An American Cowgirl: “Cattle Kate” Watson
Do you remember that 70’s television commercial for the Time Life Books, The Old West, series? It is seared into my brain! I’m convinced that even when I am old and trying to dress the cats in doll clothes, I will remember that, for $12.95 plus shipping and handling, you could receive the introductory book entitled The Great Chiefs. Then you would receive another book from the series every other month for the same low, low price. Secretly, I always sort of wanted to order! I mean, what lover of the Old West wouldn’t want to learn more about a bunch of fascinating characters and have some lovely hardbound books with “the look and feel of hand-tooled, saddle leather”?
So, whenever it comes time to choose a new blog topic, I try to imagine what I would have wanted to read about in one of those fancy books. Today’s winner is Cattle Kate Watson. I hope you like her story as much as I do.
Cattle Kate Watson wasn’t born with the name Cattle Kate. Her parents weren’t that hard up for names. Oh, maybe if she had been the last of ten children, her parents would have run out of ideas and resorted to a name like Cattle Kate. But, as it so happens, she was the firstborn of ten children, and was thus given the perfectly acceptable name of Ellen Liddy Watson. She went by Ella.
Little Ella was born in 1861, in Arran Lake, Canada. When she was a child, her parents packed up their growing passel of children (I’m pretty sure six children constitutes a passel.) and moved to Lebanon, Kansas to homestead.
When she was sixteen, Ella was being courted by a young man named William A. Pickell, who, at nineteen years of age, must have seemed to have it all together. He didn’t. I would love nothing more than to tell you that they became Mr. and Mrs. Pickell and had a son named Dill and a daughter named Gherkin, but I can’t.
They did marry, when Ella was eighteen, but it was not a blissful union that resulted in naming children after types of pickles. William A. Pickell was an abusive drunk, who often beat Ella with a horsewhip. It took a little over three years for Ella to say, “Enough!” and to head back to the safety of her parents’ house. She filed for divorce and moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, which was fourteen miles from her parents’ homestead.
Later that year, Ella moved to Denver, Colorado to join one of her brothers. Her next move was to Cheyenne, Wyoming. In a day when women scarcely went further than the mercantile alone, it was highly unusual for a single woman to flit about the countryside unescorted! She worked as a cook and a seamstress in Cheyenne, before moving to Rawlins, Wyoming.
The Rumor Mill
In Rawlins, Ella worked as a cook and a waitress at a boarding house, known as the Rawlins House. Rumors would later spread that Ella had actually been working as a prostitute and serving up a lot more than biscuits and gravy, but there’s no evidence to back up those claims. I’ll just go ahead and warn you that the rest of Ella’s story depends on whom you choose to believe.
It was 1886 when Ella met Jim Averell, a homesteader whose wife and newborn had died a few years earlier. Ella moved in with Averell, shortly after making his acquaintance, which didn’t do anything to help her reputation. But, the arrangement seems to have been a happy one for Ella and her “fella.” Averell opened a road ranch on his property. The road ranch served as sort of a restaurant and store. Ella was the official cook and got to keep the money she made. The two did apply for a marriage license, but the license was never filed. It’s possible there was a paperwork mix-up and the two were married, but we’ll never know for sure.
Averell became postmaster, but Ella insisted upon having her own revenue stream. She filed her own homestead claim, on the land adjacent to Jim Averell’s, and she had her own cabin. It seems to me that Ella had done everything to ensure that she was never again on the receiving end of a horsewhip. She might have lived out her life in blissful independence, were it not for a bunch of hoopla over cattle.
Ella bought quite a few head of cattle from a man who was heading to Washington territory. She also bought a brand from a local rancher. She had earned her new nickname of Cattle Kate and things were going well until… (You knew there had to be an “until” in this story!) Albert Bothwell, who was member of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, claimed that a large chunk of Jim and Ella’s land belonged to him.
Bothwell had a reputation for believing that wealthy men were above the law and Bothwell himself was a wealthy man.
Next, Ella, I mean, Cattle Kate, was accused of branding cattle that had been rustled. The rumors began swirling and they didn’t stop.
Haters Gonna Hate (and Possibly Lynch)
We’ve all seen enough Westerns to know what happened to cattle thieves in the 1800s, and it wasn’t rehabilitation and job training! In an elaborate plot, Bothwell gathered a posse, released all of Ella’s, aka Cattle Kate’s, cattle, and kidnapped Ella and Jim Averell. Before long, Ella and Averell were hanging from a tree near Independence Rock. Independence, for Cattle Kate, was not all she had hoped for.
Some folks believe that “Cattle Kate” Watson was a no-account prostitute turned cattle rustler who deserved what she got. Others (myself included) believe she was framed. At any rate, Cattle Kate became the first woman to be lynched in Wyoming. And, for that, I feel she deserves a place in my imaginary Time Life Book, Cattle Rustlers of the Old West.
Here’s a 1954 TV program, “Stories of the Century” about Cattle Kate. ..you’ll enjoy it!
And when you have time, stop by for a look-see at our Western home décor…I wonder if Cattle Kate would have liked it?
Happy Trails, y’all,