S4:E4 The Johnson County War

S4:E4 The Johnson County War

How a group of wealthy cattle barons murdered with impunity and the help of a sitting president.

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The myth of the American cowboy features a lone man who makes his fortune on the open plains. He doesn’t need the government, and he doesn’t need some big corporation telling him what to do. But that myth is far from the reality in the west. Many cowboys worked for large corporate cattle operations. And when those operations were in danger, he relied on the government for help.

The Johnson County War started when the Homestead Act of 1862 brought new people to central Wyoming. The area just west of the Big Horn Mountains had been free-range grassland where anyone could let their cattle run free. The large cattle operations loved this setup because it saved them an immense amount of money and infrastructure. The new homesteads threatened their empires because they divided up the land and restricted their access. So the Wyoming Stock Growers Association banded together to send a message: get off our land. They send a murder squad to Johnson County, Wyoming to scare the people of Buffalo with a series of brutal murders.

What followed was one of the darkest chapters in Wyoming history. Where big businesses murdered with impunity, aided by the governor and sitting president.

Helpful links:

Discussion Questions:

  • What role did the Homestead Act play in stirring up trouble in central Wyoming?
  • Is there a character in the story that you identify with?
  • Is there any part of you that sympathizes with the WSGA?
  • How does this story challenge your concept of the American cowboy?
  • What role does the government have in protecting an industry?
  • How do you feel about the government’s failure to punish the invaders?