The events have since become a highly mythologized and symbolic story of the Wild West, and over the years variations of the storyline have come to include some of the west's most famous historical figures and gunslingers. The storyline and its variations have served as the basis for numerous popular novels, films, and television shows.
In the early days in Wyoming, most of the land was in the public domain, open both to stockraising as open range and to homesteading. Large numbers of cattle were turned loose on the open range by large ranches, sometimes financed by British and other investors.
Ranchers would hold a spring roundup where the cows and the calves belonging to each ranch were separated and the calves branded. Before the roundup, calves (especially orphan or stray calves) were sometimes surreptitiously branded, and thus taken. The large ranches aggressively defended against cattle rustling by often forbidding their own employees from owning cattle and by lynching (or threatening to lynch) suspect rustlers. Property and use rights were usually respected among big and small ranches based on who was first to settle the land (the doctrine is known as Prior Appropriation) and the size of the herd. Nevertheless, large ranching outfits would sometimes band together and use their power to monopolize large swaths of range land, preventing newcomers from settling the area.
The often uneasy relationship between larger, wealthier ranches and smaller ranch settlers became steadily worse after the poor winter of 1887-1888, when a series of blizzards and temperatures of 40-50 degrees below 0° F had followed an extremely hot and dry summer. Thousands of cattle were lost and large companies began to aggressively appropriate land and control the flow and supply of water in this area. Some of the harsher tactics included forcing settlers off their land and setting fire to settler buildings, as well as vigorously trying to exclude the smaller ranchers from participation in the annual roundup. They justified these excesses on what was public land by using the catch-all allegation of rustling.
Rustling in the local area was likely increasing due to the harsh grazing conditions, and the illegal exploits of an organized group of regional rustling outfits was becoming well publicized in the late 1880s. Well armed and outfitted bands of horse and cattle rustlers were said to roam across various portions of Wyoming and Montana, with Montana cattle interests declaring "War on the Rustlers" in 1889 and Wyoming interests doing so a year later. In Johnson County, with emotions running high, agents of the larger ranches killed several alleged rustlers from smaller farms. However, many were killed on dubious evidence or were simply found dead while the killers remained anonymous. Frank M. Canton, who was the Sheriff of Johnson County in the early 1880s, and better known as a detective for the WSGA, was rumored behind many of the deaths. The double lynching of innocents Ella Watson and storekeeper Jim Averell took place in 1889, an event that enraged local residents. A number of additional dubious lynchings of alleged rustlers took place in 1891.
A group of smaller Johnson County ranchers led by a local settler named Nate Champion began to form their own Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Grower's Association (NWFSGA) to compete with the WSGA. The WSGA "blacklisted" the NWFSGA and told them to stop all operations, but the NWFSGA refused the powerful WSGA's orders to disband and instead made public their plans to hold their own roundup in the spring of 1892.
The WSGA, under the direction of Frank Wolcott (WSGA Member and large North Platte rancher), hired a group of skilled gunmen with the intention of eliminating alleged rustlers in Johnson County and break up the NWFSGA . Twenty three gunmen from the Paris, Texas region and four cattle detectives from the WSGA were hired, as well as Idaho frontiersman George Dunning who would later turn against the group. A cadre of WSGA and Wyoming dignitaries also joined the expedition, including State Senator Bob Tisdale, state water commissioner W.J. Clarke, as well as W.C. Irvine and Hubert Teshemacher, both instrumental in organizing Wyoming's statehood four years earlier. They were also accompanied by surgeon Dr. Charles Penrose, who served as the group's doctor, as well as Asa Shinn Mercer, the editor of the WSGA's newspaper, and a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Herald, Sam T. Clover, whose lurid first-hand accounts later appeared in the eastern newspapers. A total expedition of 50 men was organized.
To lead the expedition, the WSGA hired Frank M. Canton, the former Johnson County Sheriff-turned-gunman and WSGA detective. Canton's gripsack was later found to contain a list of dozens of rustlers to be either shot or hanged, and a contract to pay the Texans $5 a day each, plus a bonus of $50 for every rustler killed.The group became known as "The Invaders", or alternately, "Walcott's Regulators".
The group organized in Cheyenne and proceeded by a specially hired train to Casper, Wyoming and then toward Johnson County on horseback, cutting the telegraph lines north of Douglas, Wyoming in order to prevent an alarm. While on horseback, Canton and the skilled gunmen traveled ahead while the party of WSGA officials led by Walcott followed a safe distance behind.
During the siege, Champion kept a poignant journal which contained a number of notes he wrote to friends while taking cover inside the cabin. "Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once." he wrote. The last journal entry read: "Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It's not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.
With the house on fire, Nate Champion signed his journal entry and put the journal in his pocket before running from the back door with a six shooter in one hand and a knife in the other. As he emerged he was gunned down by four different men and the invaders later pinned a note on Champion's bullet-riddled chest that read "Cattle Thieves Beware".
Two passers-by noticed the ruckus that Saturday afternoon and local rancher Jack Flagg rode to Buffalo (the county seat of Johnson County), where the sheriff raised a posse of 200 men over the next 24 hours and the party set out for the KC on Sunday night, April 10th.
The WSGA group then headed north on Sunday toward Buffalo to continue its show of force. The posse led by the sheriff caught up with the WSGA "Invaders" by early Monday morning of the 11th, and besieged them at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek. The gunmen took refuge inside a log barn on the ranch. Ten of the gunmen then tried — but failed — to escape the barn behind a covering blaze of their bullets, when the posse beat them back and killed three of the Texans. Yet one of the WSGA group escaped and was able to contact the acting Governor of Wyoming the next day. Frantic efforts to save the WSGA group ensued, and two days into the siege Governor Barber was able to telegraph President Benjamin Harrison a plea for help, late on the night of April 12, 1892.
The telegram read:
About sixty-one owners of live stock are reported to have made an armed expedition into Johnson County for the purpose of protecting their live stock and preventing unlawful roundups by rustlers. They are at ‘T.A.’ Ranch, thirteen miles from Fort McKinney, and are besieged by Sheriff and posse and by rustlers from that section of the country, said to be two or three hundred in number. The wagons of stockmen were captured and taken away from them and it is reported a battle took place yesterday, during which a number of men were killed. Great excitement prevails. Both parties are very determined and it is feared that if successful will show no mercy to the persons captured. The civil authorities are unable to prevent violence. The situation is serious and immediate assistance will probably prevent great loss of life.
Harrison immediately ordered the United States Secretary of War, Stephen B. Elkins, to address the situation under Article IV, Section 4, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which allows for the use of U.S. forces under the President's orders for "protection from invasion and domestic violence". The Sixth Cavalry from Fort McKinney near Buffalo was ordered to proceed to the TA ranch at once and take custody of the WSGA expedition. The 6th Cavalry left Mt. McKinney a mere few hours later, at 2am on April 13th, and reached the TA ranch at 6:45am. The expedition surrendered to the 6th soon thereafter, and was saved just as the posse had finished building a series of breastworks to shoot gunpowder on the invader's log barn shelter so that it could be set on fire from a distance. The 6th Cavalry took possession of the WSGA's Walcott and 45 other men, along with 45 rifles, 41 revolvers, and some 5,000 rounds of ammunition.
The text of Barber's telegram to the President was printed on the front page of The New York Times on April 14th, and a first-hand account of the then-ongoing siege at the T.A. appeared in The Times and the Chicago Herald among other papers, and the events immediately became a national news sensation.
The WSGA group was taken to Cheyenne to be held at the barracks of Fort D.A. Russell, as the Laramie County jail was unable to hold that many prisoners. They received exceptionally preferential treatment, and were allowed to roam the base by day as long as they agreed to return to the jail to sleep at night. Johnson County officials were upset that the group was not kept locally at Ft. McKinney. The General in charge of the 6th Cavalry felt that tensions were too high for the prisoners to remain in the area. Indeed, hundreds of armed locals sympathetic to both sides of the conflict were reported to have descended on Ft. McKinney over the next several days under the mistaken impression the invaders were being held there.
The Johnson County attorney began to gather evidence for the case, and the details of the WSGA's plan emerged. Canton's gripsack was found to contain a list of seventy alleged rustlers who were to be shot or hanged, a list of ranch houses the invaders had burned, as well as a contract to pay each Texan five dollars daily, plus a bonus of $50 for each target killed. The invaders' plans reportedly included eventually killing targets as far away as Casper and Douglas. The Times reported on April 23, that “The evidence is said to implicate more than twenty prominent stockmen of Cheyenne whose names have not been mentioned heretofore, also several wealthy stockmen of Omaha, as well as to compromise men high in authority in the State of Wyoming. They will all be charged with aiding and abetting the invasion, and warrants will be issued for the arrest of all of them.”
Those charges against the men "high in authority" in Wyoming were never filed. Eventually the invaders were released on bail and were told to return to Wyoming for the trial. Many simply fled back to Texas and were never seen again. In the end the WSGA group went free after the charges were dropped on the excuse that Johnson County refused to pay for the costs of prosecution. The costs of simply housing the men at Fort D.A. Russell were said to exceed $18,000, and the sparsely populated Johnson County was unable to pay.
Meanwhile, tensions in Johnson County remained high, and the 6th cavalry was said to be swaying under the local political and social pressures and were unable to keep the peace in that pressure. The 9th Cavalry of "Buffalo Soldiers" was ordered to Fort McKinney to replace the 6th. Within the next two weeks, the Buffalo Soldiers moved from Nebraska to the rail town of Suggs, Wyoming where they created "Camp Bettens" to quell pressure from the local population. One Buffalo Soldier was killed and two wounded in gun battles with locals. Nevertheless, the 9th Cavalry remained in Wyoming until November to quell tensions in the area.
A number of tall tales were spun by both sides of the conflict in the months and years that followed in an attempt to make their actions appear morally justified and their side appear as "the good guys." Parties sympathetic to the invaders painted Nate Champion since his death as the leader of a vast cattle rustling empire and that he was a leading member of the fabled "Red Sash Gang" of outlaws that supposedly included the likes of everyone from Jesse James to the Hole in the Wall Gang. These rumors have been since largely discredited. While some accounts do note that Champion wore a red sash at the time of his death, such sashes were common apparel at the time. And while the Hole in the Wall Gang was known to hide out in Johnson County during this period, there is no evidence that Champion had any relationship to them. . Parties sympathetic to the smaller ranchers likewise spun various stories that included some of the west's most notorious gunslingers under the employ of the Invaders, including such legends as Tom Horn and Big Nose George Parrot. Horn did briefly work as a detective for the WSGA in the 1890s, but there is no evidence he was involved in the war.
A longer economic legacy was that Johnson County was slower to develop economically than some other parts of the state as the shadow of the war and subsequent events created the view that the area was a volatile place to live.
Though not explicitly connected with Johnson County,The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, is a novel that dramatizes and condemns a lynching of the sort that Wister's novel appears to defend.
Jack Schaefer's popular 1949 novel Shane also dealt with the strong themes associated with the Johnson County War, but instead took the side of the settlers. The novel spawned both a film Shane (1953) and a 17-episode TV Series (1966).
The 1980 film Heaven's Gate and a TV movie called The Johnson County War (2002) also painted the wealthy ranchers as the "bad guys." Heaven's Gate was a dramatic romance somewhat based on the historical events, while The Johnson County War was based on the 1957 novel Riders of Judgment. Yet another novel titled Riders of Judgment was released in 2001 that also depicts fictional events similar to that of the Johnson County Cattle War, except this Riders of Judgment was written by Robert Vaughn under the pen name of the now deceased legendary western author Ralph Compton .
In addition, numerous western films and novels have been made that borrow small facets of the Johnson County War and combine them with otherwise invented storylines. One example is the 1970 film The Cheyenne Social Club with depicts the Cheyenne Club as a brothel taken over by two Texans ultimately besieged by a throng of angry local ranchers.
The story of the Johnson County War from the point of view of the small ranchers was chronicled by Kaycee resident Chris LeDoux in his song Johnson County War on the 1989 album Powder River. The song included references to the burning of the KC Ranch, the capture of the WSGA men, the intervention of the US Cavalry, and the release of the cattlemen and hired guns.