A Woman to Know: Ellen Watson

Other women looked down on her in those days, but no matter what she was or did she had a big heart. — Harry Ward

Other women looked down on her in those days, but no matter what she was or did she had a big heart. — Harry Ward

(image via Casper History Center)

They called her “Cattle Kate” or “Cowboy Kate,” and tales of her outlaw exploits remain part of Wild West legend. But historians now speculate that Kate, actually named Ellen Watson, probably engaged in very little outlaw activity. Instead, her lewd reputation is most likely the work of her neighbor, enemy and eventual murderer.

The story starts in 1862, when Ellen, then a single woman traveling the West on her own (gasp), first applied to buy land in Wyoming through the Homestead Act. Her family, aghast at her desire for independence, had long since disowned her, and at that time, Wyoming was one of the only states that allowed unmarried women to own property and run businesses. Ellen was sure she had picked the perfect place to settle down.

In Wyoming, she met her second husband, Jim Averell, and the two combined forces to buy a small ranch. Ellen continued working the odd jobs that had helped her save the money to first buy the land. She was known throughout the area for making clothes for cowboys, cooking for wayward travelers and rooming boarders in her cabin and cattle corral. “No one went hungry around her,” one local remembered.

By the 1880s, she applied for her own cattle brand. She and Jim branded their cattle with a distinctive L and U (a funny way Jim had of pronouncing her name as “Ella”) and set about establishing their own cattle business.

Then, in 1889, a wealthy new land baron came to town. Albert Bothwell seemed friendly at first, offering Ellen and Jim a hefty sum for the rights to their land. But Ellen felt reluctant to give up the land that had first won her her freedom out West. She refused his multiple offers, much to Bothwell’s fury. Soon, the greedy neighbor started accusing the couple of branding his cattle as their own, and he alleged that a ditch Ellen dug was legally on his property.

He started spreading rumors that Ellen, with her many visits from cowboys and male travelers, was a criminal and a prostitute. With his newspaper connections, he published lurid stories of “Cattle Kate” and tarnished her reputation in town.

In July of 1889, still desperate for the neighboring land, Bothwell sent his cowboys to execute Ellen and Jim, claiming they had rustled his cattle and broken the land agreement. His henchmen ambushed the couple and had them hanged. The local sheriff arrested Bothwell for the crimes, but eventually, Bothwell returned to his ranch. He eventually ursuped Ellen’s old land, rebranding her cattle as his own.

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