“MURDER ON THE SWEETWATER”

— AN UNJUST LYNCHING —

On a July morning in 1889, a man with gray hair and a silver Van Dyke beard sat in the saddle alongside the Sweetwater River in Wyoming Territory watching five fellow cattlemen surround a woman at gunpoint.  

CATTLE BARON

The ranchers threatened to kill the woman unless she got into the horse-drawn buggy they brought with them.

Minutes later, the small angry army of ranchers spotted homesteader Jim Averell in a wagon, waylaid him at gunpoint, and forced him into the buggy alongside Ella Watson.

The two not only knew each other, but they had also recently filed for a marriage license.

Self-anointed cattle baron Albert J. Bothwell had guided the small group to the Sweetwater River in Wyoming Territory and along Sand Creek Gulch.

Bothwell had embraced big dreams as a youth, including the desire to own a big cattle ranch. After living in California and Colorado, he put down roots in the Sweetwater area of Wyoming Territory. 

He used public land to freely graze his cattle—illegally—even to the point of unlawfully stringing sixty miles of barbed wire. 

In reality, Bothwell didn’t own much land, other than his home. 

Three years earlier, in 1886, Watson and Averell each filed homestead claims on the same land Bothwell treated as his own.

Averell, something of an activist merchant, frequently took issue with cattlemen. He often accused them of reckless and excessive abuse of power.

The arrogant and controlling Bothwell tried to buy Averell and Watson off but failed. He then launched a campaign to discredit the couple, painting them as cattle rustlers.

Bothwell also fueled insinuations that Watson was nothing more than a prostitute who accepted stolen cattle as payment.

After exhausting most of his options, Bothwell decided on a more permanent solution. 

When he reached Sand Creek Gulch that day, the ranchers ordered the couple from the buggy and marched them to a large rock under a pine tree.

After a brutal struggle and an unexpected interruption, the six ranchers hanged Watson and Averell. 

The double-lynching—133 years ago—sent a clear message about the extent of power and influence of the cattle industry.

Bothwell—along with Tom Sun, John Durbin, Robert Conner, Robert Galbraith, and Ernie McLean—operated with arrogance and impunity, even to the point of accepting blame—or, in this case, credit—for the gruesome crime they committed.

Most newspapers in the Territory and beyond—including the Cheyenne Daily Leader and New York’s National Police Gazette—printed knee-jerk conclusions about the two victims.

The newspapers smeared their reputations with poorly researched details, sensational exaggerations, and shameless lies and opinions that created a perfect storm of yellow journalism

According to an article by Tom Rea for the Wyoming Historical Society, “Almost all the other facts printed in these versions—who the victims were, who the lynchers were, exactly where the hanging took place, and, especially, why it happened—were wrong.”

The lynching represented the only execution of a woman legally or illegally, in Wyoming history.

Averell’s foreman, Frank Buchanan, trailed the group to the river and tried to stop the hanging but withdrew when he found himself outgunned.  

After getting away, Buchanan rode hard for Casper where he told authorities about the lynchings. 

A seven-man posse led by Deputy Sheriff Phil Watson discovered the bodies about two a.m. the next day. The victims’ faces were swollen almost beyond recognition, their bodies twisting side-by-side from the limb of the pine tree.

Lawmen wasted no time in arresting the six cattlemen and charged them with murder. But the ranchers won acquittals, mostly because of a lack of witnesses.

Buchanan, the key witness, had vanished, some convinced he was dead and buried.

After a man by the name of Henry Wilson paid the back taxes—$12.44 for the Averell estate and $2.49 for the Watson estate—he sold the land to none other than Albert Bothwell.

Later, Bothwell became a member of the Executive Committee of the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Some accounts say he died penniless in a California institution in 1928.

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