Wyoming History: Sam Lightner Visits The Ghost Of Cattle Kate

Columnist Sam Lightner visits the area -- the exact tree -- where Wyoming's "Cattle Kate" was hanged back in 1889. Attempting to film a documentary, he said it became quickly apparent that her ghost did not want that video created.

Sam Lightner

September 12, 20228 min read

Collage Maker 12 Sep 2022 10 51 AM

As a side gig to my supposed-writing career, which is actually a side gig (it would seem) to my “climbing” career, I make videos for the Wyoming History Channel.

To do so I write a script about some fascinating tidbit from Wyoming’s past, then I travel to a place relevant to the event and tell the story on camera. It later comes out on YouTube and people send me complaints about anything from my use of pronouns to the angle my hat rests on my head. A few also write nice things about the stories.

For me, the more interesting the story, the more enjoyable the hard work of making the video. So, I was quite happy to hear from a friend that the BLM had found the actual location of Ellen Watson’s infamous lynching.

“Ellen who?” you ask.

Ms. Ellen Watson purchased a homestead along the Sweetwater River near Independence Rock in 1888, then found out it was coveted by a large-scale cattle rancher with a bad temper. He (likely, though not proven) hanged her and her boyfriend Jim Averell and then had her derided in the press as, “Cattle Kate: Prostitute and Cattle Rustler.” Yeah, that Ellen Watson.

I felt a little foreboding as I followed the Sweetwater River from Beaver Rim to Muddy Gap. Yeah, there was the usual trepidation about wading through a sea of prickly pear and prairie rattlers, but maybe something else as well. Telling our history, much of it tragic and heartbreaking in nature, can feel a little ghoulish.

This an area about halfway between Casper and Rawlins.

Whether it be the 145 Mormon hand carters who froze to death in Martin’s Cove, or the hand-to-hand combat of Washakie killing Big Robber at Crowheart Butte, I am discussing someone’s demise. It may be just history to you and I, but to someone, somewhere and some-time, it was an entire life. So that kind of stuff was rummaging through my caffeine-soaked brain as I turned onto county route 410, A.K.A. Buzzard Road, about a mile north of Independence Rock.

As is so often the case in Wyoming, there’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle of private land and government land one must navigate to get to one’s objective. I pulled up an Onyx Map on my phone, ate a donut, hucked on the backpack, and began hiking around 8 a.m. By 9:30 I was nearing the way-point given to me by the BLM, but also running low on water. It was already hotter than Hades.

Around 10 a.m. I reached the site. From just below a granite cliff, it had the beautiful view of the Sweetwater River and Granite Mountains that I had expected, and there wasn’t a soul in sight. That previously mentioned foreboding ran through me when I realized the tree Ellen and Jim had been hanged from was still there. It’s a Limber Pine, now dead and lying on the slope of the hill overlooking her homestead, but the branch the ropes would have been slung from is obvious.

My video technical difficulties began when the phone and microphone would not speak to each other. Do any of us have any idea why these things work one minute and become the focus of all curse words and blasphemy the next? After doing the same thing four times in a row, microphone and video program began working together.

The next problem was that my mouth was working about as well as it does after a double root canal and five Makers Mark whiskies. I stumbled through all sorts of words, and even said “1788” for “1888” at the very end of three different takes. The camera tipped over on the slope, I stepped on a cactus, and my voice began to fade from lack of water in the heat. Still, I got ‘er done.

Finally began work on the “Spectacular Wyoming Scene,” where at the end of the video my drone flies away from me to reveal the beautiful expanse of our Equality State. It’s great stuff that would win me an Oscar or a Heisman or something, if it wasn’t for the fact that everyone owns a drone that can do this. I programmed the drone to fly backwards from me at a 45-degree angle, and let’er buck.

You Do Not Want To Hear ‘Clank’

About nine seconds into the scene, as I looked majestically out over the prairie, I heard a loud clank, then a scraping sound, and realize the hill was actually at least 46 degrees of angle. Droney, the very original name I have given my drone, was found in a semi-healthy condition after 20 minutes of searching. We thus attempted a refilm, this time adding some angle to the pull back. 

“Clank, scrape, bonk…. “

Turns out the hill was even steeper than 55 degrees. This time Droney let me know he was none-too-happy about the directors understanding of geometry. After an hour of searching, I couldn’t find him. I went to the operating screen on my phone and saw that it was still giving me video signal, but Droney was not talking to the GPS satellites, so there was no way of using “find my drone.”

This is where I put my University of Wyoming “education” to work. Some of you went to the Classroom Building while at U-Dub. Others spent time in Coe Library. More than a few took classes at the Buckhorn Bar and Parlor. I spent most of my time at Vedauwoo, honing my crack climbing skills on Sherman Granite. After a couple hours of soloing up and down the walls above Ellen’s homestead, I found Droney wedged between two boulders. The time was 1 pm, and the temperature roughly 1 million degrees, Kelvin.

While hiking to the site I had realized there were a few shortcuts I could make to shorten the return. It would require skirting along private property, but with the Onyx program it could be done in a way that would not require any Elk Mountain corner-stepping or “oh, I was lost” conversations. I began the trudge back with one small sip of water, leaving no more than a single swallow to look forward to somewhere in the sage.

I passed over a log, across a slab of granite, and down a drainage for maybe 15 minutes, then went to check the map. Horror. My phone was not there in my unzipped pocket. I must have left it sitting next to Ellen’s tree. With no other choice, I began the hike back, this time straightening the line a bit more. I reached the Limber Pine where Ellen and Jim had died and then spent 45 minutes searching.

No phone.

I tried to locate it with my watch. No signal, so no luck. I surmised the phone fell out of my pants while hiking, thus it was somewhere within a mile of me along a path I could see on Onyx, except the Onyx program was on the phone.  I’d have to try and back-track the exact steps by memory.

Miss Ellen, I Need Your Help

I spent perhaps half an hour doing that. “Did I go this way, or that way… better try both?” I repeated this in multiple places, all with a dehydration headache coming on. I considered abandoning the phone, rationalizing to myself that most people get new phones more regularly than changing their socks, so it was okay to walk away. However, that would also mean I’d have to hike without Onyx Maps.

I don’t know the various landowners in that area, so they may be fine with me cutting across their ranches. But frankly, considering how the land dispute was settled with Ellen, history was not on my side. Worse than a lynching, leaving the phone meant giving up the hard-earned footage. Thus, the cost of walking away was a phone, plus a full day of work with a serious dehydration headache, and, possibly, a hanging. I kept searching.

About 3 p.m. I gave up. Standing on the edge of the prairie, and wanting that last sip of water, I slid the pack off my back and dropped it onto a sage. Loudly, and to presumedly no one, I said, “Ellen, I guess you just don’t want this video to be made.” I tipped the water bottle back and gleam of plastic caught my eye. There, underneath the sage three feet from the pack, was my phone. Again, that chill ran down my spine.

I stared at it for perhaps a minute, contemplating just how this coincidence could have happened. “Okay, I’ll make the video,” I said.

An hour later I was in the car, sipping water I had left in a cooler, and blasting the air conditioner. The dashboard temperature read 97.

Here is a link to the video. I hope you like it, Ms. Ellen Watson.  

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Sam Lightner