In the old Clint Eastwood western “Hang ‘Em High”, an innocent cowboy, accused of cattle rustling, is lynched by a posse of angry and powerful ranchers. In the film, Eastwood’s character is rescued from imminent death then sets about bringing the would-be vigilantes to justice… in typical Eastwood style, of course.
Hang ‘Em High was a fictional story; however, in 1889 a young woman and her husband, were actually lynched for cattle rustling in Sweetwater River Wyoming by a posse of angry and powerful ranchers. One of the men involved in the crime which has gone down in history as “The Lynching of Cattle Kate”, was my great, great uncle John Henry Durbin.
My cousin Nancy just recently uncovered this skeleton in the family closet during a trip she and her husband made a few years ago attempting to find the old Durbin family ranch in Wyoming. Cousin Nancy’s interest in family genealogy piqued one day while digging through some family archives; she discovered a letter written by a Mrs. Ordway, the wife of the foreman of a Wyoming cattle ranch. In this letter a worried wife revealed fear and dread regarding the fate of her husband apparently implicated with John Henry Durbin and rumors of some horrendous unmentioned deed.
Cousin Nancy and husband set off for Wyoming last fall to try to locate the old ranch property. Their quest brought them to the archives of the Casper College Western History Center. It was here that my cousin discovered the family secret; and the explanation for the source of fears mentioned in Mrs. Ordway’s old letter – historical documents revealed that indeed, our great, great uncle Durbin had been implicated in the lynching of homesteaders Ellen Watson and James Averell.
There are a number of internet sites and a book written about “The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate”. 
My great, great uncle, John Henry Durbin was a wealthy and influential Wyoming cattleman. In those days ranchers laid claim to anywhere their cattle grazed; paying little heed with regard for property lines and land ownership. Conflicts arose over grazing rights and access to water. To secure their own financial self interests, Durbin and other big ranches formed the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association. The association wielded a powerful influence on the local business and political landscape.
Jim Averell and Ellen Watson homesteaded a plot of land in the Sweetwater River valley. The homestead had good grazing and access to water. However, prior to Jim and Ellen having homesteaded the land, another wealthy cattleman and member of the Stock Association, Albert Bothwell had used the property, considering it open range. Bothwell continued to run his cattle over Jim and Ellen’s homestead. When Jim and Ellen strung barbed wire to block Bothwell’s “free range” cattle, the enraged Bothwell took action.
Bothwell enlisted Durbin and four other cattlemen to confront the homesteaders, determined to intimidate them run them off the land. It didn’t’ go well: Bothwell and Durbin pulled guns on the pair of homesteaders. A scuffle ensued and Durbin ended up shot, wounded in the leg. The cattlemen tied up Ellen and Jim, throwing the two into the back of a wagon. Their courage bolstered by adequate amounts of alcohol, the cattlemen eventually threw a rope over a tree near the bank of the Sweetwater River where they hanged Jim Averell and Ellen Watson.
The bodies were discovered and cut down from the tree the following day. Word of the lynching quickly spread and the six cattlemen were soon arrested. However, being wealthy men, they were immediately released on bail. A month later a grand jury was convened, however, the indictment stalled as witnesses to the crime began to mysteriously disappear before they could testify. These suspicious events ,doubtlessly, was the probable source of the worries expressed by Mrs. Ordway in the letter discovered by my cousin.
No one was ever tried for the lynching of Averell and Watson. My great great uncle John Henry Durbin died a millionaire in 1907. His obituary reads: “Former cattle king and bonanza miner had [a] most romantic career”. His obituary makes no mention of his involvement in the Lynching of Cattle Kate.
Legends of America web site.
1. Amazon.com: “The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889” by George W. Hufsmith.