The story of Cattle Kate reminds me of Rodney King’s now infamous words, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
It is unclear exactly how Ellen Liddy Watson got the nickname “Cattle Kate,” but over a century later the name has stuck. Born July 2, 1861 in Ontario, Canada, Watson traveled through the Wild West of the 19th century United States, moving within eight years from Kansas to Nebraska to Colorado to Wyoming, where she finally settled. Having escaped an abusive marriage, she moved with family to reclaim her life then moved on to establish herself independently. Her fierce independence led her to a homesteading life in the cattle country of Wyoming.
Even though the cattleman’s association blocked her at every turn, having filed a legal homestead claim, purchased a small herd of cattle, and bought a registered brand, Cattle Kate established herself as a legit homesteader.
Whether it was because she was a woman or simply a small rancher causing problems by daring to setup shop right next to the “big boys,” Watson found herself in opposition to a powerful and wealthy member of the cattlemen’s association, Albert John Bothwell. Having claimed land that Bothwell didn’t own but certainly used, Cattle Kate was a threat to the status quo. Like all early “disruptive innovations”, Watson had to be controlled or conquered. The latter was the path of least resistance. The hit was ordered for July 20, 1889.
Less than a year after claiming her homestead, Ellen Liddy “Cattle Kate” Watson was lynched alongside her companion and fellow homesteader Jim Averell. Typical of Wild West dispute adjudication, the accuser acted as judge, jury and executioner. While friends and employees attempted to stop the heinous act, the vigilante posse was too formidable to be overtaken.
You might ask, was Albert John Bothwell brought to justice? Like so much of history, the answer is no—the wealthy win again. While six of the riders who rode against the couple were brought up on official charges, all the witnesses either dropped like flies or scattered into the wind before a trial could ensue. Adding insult to injury, Cattle Kate’s possessions and property were auctioned off to the wealthy cattlemen’s association members.
Though a tragic and sad story, Cattle Kate has become my new icon. In a world of extreme hardships and bias against women, Ms. Watson carved her own path and paid her own way. Before her death she realized her dream of independence through her own business acumen and sly cunning.
I tip my ten-gallon hat to Cattle Kate, a legend of the Wild West and a permanent figure in American History!