Liz Cheney, is a woman who spends so little time in Wyoming that one might paste her as a missing person around here, perhaps even list her on a milk jug with a photo from whenever she was here last next to a creepy, aged, progression of how she looks now. The second photo would be easier to find.
Of all the folks that could throw their hat into the ring for a Wyoming Senatorship, it seems like we’d pick somebody who had a Stetson to throw. Liz Cheney hasn’t got the Wyoming credentials to win except that Wyomingites swoon at celebrity and they’ve been fooled to worshipping the Cheney name. For my whole life, I have been trying my damnedest to understand Wyoming. That means I have thirty years of study about a place where Miss Cheney wouldn’t pass a trivia quiz on the Little America children’s menu and I won’t lie, I don’t know enough about this place to represent it yet, but I could have aced Sam Western’s Wyoming History Final based on the classic Wyoming history book by T.A. Larson. ($5 says Miss Cheney hasn’t even read that history book and probably isn’t sure who Mr. Western is or his book either.)
Miss Cheney thinks she is going to win the Senate seat for the same reason that almost every candidate who has ever run in this state has bet on a win; she is counting on Daddy’s name. It is so easily assumed that all of Wyoming is made up of nothing but Tea Party style right wingers and is pretty easily blanketed by over arching generalizations, especially when viewed by outsiders. It is easy to assume that the state is made up of nothing but gun-toting republicans who drive dirty pickups and vote Romney style but we mustn’t forget that while the far right may be the squeaky wheel on Wyoming’s wagon, it sure ain’t the one keeping us rolling forward.
A lot think everyone in Wyoming is redder than red. Honestly, this is generally a reasonable assumption to make but only 48,000 people voted for the Tea Party candidate for governor in 2008 which means that at best, 1/12 Wyomingites wear tinfoil hats. On the flip side, when Doma was a hot topic in the Supreme Court, Albany County Wyoming was the most supportive of Gay Rights in the nation. When Obama won the election both the north-west and south-east corners of our state went blue. These tidbits of information make me wonder how many of those who make up the three quiet wheels of Wyoming’s wagon are secretly liberal. I think that maybe, our little state is a whole lot more complex than we assume, and our reasoning for our distrust of the Federal government, and our willingness to follow somebody whose got money, reputation and power goes back a long way
I started thinking about this last summer when I happened upon an old leather-bound book about the history of the American gunslinger. It wasn’t till I reached the last chapter that I hit a state of euphoric epiphany. Now that the cat’s out of the bag and it is generally known that Liz Cheney will be running for our next Senate seat, I will share my epiphany because it’s important that we all understand what is happening here and why.
The final chapter of that book I read was about The Johnson County War which, til now, I’ve regarded as nothing more than my least favorite western movie in my husband’s collection. To set the stage, we must remember that at the time of the JCW, Wyoming wasn’t even a state yet. Basically the big money came from little work because these rich men from places like Boston summered in Cheyenne. They had figured out that if they let a whole bunch of cows out on the range all winter and then gathered them up later after they had calves and got fat eating prairie. Then, they could ship them back east on trains and make all kinds of money selling steak. It was a great plan for guys who liked to sit around and wait for money to grow on trees, or in this case on hooves.
The problem started a few years into the venture when the rich men started to figure out that the cows weren’t always getting fatter and sometimes the cows and calves died in the fierce blizzards or droughts. Of course, by then, folks back east had become big fans of hamburger and steak and everybody was pretty strung out on easy profit – so this was devastating news.
The men in Cheyenne didn’t want to take responsibility for the fact that it was going to take more work to keep cows alive in Wyoming than they thought. they knew they needed a solution to keep the easy money rolling and they found that solution in forming a closed group called The Wyoming Stock Growers Association that ignored the problem of tough terrain and climate. Instead the WSGA made the assumption that sheepherders were either stealing the food from the mouths of association’s cattle, or that small ranchers were stealing cattle from the association with their own personal cattle. The WSGA’s power made rules so that any cowboy who worked hard and got enough together to own his own cattle was automatically an assumed thief – a cattle rustler.
Because of the laziness and greed of the East Coast Cattle Barons that ran the WSGA from the cushy saloons, Wyoming eventually became a community made up of a hardworking citizenry who either worked to earn money for rich men or else couldn’t survive through the efforts of hard work; because the very definition of that hard work had been defined by this group of rich barons in Cheyenne as thievery. Soon, the only way to survive outside of Rustling was to become the minion of a Cattle Baron with the seemingly redeeming but title of Cowboy.
Now, think about this with me. We’ve got rich Cattle Barons who are so desperate to stay rich they make the independent and entrepreneurial spirit of the real Cowboys of Wyoming a crime. We have innocent homesteaders (sod busters), sweating men who run their own cattle operations (rustlers) and sheepherders all looking to make a living too.
From my personal observation, it seems that the Cattle Barons could have saved us all a lot of heartache had they stopped right there and learned something simple; more cows live if you invest time and labor and energy and sweat and blood than if you turn them loose on the prairie with nothing but a hope and a prayer. As a cattle rancher’s granddaughter, I can assure you that this is in fact, how the hamburger crumbles, a fact of life.
Unfortunately, the Barons didn’t figure that out. Instead they blamed the sheepherders and the Rustlers while riding on the backs and labor of the cattle workers. Their response wasn’t to be responsible and care for their own investments. Instead they hired shady gunmen to kill accused Rustlers under vague titles like “Stock Detectives.”
In Johnson County, small ranchers formed a rival organization – the Northern Wyoming Farmer’s and Stock Growers Association which challenged the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association’s rules in a flat out rebellion. They did so, out of a need for survival. They did so knowing that they had earned their stock, and that they should rightfully keep it. They did so, knowing that they would infuriate the Barons in Cheyenne and their bosses on the East Coast. They did not do so knowing that they could lose their lives defending their livelihood.
I was shocked as I read the book’s description of the plan that the Cheyenne Barons came up with to exterminate the Rustlers.:
“It was at this point that the members of the Cheyenne Club fashioned their plot. Over their Cuban cigars and Rum St. Cruz, they determined to wipe out the competing organization and exterminate the “rustlers.” Their plan was simple, but drastic. First, recruit a force of gunfighter from outside the state to descend on Johnson County. Next, cut all telegraph wires that linked the county to the rest of the state, thus isolating the citizenry when the invasion got underway. Next, take over the town of Buffalo – the county seat and assassinate the sheriff, his deputies, and the three county commissioners, thereby stripping the populace of leadership. And finally, dispose of all the men on a “dead list” drawn up by WSGA’s cattle detectives – a list that, by one estimate included 70 names.”
The book detailed the process right down to the way the whole charade was paid for:
“While the gunfighter’s were gathering, two stockmen left Cheyenne for Colorado to buy horses for the expedition lest suspicion be aroused by a roundup of too many horses from their own ranches. In Cheyenne, other cattlemen bought three heavy freight wagons and placed orders for tents, bedding, guns, pistols, and ammunition. To cover the mounting costs, 100 members of the WSGA put up $1000 each. On April 5, 1892, a special Pullman car at Denver, with the Texas gunfighters aboard, started for Cheyenne. The $100,000 invasion was launched.”
The invasion seemed successful at first, but that didn’t last long. After a good start killing several men, the Cattle Barons found themselves surrounded by the Johnson County Sheriff and his men. Over the course of several days of fighting, both sides had found it advantageous, at one point or another, to cut the telegraph wires but it is documented that late on the second day word reached Governor Barber from the citizenry of Buffalo stating that an illegal armed force had invaded Johnson County, that the invaders had killed two settlers and were resisting arrest by the Sheriff who requested assistance from troops at Fort McKinney “to assist in putting down rebellion.”
Governor Barber did not answer these pleas for help.
Instead, he waited for word from his friends, the Cattle Barons. Later that day, a message got through from a rider who had slipped through the Sheriff’s barricade and rode 100 miles to the next county to send a telegraph. Once the Governor got word that his buddies needed help, Barber immediately wired the President asking for troops to quell an “insurrection.” By the next morning troops were on the way and soon thereafter the Cattle Barons agreed to surrender to the military, whereupon the Cattle Barons, and their gunfighters from Texas, were placed under military arrest and led back to Fort McKinney.
This moment, when the federal government took custody of those men had to be a turning point in the minds of many people in Wyoming. Think of how it felt to be those hardworking families in Johnson County. You were just attacked and nearly killed by the rich barons of Cheyenne, and rescued by the federal government. Your son or brother or husband might be dead and if he is, he died for trying to labor to feed his family. When you watch those soldiers haul off with the offenders of this grave injustice, you’ve got a lot of hurt and righteous anger in your heart and you are trusting the federal government to make it right.
As I sit and write about this, during the week of the anniversary of the Aurora Tragedy, my mind drifts to the joker that has been hauled out of court with orange hair and a sadistic smile who said that he didn’t care how many he had left dead in his rampage. I thought about the family of Trayvon Martin and how his loved ones grieve for the loss of somebody precious lost without justice, and I have a pretty good guess of how the people of Johnson County must have felt as they watched the military haul away the men who had killed their beloved family members. They had to have had expectations of justice served hot and quick.
But like we learned when Zimmerman walked and the Joker was forgotten, justice isn’t what happened.
The men who were arrested that day in Johnson County went to Fort McKinney and then on to a change of venue to Cheyenne where for 10 weeks the prisoners were held at Fort Russell. The Johnson County treasury was billed 100 dollars per day for the confinement of each man till it went bankrupt. Eventually a Baron sponsored judge turned every man loose without bond, and later still the Johnson County authorities dropped the charges against the men and their hired guns. Yes, you read that correctly, justice was never served on a single one of the rich Barons of Cheyenne or the gunmen that they hired from Texas.
This grave mistake here rots in the backs of the minds of the people of Wyoming. It has caused a psychological scar that runs deep on both sides of the divide. Even the Cattle Barons think that they were wronged in this moment. From their wrong, but righteous feeling, perspectives the Cattle Barons felt pompous and cocky and terribly, horribly, gravely persecuted. They were held for 70 days in federal prison and never convicted. For many, this is a challenge to honor that can’t be and hasn’t been forgotten.
Now, a century and more later, we’ve got this strange thing that happens in Wyoming. The new “Barons” of Wyoming, like Dick and Liz Cheyney demonize the poor and the federal government with thinly veiled contempt. In fact, they demonize President Obama without even bothering to veil their contempt. They encourage an us vs them, makers vs takers, mentality that keeps middle class “Cowboys” in constant fear of thieving, lazy, shiftless, freegrazing “Rustlers.” Nobody seems to have told them that nowadays they both sweat and bleed but one does it for themselves and the other does it for Walmart or Sinclair.
It seems to me that the injustice of what happened in Johnson County was never resolved and it hangs like a foul stench in the air. It makes rich men like Dick Cheney emulate tried and true techniques. They go to Texas and find dummies that they can pay and boss around to shoot up places they’ve never been. In 1892 it was Johnson County. In 2002 it was Iraq. What’s the difference?
What about Liz Cheney and her little cowgirl outfits and cattle references and her snippy one liners about how she “built that” while President Obama gives away free stuff? How is she any better than the barons of Cheyenne from back when? She lives on fruits of the hard labor of those below her, keeping them earning just enough money to be dependent, while calling herself a Wyoming Cowgirl though her boots have no mars or scent of manure and while other men sweat and bleed to bring the meat to market and set her table with silver.
She is pretending she’s got something more than Daddy’s bad reputation and dirty money to offer. She sits on a high horse and spouts rhetoric about socialism and telling tall tales about our big bad president coming to take big chunks of every American paycheck to fuel a monstrous and out of control leftist government, while living on family money collected from the dead bodies of American soldiers.
Her criticism of liberalism and our President stinks like her last name. She is doing nothing but feeding the machine of lies that convinces good Wyomingites that real Cowboys let women and children, poor and disabled, the hard workers making minimum wage, and the veterans who are out of work, suffer without food or shelter or healthcare as if her efforts in life honestly beget so much more wealth than those of a sweating, bleeding, laborer. She tries to fool us into believing she’s a Cow Girl but she ain’t nothin but a Cattle Baron’s daughter.
I have been paying attention to the 47 percenter attitude of the Wyoming GOP, I hear the drivel coming from the mouths of Barons like Liz and I am just about sick of it. I watch my Rustler of a husband leave every morning before it gets light, and return every night after dark and I cannot imagine that he’s a whole lot different from those first “free grazers” who worked day and night to make something of nothing with labor and work and effort and blood and sweat in Johnson County. Nor do I see a whole lot of difference between Liz Cheyney or her daddy, Dick, and those men who sat only a few blocks from where I sit at this moment in Cheyenne, smoking Cuban cigars and drinking fine rum while plotting to snub people like me and mine out – for nothing but profit.
The way I see it, the struggle of the Johnson County War ain’t over. Justice is a long time coming, and so long as a man and a woman can’t survive through hard work and righteous effort in Wyoming, it hasn’t arrived yet. I am particularly convinced that Wyoming has yet to move past the mid 1880’s. It’s still Rustler vs Cowboy for the entertainment and profit of Cattle Barrons.
Though my mother and father proudly dressed me in brown and gold and I have been inundated with images of Pistol Pete and Bucking Broncos since birth; though I have spent my share of time watching the steam rise above troughs of corn spread for wintering cattle; though I have gone irrigating and helped with branding and repaired corrals and spent many afternoons on the back of a fine buckskin pony, I cannot identify with the Wyoming Cowboy. I cannot lend my life’s existences to nothing but laboring so that rich people can smoke expensive cigars and drink fine wine while I struggle for milk and supper.
I cannot stand idle while my husband works from dawn to dusk and is told that he is lazy. I cannot watch silently as Women are shamed, bullied, and silenced for speaking against oppressive lies. I cannot do what Wyoming Cowboys are expected to do, if Wyoming Cowboys are supposed to serve the Wyoming Cattle Barons.
Instead, I choose to identify myself, my husband, my family and my friends as Rustlers. We buck the establishment. We fight for each other, and people who work hard. We recognize that effort and hard work and moral character have nothing to do with the bank accounts or reputation of the Cheney name.
We are ready and we are able and we aren’t going to any guff from the likes of Liz Cheney just because she’s got the clout to wrangle herself a Senate run. See, those of us back here, doing the work and pouring the sweat, and bleeding the blood, and tilling the dirt, sewing the seeds, and driving the cattle and living a real life know what’s what.
We all know that my husband and men like him work harder in one day than Liz Cheney ever has. We know that Dick Cheney and his pitiful daughter may come from here but they are not of here and we put no stock in their shifty ways. Justice is coming. The Johnson County War will find it’s righteous and deserving end and the winner of the final battle will be the honest Rustler, the true enigma that is portrayed in every western we have ever watched, the dusty, dirty, independent creature of the high plains, you know – the guy that Liz Cheney calls entitled, they guy riding Steamboat, who probably doesn’t even grace her license plate. Now, I may not be an expert on Wyoming, but I do know that Miss Cheney has got to figure out quickly that bashing the “takers” and “freeloaders” formerly known as the “Free-grazers” and “Rustlers” is bashing those who hold Wyoming like Atlas on their shoulders and she has better figure it out soon, or else she’ll lose.