Original caption: Tom Averill, 43, alias tom Vernon, arrested at Pawnee, Okla., on a charge of wrecking passenger trains near Saugus, Cal., and Cheyenne, Wyo., to rob the passengers. He has told authorities that his parents were Jim Averill and Cattle Kate, hanged by cattlemen in the Sweetwater country in Wyoming 40 years ago.
Reports from Cheyenne that Tom Vernon, convict and alleged railroad bandit recently captured at Pawnee, Okla., claims that he is the son of Cattle Kate and Jim Averill, hanged by cattlemen in the Sweetwater country in Wyoming in 1889, bring to mind a long series of cattle war episodes form Montana and Wyoming during frontier days.
Some of these events, indeed, are not so buried in the past, but many who took part or have knowledge of these events are still reluctant to talk of them, for some of the principal actors are still living. Vernon is said to have claimed that some of his previous convictions were brought about through the continued enmity of some of those who left his father and mother dangling from a tree in Spring canyon years ago and who now reside in California, where he has served time in prison.
The hanging of Cattle Kate and her partner, like many similar happenings, is still a matter of controversy. The large cattle owners, exasperated by the continued stealing of stock, took the law in their own hands in exterminating the rustlers. These "land barons" and the nesters, or small homesteaders who came into the country, were also continually at loggerheads.
Jim Averill, whom Vernon claims as a father, had come to the Sweetwater section, about 50 miles from Casper, several years before and had settled on a homestead. He got an appointment as postmaster and conducted a small store and saloon. In time he became quite a political factor by giving assistance to various small owners in their contentions with land owners. When they attempted to freeze out some of these men by fencing in tracts of land, he brought actions which in several instances showed how dubious were their claims. Averill was said to have been a man of considerable education and ability.
Woman With a Past.
Cattle Kate had a ranch adjoining that of Averill. Her maiden name was Ella Watson, and the land was taken under that name. She is said to have been a woman with a past which took in a number of the boom towns of the west, where she was associated with various questionable resorts. According to the stories of the time, Cattle Kate had become the common law wife of Averill only a short time before the homesteading episode, and she had previously been known as Kate Maxwell, having married a soldier by that name.
Along about the spring of 1888, Averill appears to have become more definitely tied up with rustling activities. Cattle Kate was used as a "fence" in the activities of Averill and his associates, it was claimed. The cattle were brought to Kate's ranch and sold in her name. According to one story, Cattle Kate ran a house of ill repute at her homestead, often having several inmates, and the cattle were ostensibly those that had been left in payment by cowboy frequenters of the place.
At all events, Cattle Kate and Jim Averill's varied business activities thrived for a time. One of the tricks of the trade was to kill a number of cows on the range and then take the unbranded calves to Kate's place.
Finally, on July 20, 1889, seven cattlemen, led by A.J. Bothwell, who had just lost some cattle under circumstances that pointed strongly toward Averill and Cattle Kate as the offenders, went to the woman's ranch armed with six-shooters. They broke down the wires and drove off the cattle. Cattle Kate ran for her horse, but two of the men stopped her. A boy, 14 years old, who was staying at the place, started to get a horse from the corral, with a view of warning Averill, but they also halted him.
Cattle Kate was placed in a wagon, and the party descended upon Averill, who they found just as he was dismounting to close a gate. They told him they had a warrant for his arrest, and when he asked to see it, they produced their guns, with the grim remark: "Here is warrant enough."
Lynchers Fired Upon.
The man and woman were taken to Spring canyon, where a rope was produced and thrown over a cottonwood branch. Actual carrying out of the threat, however, appears to have been undetected until Frank Buchanon, a partisan of the alleged rustlers, came up and attempted a rescue, peppering them with bullets, one of which struck John Durbin, a member of the stockmen's party, in the thigh. Buchanon was chased away with long range rifles. The ropes were then tied about the necks of the doomed pair and they were swung into space. The job was done in a bunglesome manner and the man and woman struggled for some time before death came.
The stockmen implicated in the death of Jim Averill and Cattle Kate were never brought to trial. Buchanon and other witnesses were spirited away and the boy who stayed at Cattle Kate's place died mysteriously, although his death was officially documented as the result of Bright's disease.
In time Cattle Kate became quite as much a legend in her way as Calamity Jane. She was held to have been the arch conspirator among the rustlers, although there was little to substantiate this idea. In the wild west stories, she became the queen of the cattle rustlers in much the same way as Calamity Jane was heralded as an army scout and Indian fighter.
Calamity Jane herself, according to local traditions, was at one time deep in the schemes of a band of horse rustlers who had a rendezvous in the Canyon creek brakes, near where Calamity had a cabin. Partisans of Calamity claim, however, that she never took part in their criminal activities.
Provokes Other Encounters.
The killing of Jim Averill and Cattle Kate was a prelude to later, more extensive encounters between the big owners on one side and the lesser stockmen with whom the rustlers cast their lot on the other. These culminated in the Johnson county war, also known as the Rustler war of 1891 and 1892, in which cattle barons, with 50 Texas cowboys, invaded the country south of Buffalo, regarded as the hotbed of rustler activities. They besieged and finally killed Nate Champion and a comrade at the K.C. ranch, from which the town of Kaycee takes its name. As the news of the invasion spread Johnson county men rallied from every side to meet the "Hessians from Texas," and under the leadership of "Arapahoe" Brown, they cornered the invaders at a ranch on Crazy Woman creek, south of Buffalo, besieged them for three days, and were preparing to dynamite the building in which they had taken refuge when troops from Fort McKinley were ordered to intervene. They arrived in the nick of time. The invaders surrendered to them, were taken prisoner to Fort Russell and were released four or five months later when the tension between the two factions had relaxed.
"Arapahoe" Brown was later murdered by two of the cowboys. The barrel of his rifle is in the Dr. W.A. Allen collection of frontier relics in the Parmly Billings Memorial library. Dr. Allen, after the murder, had identified Brown's skeleton by dental work. Another relic at the library is a pair of handcuffs, said to have been used in the taking of Big Nose George, one of the Wyoming cattle rustlers.
Kris Kristofferson plays Jim Averill, Christopher Walken plays Nate Champion and Isabelle Huppert plays Cattle Kate in Michael Cimino's 1980 box-office flop, "Heaven's Gate," which is built around the Johnson County War.
There is evidence to suggest that Cattle Kate had or at least cared for a child, but it's quite possible that our Saugus train robber assumed his identity — just as he later assumed the identity of the
famous rodeo bulldogger Buffalo Vernon. The robber's name in official prison records was Tom Vernon — never Averill.
• Full newspaper page (Courtesy of Donna Roth Phipps)