On a cold April evening in 1892, an unscheduled train pulled into Casper, Wyoming. On board were a couple dozen Texas mercenaries, some Wyoming ranch owners, a few cattle detectives, wagons of dynamite, and plenty of rifles. This platoon of about 50 men, led by Civil War Major Frank Wolcott, was the private army of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association–an elite group of the wealthiest corporate ranchers in the state. They were coming to overthrow the Johnson County government by force of arms and to eliminate the settlers who were harming their business.
The small farmers and ranchers of Johnson County had no idea Wolcott’s platoon, which called themselves the “Regulators,” was approaching. They also never could have guessed who would come to take these mercenaries’ side in the bloody battle that ensued: the federal government.
The 1892 ride of the regulators is a true story, but it is almost an allegory for modern environmentalism, or “conservation,” as it was called a hundred years ago. The White House’s support in 1892 for ruthless big business shutting down smaller upstarts was shocking, but it was a fitting prelude to the nascent conservation movement.
In Big Business’s Crosshairs
The corporate cattlemen who comprised the WSGA had once been considered the “barons” of the West. The elimination of the Buffalo had created a vacuum into which poured investment money from England and Scotland, creating huge cattle corporations. The industry was spectacularly profitable, thriving on publicly owned lands and the perfection of refrigerated shipping in the mid-1870s. This created an aristocracy out of the early foreign investors, who made their headquarters the exclusive Cheyenne Club.
But then hard times hit. The cattle boom of the 1880s drew a flood of smaller ranchers and soon things got scarce. The market was saturated.
Adding to the problems of the large ranchers were the Homestead Act settlers, who were setting up farms on what had been open federal land, perfect for grazing. These small groups formed the Northern Wyoming Farmers & Stock Growers Association, which offered organized resistance to the big ranchers.
And so, two days after the WSGA’s annual meeting at the Cheyenne Club, Wolcott’s army was deployed. After detraining in Casper they got on horseback, and with their wagons of supplies and explosives the army rode for the city of Buffalo, the county seat of Johnson County.
Riding through a blizzard, the Regulators came upon the “KC” ranch before dawn on April 9. Inside the ranch lived Nate Champion, the head of the Northern Wyoming Farmers & Stock Growers Association, and his friend Nick Ray. These were two of the dozens of names on Wolcott’s “Dead List.”
Champion wrote in his notebook the scene as it unfolded to him inside his cabin:
Me and Nick was getting breakfast when the attack took place. Two men was with us- Bill Jones and another man. The old man went after water and did not come back. His friend went to see what was the matter, and he did not come back. Nick started out, and I told him to look out, that I thought there was someone at the stable and would not let them come back.
The Regulators had surrounded the cabin. They occupied the stable and took his houseguests prisoner. Ray was shot, and he soon bled to death. But the skirmish drew attention, and a neighbor rode off to Buffalo to warn the authorities.
Champion knew his chances were slim. “I heard them splitting wood,” he wrote, “I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes if alive.”
Night never came for Champion, and he was riddled with bullets trying to flee his burning house. His journal was found by a Chicago Herald reporter who was embedded, so to speak, with the Regulators.
In Buffalo, the local Sheriff, “Red” Angus, rounded up a posse to defend the town from the invading Regulators. The Regulators, aware that Sheriff Angus had gathered an opposing army and was approaching, set up fort at the “TA” Ranch, owned by a WSGA member, and already equipped with high fences and guarded somewhat by a creek.
But Angus came with a posse of over 200 men, pinning the Regulators down. Well armed, and now in possession of the Regulators’ wagons of supplies and dynamite, Red Angus moved in steadily and confidently. Wolcott’s army had only one hope for survival.
A Call to Washington
Mike Shonsey, a WSGA cowboy and foreman for the Western Union Beef Company, darted through enemy lines on horseback and rode south until he found a safe place from which to send a telegraph to Cheyenne. Acting Governor Amos Barber got the message about the Regulators’ plight and made a midnight call to Washington.
Wyoming Senators Joseph Carey and Francis Warren (himself a stockman) hurried to the White House and got President Benjamin Harrison out of bed. At Fort McKinney, a post set up to aid the U.S. in skirmishes against Indians, Col. James Judson Van Horn of the U.S. Army got the wire from President Harrison, and rode off to Johnson County.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sheriff Angus’s posse had converted the Regulators’ wagons into tanks, armoring them so that they could advance safely towards the house. These armored wagons were nearly close enough for Angus’s men to lob the dynamite at the Regulators’ stronghold.
That’s when the 6th Cavalry came to the rescue of the big ranchers’ private army. Col. Van Horn dismissed Angus’s posse, arrested the Regulators, and soon all of them were released.
This would not be the last time the White House would join forces with the large corporate ranchers against the smaller businesses and property owners. Instead of the 6th Cavalry, though, President Teddy Roosevelt would use the Forest Service. In the place of Col. Van Horn, Roosevelt would deploy the father of American forestry, and one of the first American conservationists, Gifford Pinchot. And under Roosevelt, the regulators seizing land would be federal bureaucrats rather than Texas gunmen.
The Gospel of Efficiency
Samuel P. Hays, the preeminent historian of environmental politics, in his history Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, explains the roots of what is now called environmentalism:
Conservation neither arose from a broad popular outcry, nor centered its fire primarily upon the private corporation. Moreover, corporations often supported conservation policies, while the “people” just as frequently opposed them. In fact, it becomes clear that one must discard the struggle against corporations as the setting in which to understand conservation history. . . .
At the heart of the conservation movement of which Pinchot (trained in forestry overseas because there were no such school in the U.S. in the 19th century) was a pioneer, were scientists who wanted to rationalize the businesses that depended on natural resources.
The free market, unregulated, resulted in too much competition for the tastes of some, which led to predicaments such as the cattle crisis in which the Johnson Co. Cattle War was fought. There was a greater demand for grazing land than there was supply. The settlers only made things worse, especially for the cattlemen, who were running out of land.
When armed raids didn’t work, according to Hays, the large cattle ranchers turned to conservation. “[F]rom the 1880’s on,” Hays writes, “[the cattlemen] pushed a measure providing that the federal government retain ownership and lease the range to stockmen.”
This was what Pinchot had been advocating all along. His studies determined that the most efficient use of federal land in the West was grazing, and so he undertook a decades-long lobbying effort to bar the land from going to farmers and villagers for private use, and instead to keep it in federal hands. Keeping federal control over the western land was called “conservation.” The government, then, would lease the land to the big cattlemen–and the small farmers and ranchers, trying to make an honest buck, were out of luck.
This last aspect of Pinchot’s vision put him at odds with the “preservationists,” like John Muir, who wanted the land to be preserved as wilderness. Hays writes:
Pinchot’s opposition to “preservationists” and his support of grazing interests did not arise merely for his search for political backing for the transfer [of forest land to the Forest Bureau he headed]. These attitudes revealed his basic view that the reserves should be developed for commercial use rather than preserved from it.
Just as Pinchot wasn’t merely looking for political allies, there is no reason to believe he was “bought off” by the cattlemen. The two just shared a common interest: rationalizing the cattle industry to ensure its long-term health.
Big businesses, with their economies of scale, often do things more efficiently than smaller businesses. Fewer cattle companies also means less redundancy, and also makes it easier for the bureaucrats who want to manage the industry to communicate with the actual players in the industry.
For all of these reasons, Pinchot and the conservationists found themselves agreeing with the large ranchers–the government should retain and run this land as grazing land. Hays explains Roosevelt’s decision-making process on how to handle federally owned land:
The necessity for range conservation tipped the scales in favor of the cattlemen. To adopt the views of the smaller farmers would have prevented the administration’s technicians from even approaching their goal of better range management.
Congress, however, kept rejecting Pinchot’s plans. Historians depict the defeats of the bills to set aside the grazing land as the triumph in Congress of powerful “interests” over the goal of conservation. In fact, small western farmers and their elected representatives won out over big business and big government.
The battle lines in these ranching clashes–whether it be the 6th Cavalry and the big ranchers vs. the farmers of Johnson County, or the conservationists and the big ranchers vs. the same small farmers across the whole west–should not be surprising. Such are often the alliances in environmental battles, though the media still suffer from a myopia that forces them to see only earth-loving environmentalists vs. big bad business. This results in a lack of a healthy skepticism about the arguments in favor of conservation and environmental regulations–regulations that carry with them a cost for the public.
Tim Carney is the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money, to be released July 7 from John J. Wiley & Sons. He is also the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.