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E.W. Whitcomb and the unfortunate expedition

Town father, Elias Whitcomb, was a cattleman who helped found the Agricultural Colony, which became Fort Collins. He came from the East with nothing, married an Indian woman, built an impressive house north of town, and got a street named for him.

He’s even in the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Here’s a photo of him (circled):


All those other guys? They’re  gunmen from Texas brought to snuff out small ranchers in Wyoming.

Whether those small ranchers needed snuffing out or not, is debatable.  The small ranchers, homesteaders mostly, were supplementing their holdings by swiping cattle from the big cattlemen–big cattlemen like E.W. Whitcomb. When the courts wouldn’t prosecute the rustlers to the cattlemen’s satisfaction, the cattlemen turned to vigilantism. Or is that mercenaries?  Some of both, I guess.

Whitcomb rode with the Texas gunmen and a list of targets, into Buffalo, Wyoming. People got killed. But despite his vigilante actions, the people of Fort Collins sympathized with him. “It would be extremely hard to convince the people of this county that [the vigilantes] were activated by unworthy motives,”  said the Fort Collins Courier. Most people called it simply an “unfortunate expedition.”

Historians had another name for it: the Johnson County War. They say powerful ranchers set out to wipe out rustlers and small cattle ranches.  And they were motivated by more than preserving herds. The small ranchers were starting to organize, and maybe threatened the big guys’ hold on the market and the land and the water.

Still, Whitcomb’s expedition worked out for him.  Nobody was prosecuted, and one account said the Johnson County Wars led to “cattle owners receiving a measure of justice at the hands of the courts not enjoyed hitherto.” Which I think means the courts got tougher on rustlers.

Maybe. But not tough enough, apparently. Because a few years later the big cattlemen were paying Tom Horn to pick off rustlers in this region. $600 per. There are several movies about Horn, and History Channel plans a documentary about him this Winter.

Horn had few connections to Fort Collins, but if you drive north an hour, to Cheyenne, you’ll see where he was hung. And if you drive south for an hour, you can visit his mortal remains in Boulder.  In fact, you are less than a day away from Tom Horn killings all over Colorado and Wyoming.

Here’s a picture of Tom Horn:

EW Tom Horn favorite horse

He’s on his favorite horse, named E.W., after Elias W. Whitcomb.


No matter what I searched for in this story, I ended up at Wyoming Tails and Trails. An awesome and exhaustive Wyoming history site. There’s so much more to the story of the Johnson County Wars and Tom Horn than I tell here. The picture of the “Regulators” with Whitcomb came from that site.

Tom Horn wrote an autobiography before he died. It’s appended with pictures (like the one of him on his horse here) and letters he received in jail (like one from a Mr. Ownbey in Loveland). The autobiography is available free online from  Google Books.

3 comments to E.W. Whitcomb and the unfortunate expedition

  • JC

    An unfortunate expedition? You are entirely too sympathetic to these villains, bought and paid for by Cattle Barons and the State of Wyoming. The Johnson County War is a stinging indictment of our commitment to democracy, justice and the rule of law on the Western Frontier. If there was any justice, Wyoming’s statehood would have been revoked and never reinstated.

    Not that I have anything against Wyoming. or Cattlemen.

  • catfc

    Villains? I’ll quote from a paper I found in the museum archives yesterday:

    “Whitcomb possessed all the traits we most cherish in the characters of the men who pioneered the west.”

    JC, are you trying to tell me that the people at the top of the heap can sometimes be greedy bad guys who live above the law?

    Well, thank God that was in the old days.

  • JC

    The Johnson County War has been treated poorly both in books and the big screen. I was not aware of the Colorado connections before but it makes sense.
    Wikipedia mentions one book I enjoy, called Banditti of the Plains–great title, no? I like Chris LeDoux’s take on his Powder River album, too.

    It’s interesting that the primary event occured in 1892, two years after Wyoming Statehood, the incident not far away at Wounded Knee, and the Census Bureau declaration of the end of the Frontier. It’s like history forgot to honor our declaration of the end of history.