The American West has long been the site of tales of cowboys, railroad bandits, and brothels. Yet we often miss out on stories of women who blazed trails and left indelible marks on the “Wild West.” Ella “Cattle Kate” Watson is one of those women.
Born Ellen “Ella” Watson in 1860, was the eldest of 10 children. In 1877, she married a farm laborer named William Pickerell, who was physically and verbally abusive. Her biographers note that Pickerell often beat Ella with a horsewhip. She attempted to leave her husband and return home to her parents, only to flee again because she feared her father. Ella eventually divorced Pickerell and made her way to Wyoming.
In 1886, she met James Averell, a homesteader who operated a restaurant and store for westbound travelers along the Sweetwater River. He hired Ella “Cattle Kate” Watson as a cook and waitress before the pair married later that year. In 1888, she filed her claim to property under the Homestead Act of 1862 and built a cabin on her land. Cattle Kate continued to work as a seamstress, mending clothing for traveling cowboys, and her frequent visitors gave her the reputation of a sex worker and James was believed to be her pimp.
Cattle Kate was able to purchase cattle from travelers along the trails, but her small farm wasn’t large enough for her small herd to graze. In 1872, a group of the wealthiest ranchers organized to create the Wyoming Stock Growers Association to not only control land ownership, but to also claim unbranded cattle in the area. Ranchers – including Cattle Kate and James – were required to file for a brand to claim cattle they purchased and each time they filed, the WSGA denied their claim. In 1889, Cattle Kate and James Averell received several offers to purchase their land from other land surveyors and ranchers, particularly Albert Bothwell. Cattle Kate rejected every offer to sell, which angered Bothwell and other ranchers. Historians argue that these ranchers may have plotted for months about how to remove Averell and Ella “Cattle Kate” Watson from their land.
On July 20, 1889, 6 men rode to Cattle Kate’s cabin, destroyed her fence, and forced her into a buggy under the threat of death. They also kidnapped James Averell and took the pair to Independence Rock where they were lynched for stealing unbranded cattle. The 6 men were never prosecuted for their crimes and historians have argued that the lack of justice in Cattle Kate’s case led to a rancher-led coup in Johnson County, Wyoming 3 years later.
Why Cattle Kate? Ella Watson never used the moniker, but stories of her aggressive behavior and of her business as a sex worker, were exacerbated when she and James earned reputations a cattle rustlers. Newspapers gave her conflated her identity with a notorious and fictional sex worker named Kate Maxwell and branded her a sharp shooter with a masculine physique who took pride in horse whipping cowboys. In reality, Cattle Kate was simply an independent and industrious woman seeking to create a life and business of her own on the frontier. This wasn’t unusual in Wyoming. The state was the 1st to give women the right to vote and in the 1840s, Wyoming women had limited ability to own property and the Homestead Act of 1862, opened the doors for women to own land.
It’s unclear if Ella “Cattle Kate” Watson was a sex worker, but what we do know is she was a pioneering ranch owner, entrepreneur, and an independent woman who sought to challenge gender norms to live life her own way.
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
McGraw, Eliza. “The Tragedy of Cattle Kate,” in Smithsonian Magazine, March 12, 2018. Link to source. McGraw provides an overview of Cattle Kate’s early life, business ventures, and subsequent death.
Rea, Tom. “Covering Cattle Kate: Newspapers and the Watson-Averell Lynching,” in WyoHistory.org, November 15, 2014. Link to source. Rea’s article centers on the media attention around Cattle Kate and her subsequent murder.
Wiest, Hannah. “Setting Cattle Kate’s Story Straight,” in Casper Star Tribune, July 25, 2008. Link to source.
Hufsmith, George W. The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate. (Glendo, WY.: High Plains Press), 1993.
Hufsmith was the first author to go back to the land-claims evidence to support his contention that land, personalities and economics drove the lynchers to their crime much more than cattle rustling did.
Meschter, Daniel Y. Sweetwater Sunset: A History of the Lynching of James Averell and Ella Watson near Independence Rock Wyoming on July 20, 1889. Wenatchee, Wash.: privately published, 1996.
Meschter’s work is an extension of George Hufsmith’s book and gives a fresh look at the primary sources related to the lynching, cattle theft, and battles over land during the period.
Rea, Tom. Devil’s Gate: Owning the Land, Owning the Story. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, 168-191.
Rea’s work builds upon Meschter and Hufsmith’s and provides more detail on the cattle business, politics, and land ordinances.
Smith, Helena Huntington. The War on Powder River: The History of an Insurrection. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966. See pp. 121-134 for Chapter Eighteen, “The Crime on the Sweetwater.”
Helena Smith critiques the role of newspapers in the Watson-Avernell murder and also argues that failing to prosecute the six men who conducted the lynching led to the legal battle in Johnson County, Wyoming, three years later.
Van Pelt, Lori. “Cattle Kate: Homesteader or Cattle Thief?” Wild Women of the Old West, edited by Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003, 154-176; 208-209.
Van Pelt’s work centers on the question of cattle rustling in the Cattle Kate narrative.
Osmond Phillips, Photograph of Cattle Kate, Phillips Collection, public domain.