Cattle Kate

More from this show

Hear about a new work of fiction by author Jana Bommersbach, a story based on the only woman ever lynched as a cattle rustler. Bommersbach will discuss her book, “Cattle Kate.”

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Author Jana Bommersbach is out with a new book, this one is a novel and it's based on the life of Ella Watson, a woman lynched for cattle rustling in the Wyoming territory back in 1889. But Ella Watson was so cattedle rustle. Her only mistake was getting on the wrong side of powerful ranchers over land and water rights. On the 125th anniversary of the lynching, Ella Watson's story store gets another look in Jana Bommersbach's novel "Cattle Kate." We spoke with Jana Bommersbach about her new work. Good to see you again. Who was cattle Kate?

Jana Bommersbach: There never was a cattle Kate. It was a fictitious person created by the cattlemen and newspapers to cover up for a horrible crime. No woman had ever been lynched in the nation as a castle rustler and here they had lynched a woman and her husband, but because she was a woman, they had to figure out a way to make her so detestable nobody would care they had killed a woman. And so they created the legend of Cattle Kate. That she was a rustler and a whore, that she was terrible, and the queen of the sweet water, and had this huge range of rustling, all of which was fictitious. But for a century history bought that story.

Ted Simons: History bought the story because apparently not long after this incident happened, the media such as it was back in those days, very much in line with the power brokers.

Jana Bommersbach: The only information that ever came out, and this is Wyoming territory, 1889, the only information that ever came out of the territories came from the major daily in the big city, this case it was Cheyenne, the two major dailies there, and that's what the Associated Press and UPI picked up on and ran stories around the nation and around the world. So the stories these papers were feeding them, the only version of the story they ever got. Interestingly, we've discovered that all of the frontier papers in the smaller towns were trying to tell the true story. But nobody was paying attention to them. So the people in those little towns, they knew what was going on, but they had no power to do anything. Plus the people who had been involved in this lynching, the witnesses and the people who were Ella and Jim's friends, they either died, were murdered or disappeared and so people learned very quickly, let's not get our feet -- We don't have a dog in this fight.

Ted Simons: OK, so who was Ella Watson, not cattle Kate?

Jana Bommersbach: That was the thing that I was after. Who was this woman who was branded this way? Her name was Ella Watson, she was 29. She was a homesteader. One of the few female homesteaders in 1889. She had a homestead claim, a legitimate claim of 160 acres, along a little creek, she was -- She wanted to be a citizen, she had applied for citizenship because she was Canadian born. She originally immigrated to Kansas with her family and came west by herself. That was another clue about what kind of woman this was, because most women went west with their husbands or fathers and brothers. She went west by herself. And created her own life. Worked for a while at a major hotel in Rollins, then met this Jim Averel man, who she would marry, and got the claim. He had a claim next to hers. She got a branding iron, by hook and crook because the cattlemen who controlled the branding irons didn't want her to have one, but she figured out a way to get one. She had cattle she had bought and that she was keeping in a corral. She was trying to be a citizen, she was raising a young boy, she really was creating a life. And that's the woman that I discovered that I found so amazing. At first I thought I was going to write about a great injustice, but I was writing about a true life woman who was one of those strong western pioneer women that history has basically ignored.

Ted Simons: She was a strong western pioneering woman who got this 160 acres, and again, she wasn't married, so they could get the 160 acres for him and combine them when they married.

Jana Bommersbach: Well, after they were proved up, if they married it would still go to the man. The way the law were written, the head of household could have the claim. If she married this man publicly, then he would take the land. It would be his land. And she wanted her own land so they went away and got secretly married, but didn't tell anybody. So after five years, when this is my legal land, then we can tell people we're married.

Ted Simons: But that land is the sticking point as far as -- Talk about -- This A.J. Bothwell.

Jana Bommersbach: The neighbor next door. He was the guy who was -- He thought he was the king of the sweet water valley. He thought he was just the best guy in the world. He could do whatever he wanted to do. This guy was notorious for breaking the law at any given time. He would put up fences where there couldn't be fences, he would claim land he had no right to. He just thought he owned the world. And when little Ella puts her claim down there on horse creek, that was land he used as a pasture and in fact it was the land he used to get to the creek. So all of a sudden she and her husband owned the rights to the creek, and this guy is like getting, where's my water, I need that water, so he tried to scare them out, he tried to burn them out, he tried to romance her out of her land. He tried to be sweet and said, listen, why don't I pay off -- I'll buy the land for you and you can pay me back. He tried every scam he could think of and when he couldn't find any scams to get her off the land, he murdered her.

Ted Simons: He murders her, but how does he justify -- I imagine there -- Obviously there was a story she rustled cattle. How did they work that out?

Jana Bommersbach: They just declared it. She's a cattle rustler and we need to take care of these rustlers, because we're getting rustled to death. We can't -- The judges won't convict people who are rustlers, and they're all moving in, the thing with the cattlemen, they were making up these incredible stories, because the cattle industry was dying. And they were losing lots of money and their investors, they wanted to know why they were losing money. We're being rustled to death! So a lot of what their claim of the great rustling of the western cattle was a fictitious itself. But they used that excuse that she was a rustler. They hated the homesteaders. This is a time when the open range and the cattlemen is disappearing and the homesteaders are moving in. And breaking up the big expanses of land they needed for their cattle to run all over the place and eat, free. So that whole conflict, Ella and Jim are in the middle of that conflict.

Ted Simons: And she winds up lynched and we hear the story from the cattlemen's side for a long time.

Jana Bommersbach: Only from them.

Ted Simons: What happened to that land? Did Bothwell get it?

Jana Bommersbach: Yes.

Ted Simons: So the bad guy won?

Jana Bommersbach: Yes! The bad guy won. He stayed in that valley for the next 26 years, he took over their property, he used Ella's house that she had built as his ice house. He became the postmaster instead of the man he had just lynched who was the postmaster for a little roadhouse. He took over that job. That and he never once ever showed any remorse for what had happened. Most of the others, there were six lynchers, and most of the others moved away because they were so chagrined at how the public treated them because they were absolutely shunned and they were -- The public reacted to these murders by calling them names, and being mean, and you know, and trying to disgrace them. Except him. He didn't care any of that. He just carried on.

Ted Simons: So you're doing research on this, you're obviously up in Wyoming for at least a spell here. How do they look at this story now in Wyoming? And are there Bothwells still roaming the earth who aren't too happy about this?

Jana Bommersbach: Bothwell himself would die in L.A., I don't know if there's any Bothwells around but there are people in that valley who in fact were part of his lynching situation. And they don't like this story at all. They would like to believe that she really was a rustler, and she really was a bad person and there was some justification. But vertically every historian who's looked at this case, and there are plenty from Wyoming itself -- That's where you look. To people who understand that culture. Look to people who lived there who had a stake there. They do have a dog in this fight. They want to know what happened. And there are still those in Wyoming who want to believe Ella Watson was a terrible woman and she deserved what she got. But almost every historian living now is saying to them, this was a total horrible miscarriage of justice.

Ted Simons: Hearing the story I think of Incident at Al Creek Bridge, I think of Michael Cimino's film -- The story has been out there in so many different ways, you now have taken the story and written it as a novel. Why a novel?

Jana Bommersbach: Because I wanted Ella to hell her story. The way this whole thing happened is I had known about this story because I was writing -- I write for True West magazine, so I had been writing about women of the west and one of the profiles I did when I realized there was problems with the way this history had told the story, was about Ella Watson. Ever since then I have been wanting to know more and more about it. And I was reading a historical novel on my mother's patio in 2009, and all of a sudden I thought I heard the words, "I never thought I'd die like that." I thought, that's what Ella would have said. She needs to tell this story, I thought. This needs to be -- She's the person they erased. This is the human blood person that was erased. She needs to stand up straight and tall and tell her story what happened to her. And so it seemed to me doing it as a historical novel would give me a chance to bring life and breadth to this legend.

Ted Simons: You've written books obviously, when you were a judge you have written nonfiction, now you've got this novel. Compare and contrast.

Jana Bommersbach: I love historical novel. It satisfies my journalistic credentials for all the research, and what I did in this book is this is in three parts. The first part Ella tells her story, the second part is the third person, and the third part is the facts. Every chapter there's end notes that tell you what happened the real story. And chapter and verse of where I got information from. So you can track the accuracy and the historical truth of this whole story. So that part of my journalistic thing is satisfied with that, but being able to bring breadth and life to these characters, you're letting these people become personalities. And you deduce what you can from the evidence you can find.

Ted Simons: And yet, my last question, a lot of novel writers, fiction writers will say the character surprised me. The character is doing things I didn't expect. How can you have her surprise you, you know what's going to happen.

Jana Bommersbach: From the very beginning of the book you know what's going to happen. You know this woman is going to be lynched. In fact the book starts off as she has a rope around her neck and she starts talking about, this can't be happening. How can I be hanged! This is wrong! And then you go through her life. The thing that was so amazing, I love the line when you said 125 years of the anniversary of her murder, now we get to hear her story. I wrote that -- A sentence like that in a promotion piece dispensary and I put period, I was going to be done. Then my fingers typed, and if Ella could she would have said, it's about time.

Ted Simons: It is about time. Great effort. Congratulations on this. And thank you so much for stopping by. We appreciate it.

Jana Bommersbach: Thank you.

Jana Bommersbach:Author, "Cattle Kate";

Barry Gibb singing (Bee Gees: In Our Own Time)
airs Feb. 24

Bee Gees: In Our Own Time

A cute little duckling with text reading: Arizona PBS Ducks in a Row Event
March 6

Getting Your Ducks in a Row to Avoid Conflict When You Are Gone

Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson
aired Feb. 23

The Highwaymen: Live at Nassau Coliseum

A photo of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and photos of his books

Join the all new PBS Books Readers Club!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: