Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hang ‘Em High - A True Story

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 Ordway’s old letter – historical documents revealed that indeed, our great, great uncle Durbin had been implicated in the lynching of homesteaders Ellen Watson and James Averell.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”. [1]

The story:
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. “The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889” by George W. Hufsmith.


DJan said...

Oh, that's simply awful. Of course, it must have happened all the time, but to have been related to someone implicated by all this. Sends shivers up and down my spine... !

Paul said...

One has no control over family that precedes us Robert.
the crime was most likely never prosecuted or even investigated, because he was a powerful and wealthy man which insulated him even more. It was a tragedy for the victims. By the way, if you have a free moment could you read a post about Trayvon Martin on my blog ? I would appreciate your view on the matter. I do respect your point of view and your intellect although at times we disagree. I believe in dialogue and the exchange of ideas.

Jono said...

Unfortunately, I don't think much has really changed. The wealthy and powerful still control more than they should.

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan The interesting part, at least to me, was that cousin Nancy discovered that it appeared that the family "hushed up" this incident in the family history.

Paul I have no doubt that Durbin's and the others financial wealth had great influence on (slowing) the wheels of justice.

Jono I totally agree.

billy pilgrim said...

excellent story, kind of like the ox bow incident.

mr durbin and his associates were supplying others with beef and the people eating the beef didn't question how the beef was brought to market. i'm guessing mr durbin and the gang left the bodies hanging from a tree to let other homesteaders know what their fate would be if they dared defy the cattlemen. otherwise, a good deep hole in the ground would have been the way to go.

we humans are a primitive species.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy Being the "Deadwood" fan you are - great great uncle Durbin once owned the Homestake Gold Mine in the Black Hills. He sold it to go into the cattle business. Durbin is a relative on my mother's side; however on my father's side of the family, my grandfather was the police chief in Lead SD, (three miles from Deadwood) and my dad was born there.

Secret Agent Woman said...

I am not a fan of vigilante justice. It simply reduces us all.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent Clearly my family was not proud of this event either as evidenced by their silence over so many generations. It was remarkable that my cousin uncovered the connection at all.

Anonymous said...

Robert, you have more than made up for the skeleton in your family closet by being such an honorable man. You have redeemed your family!

Paul said...

That was the Old West and over a hundred years ago. It was a different world with it's own ideas and mores and morals. Life is not fair at times. We can blame everything on the wealthy (and they have their share) , but why not look at ourselves as well ?

Robert the Skeptic said...

BackRow Awww you are so sweet to say that.

Paul I don't think I'm "blaming the wealthy" however I would venture that throughout history money has, and does, buy more than just material goods; it also buys power, influence and perhaps even respect where it may not be entirely warranted. After all, isn't that what Lobbyists are all about?

One could point at the trials of Robert Blake or O.J. Simpson, both wealthy men, versus the number of innocent black defendants who received harsh sentences, even death sentences, but were released only through the involvement of the Innocence Project. (Barry Scheck, one of the founders of the Innocence Project, was on O.J.'s defense team.)

Antares Cryptos said...

I am certain that we all have black sheep in our ancestry.

Fascinating story.

Anonymous said...

You know the saying, Robert: One can't choose his family; and we certainly can't choose our ancestors.

Something tells me that if Mr. Durbin were alive today, he could easily have been George W.'s vice president ... Same abusive disposition, similar crimes, different facts.

Rubye Jack said...

I think we all have family members who walked different paths, to put it mildly. My great-uncle did some rather scandalous things when he was chief of our tribe in the 20's.

This reminds of the Ox-Bow Incident.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos Probably if one goes back far enough, I am sure.

Dissenter He certainly fits the pattern, doesn't he. Though my wife was wondering what happened to all his "millions"? Certainly no record of it in any of our inheritance.

Rubye Yes, you and Billy both brought up the "Ox-Bow Incident". Very appropriate.

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

Wow. Not an unexpected outcome, though, because the rich man was vindicated.
Very cool of you to bring the truth to light.

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

And P.S.: Thanks for looking up that TV episode over at my place. That was so cool!!

Heidrun Khokhar said...

I have imagined that because of the wars there might be some horrible story that looms in our family's past.Since many died it's hard to know. I just know that I have always hated wars!!
But your uncovered story does add something to what is hard to understand, the need for humans to be killed in order to make some gains even in a time of peace.