrupt because they kept filing proceeding after proceeding to delay the trial of those men. That was accomplished because they had a power base out of Cheyenne defending them. They deliberately broke Johnson County so those men would never stand trial,” adds Barbara’s daughter Kirsten. “The attorney for the Cattlemen’s Association was Van Devanter, and he was later rewarded for the outcome by being appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Information on the trial was wired all the way to the President and the Secretary of the Interior. In those days it was a very big deal,” adds Earl Madsen. “We’ve never trusted Cheyenne since,” quips Brock
“If anyone was caught in the middle of the war, it was the homesteaders. They tried not to take sides in our family’s case; they had friends on both sides. We also had close neighbors and a relative killed during the war,” notes Brock.
“After that, our people started raising cattle. Prior to the war the easterners held power, and people had to go through them to get a brand. If they didn’t have a brand, they couldn’t take part in the roundups, and that all changed with the end of the Johnson County War,” adds John.