Wednesday’s Book Review: “Violence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and the Ludlow Massacre, a Brief History with Documents”

untitledViolence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and the Ludlow Massacre, a Brief History with Documents. By Marilynn S. Johnston. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009.

A part of “The Bedford Series in History and Culture,” this slim volume presents an overview of its subject as well as key documents highlighting its evolution and importance. The book uses as case studies the Johnson County War in Wyoming in 1892 and the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado in 1914-1915.

The so-called Johnson County War took place over range land in the Powder River area of Wyoming in April 1892. It involved a fight between small ranchers who were trying to enter the business versus larger established ranchers. Two groups were involved in this effort. The first was the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association (WSGA), which hired a group of enforcers known as regulators ostensibly to prevent rustlers from stealing cattle on the open range. Most of the time, however, they targeted small farmers and ranchers, organized into the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers’ Association (NWFSGA). The series of bloody events led up to the climax in 1892. The murders of Ella Watson, presumed leader of a rustler gang, and storekeeper Jim Averell in 1889 enraged the small farmers and ranchers. Other incidents followed, all of them presumably of rustlers, enraged the local community.

This came to a head in the spring of 1892 when the WSGA brought in some 50 regulators to hunt down rustlers, although this was clearly an economically motivated fight with tinges of class warfare. The regulators went after Nate Champion, a leader in the WSGA opposition, at the KC Ranch, killing him and Nick Ray on April 9, 1892. This action led to a bloody shootout between the large and small local ranchers, as well as the regulators and a sheriff’s posse, at the TA Ranch on the 11th and 12th. Eventually the state and federal governments intervened to restore order in the region. But that took place only after several deaths had resulted.

This story has been reinterpreted over the years. For some this is the story of resolute community leaders seeking to create order from the chaos of the frontier by cleaning out rustlers and hooligans. For others is was the “haves” preserving their place at the top of the economic, political, and social order by defeated upstart “have nots.” This story of class warfare has been, therefore, a mirror on which any may project their beliefs. This book tells this story through narrative and primary source documents.

No less controversial, but certainly less well-remembered, was the Ludlow Massacre, also detailed in this book. The United Mine Workers union organized a strike in the southern Colorado Coal Strike that lasted from September 1913 through December 1914. There were several incidents of violence but the massacre occurred when a fight broke out between strikers and company men at a tent city of some 1,200 striking coal miners and their families on April 20, 1914, in Ludlow, Colorado. The Colorado National Guard and guards from the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company that operated the mine fired automatic weapons on this group, killing some 25 people (of these two were women and 11 were children).

The Ludlow massacre was the most violent of any confrontation during the strike, but it was not the only incident. When word spread of this massacre other strikers burned the mining buildings and killed some 505 people; the strike has been called most deadly in the history of the United States. The strike finally ended with the union broken, some 400 strikers arrested and some tried for murder. On the other side, 22 National Guardsmen were court marshaled but all but one was acquitted.

The Ludlow Massacre was just as significant as the Johnson County War but it does not have the same resonance in history. It is one of many instances in which labor unrest led to violence and represented, again, the class and economic divisions that have existed throughout American history. This is a useful introduction to the subject and a good selection of key documents.

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5 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Violence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and the Ludlow Massacre, a Brief History with Documents”

  1. mike shupp says:

    Oh man oh man. How can you talk about the Johnson County War as part of history without mentioning Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE?


  2. Well, I liked that movie as well but this was not really a book about popular culture.


  3. Alex Beam says:

    I too was waiting for the “Hg Gte” reference … #stillinlovewisabellehuppertafteralltheseyears.


  4. mike shupp says:

    I see your point. I frequently go about moaning after someone much younger than I explains miid-20th century history on the internet — I’m sure you’ve seen your share of stories about how the power-obsessed madmen James Webb and Thomas Paine ruined NASA and broke Ayn Rand’s heart by bullying the weaklings LBJ and RMN.

    Other hand, after enough time, pop history is the history we’ve got. Go up to Wyoming and look around, you’ll find that the biggest ranches have the names of the big ranchers of the 1890’s and the bankers and mayors and largest merchants share those names. But in the history school kids learn, the small ranchers are likely to be remembered as the heroes of that conflict, they’ll be the ones commemorated when the mayor reads his 4th of July speech, and the names on the little plaques that tourists seek out. And it’s the remembered history that enters peoples’ bones, it’s what inside them when they talk to strangers and mark their ballots and gossip about whether the Marshall girl should marry into the Lemmon family or where they stop to piss in someone’s pasture while driving late at night.

    So there’s actual history, which gives us the world we live in physically. And there’s pop history, which gives us the world we think we live in, or the world we think we should be living in, and actually does shape the way we live. It’d be nice to wave a magic wand and convert the believers in pop history to reality, but it’s probably not possible, and after enough time probably not too important. But if we’re going to record ALL of history, not just the facts but how the facts got remembered, we probably ought to wave a hand or two or three at popular history and say “These were the facts. These were the consequences. And these were how the facts became remembered, and the consequences of those memories.”

    Personal preference maybe. It strikes me as more interesting that way. But I’m not a working historian, and I probably don’t view these with anything close to proper perspective.

    Quite an interesting movie, Heaven’s Gate. Not the clearest of tales, as I recall, but beautifully filmed. I actually got to the Hollywood premiere and saw the long version of the film, before it was cut back to assuage the studios. I don’t know how I’d like the shorter version, but someday I ought to see it again. Oh well.


    • launiusr says:

      I thought the movie was very interesting as well. I watched it again a year or so ago. It’s still interesting. It is not closely related to any historical reality but it’s interesting. For instance, the dance sequence was turned into a skating rink scene. OK, it’s interesting, but when you think about it there is little sense here. These are the people who don’t have anything to eat and are killing cattle on the open range for food, but they all have roller scates and a big rink to skate in. Fascinating. There is an interesting book
      “Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists” by Steven Bach, who was at United Artists at the time, that goes into the Michael Cimino-fueled fiasco of making the movie.


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