In 1886, Ms. Watson met a homesteader named James “Jim” Averell, who was in town on business. The two began a romance, and she moved with him to his homestead. Jim had opened a “road ranch” on his property. A road ranch is a place to eat and general store combination. It served both cowboys and settlers who traveled through. Ella served as the cook. She was allowed to keep the money she made, which was fifty cents a meal.
It has been alleged that the road ranch was a brothel and Ella worked as a prostitute there, but it was not a brothel, and there is no evidence Ella ever worked as a prostitute anywhere. As you will see, the idea that Ella was a prostitute and a cattle rustler was circulated in newspaper articles by the very powerful cattlemen’s association, in order to discredit her.
In 1888, Ella filed her claim for her homestead, where she had built her cabin two years before. Between Ella and Jim, the two owned 320 acres. She fenced much of the property and built a stable and several corrals. During that time, there was a law called the Maverick Law. It stated that unbranded calves found on a property were to be branded with an “M” and became the property of a very powerful group of cattlemen known as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. The cattlemen’s association insisted that all ranches, no matter what size, have a registered brand. The cost for registering a brand was expensive. That was to ensure that the smaller ranchers could not afford it. Also, a brand had to be “accepted” by the association and they had substantial power inside the committee that either rejected or accepted brands. Ultimately, this prevented many smaller ranchers from operating under the law.
The wealthy cattlemen began to build portable cabins on land, claiming it as homesteads, and after registering it with the county, they would simply move the portable cabins to another location. They would repeat the same process over again. The cattlemen became irate with Averell because he began writing about these acts to a newspaper in Casper, Wyoming.
In 1888, the governor repealed the Maverick Law, bringing on heavy opposition from the wealthy cattlemen. By now, Ella had been dubbed by local newspapers as “Cattle Kate.”
In the fall of 1888, Ella purchased 28 cattle from a man who was driving them from Nebraska to Salt Lake City, Utah. On December 3, 1888, Ella applied for the “WT” brand, but was rejected. Ella knew her own brand would never be accepted, so her way around it was to purchase a brand that already existed. Now she had a legal operating brand.
By the middle of 1889, she had 41 head of cattle. Albert John Bothwell, a wealthy cattleman and member of the cattlemen’s association, lived only about a mile from the ranch. He had never owned the area of land on which Ella’s ranch was now located, he had used it from time to time in years past. He now greatly resented the presence of her ranch.
Jim Averell had granted Bothwell right-of-way so that Bothwell could irrigate his property. Bothwell began to fence in parts of Ella’s ranch and sent cowboys working for him to harass the couple. On July 20, 1889, a range detective, George Henderson, who was working for Bothwell, accused Ella of rustling cattle from Bothwell and branding them with her own brand. The cattlemen sent riders to arrest Ella. They forced her into a wagon, telling her they were going to Rawlins. The group met up with Jim and they “arrested” them both. One of Ella’s ranch hands rode after the wagon and saw the group lynching both Ella and Jim. The ranch hand rode in and opened fire. A shoot-out ensued. The ranch hand was forced to retreat because there were ten men facing him. He rode back to the ranch to summons more people, but by that time, both Jim and Ella were dead.
The county sheriff and deputy sheriff arrested six men for the hangings. A trial date was set, but prior to the date several witnesses were intimidated and threatened. Also, several people were killed mysteriously. The ranch hand fled after another shoot-out with unknown suspects, and was seen periodically over the next two to three years. He eventually changed his name and disappeared altogether. Ralph Cole, who was a nephew to Averell, died the very day of the trial, from poisoning.
Jim and Ella’s possessions were auctioned off. Their property eventually became the property of the cattlemen’s association. This was one of many events that eventually sparked the Johnson County War.