One of the first women hanged in the United Stares was Ellen Watson or, “Cattle Kate,” as she was dubbed by local newspapers in the late 1880’s. She and her husband, James Averell, were hanged by vigilantes near the Sweetwater River in Wyoming. The two were accused of cattle rustling, though today it seems this may have been unjustified.
Ellen Liddy Watson was born on July 2, 1861 in Ontario, Canada. She was the oldest of ten children, six of whom were born in Canada before the family moved to Kansas in 1877 to homestead land in Smith County. Ellen married early and, after divorcing a very abusive husband, moved to Denver, Colorado and later to various places in Wyoming.
There, in 1886, she met and married James Averell, an Army veteran who had a homestead, general store, and saloon near the Sweetwater River. Averell shot and killed a man named Johnson, who had a reputation as a trouble maker whenever he was drinking. Averell claimed that Johnson had threatened him many times with a knife. On this occasion, Averell shot Johnson, who had been drinking, in the leg. The shot swung Johnson around and Averell shot him again in the back. Averell was arrested and put in jail. Though two grand juries were convened, he was never convicted and was eventually released from jail.
The Wyoming Stock Growers Association was a powerful group of ranchers that controlled the cattle industry in Wyoming during those early years. The Association also served as the official law enforcement agency for the Wyoming cattle industry.
Over the next few years, several minor incidents occurred that gained for Ellen and James a reputation that was questionable at best. In 1889, a stock detective found cattle on their range with fresh brands. Ellen and her husband had been suspected of illegally branding mavericks, so this seemed to be the evidence the Association needed. A grand jury was convened, but the witnesses for the accused mysteriously began to die or disappear before they could testify. The Association represented the law in the territory and soon Ellen and her husband were declared guilty of cattle rustling by a band of vigilantes and hanged.
It seems now that the Association controlled the local newspapers and greatly contributed to the confusion and inaccurate information surrounding the affair and the personal lives of the couple. This, along with several other events, is seen as the cause of the infamous Johnson County War of 1892. This range war actually began when a small group of ranchers in Johnson County formed the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association in direct opposition to the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
One’s reputation often prejudices the way they are seen in their community. The Word of God instructs us to, “Choose a good reputation over great riches, for being held in high esteem is better than having silver or gold.” (Pro. 22:1). In actuality, Ellen and James Averell were hanged for having a bad reputation.