Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Cattle Kate: The Woman Behind the Legend, an essay by Jana Bommersbach

Using the tools at their disposal, historical novelists can help rehabilitate the reputations of real-life figures who were treated unfairly by history.  In the case of Ella Watson, "treated unfairly" is a big understatement.  After reading this powerful essay, I could see why Jana Bommersbach felt obligated to tell her story.


Cattle Kate:  The Woman Behind the Legend
Jana Bommersbach

I feel like an idiot admitting I was snookered by the legend of “Cattle Kate” as just a dirty rustler and a filthy whore.

It took me a while to figure out every single thing about that enduring western legend was a lie.

She wasn't a rustler. She wasn't a whore. And she'd never been called “Cattle Kate” until she was dead and they needed an excuse.

Her real name was Ella Watson. She was a 29-year-old homesteader—one of the few female homesteaders in the territories. She had 160-acres along Horse Creek in the Sweetwater Valley of Wyoming Territory—until some of her powerful cattlemen neighbors strung her up with her husband on July 20, 1889. And then to exonerate themselves, they turned to the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association who fed the Cheyenne press a fanciful and ridiculous story about how awful this woman was and why she “had to die for the good of the country.”

For a century, history insisted it had the story right—to this day, some still believe it. But I'm just the latest to see the truth behind this horrifying legend; to agree, as one historian put it, that this was “the most revolting crime in the entire annals of the West.”

My first historical novel, Cattle Kate, published in October by Poisoned Pen Press, helps set the record straight. It lets Ella Watson tell her own life story. I didn't think at first that I'd write the whole book in first person, but I knew from the moment I started that the first sentence was Ella saying, “I never thought I'd die like this.”

Because it was that sentence that sent me on the five-year journey that became this book.

I was reading a historical novel on my mother's garden patio in Hankinson, North Dakota the summer of 2009 when I thought someone said that sentence out loud. I put my book down and looked around, but it was just me and the birds and rabbits. The sentence had come from inside my head. “Oh my God,” I said out loud. “That's exactly what Ella would have said.”

I had started researching the story of Ella Watson earlier that year, hoping to write a non-fiction book. But my agents and publishers in New York weren't interested. So I'd put it on the back burner and went off to spend the summer with my family.

But then that sentence came into my head and by the end of the summer, I was in Wyoming hounding everyone who knew anything about this story, knowing it should be a historical novel.

My biggest surprise was this: I thought my book would revolve around the disgusting murder of Ella Watson. It doesn't. It revolves around the incredible life she led. And of course, that makes her murder all the more tragic. But when I first got into this project, I had no idea I was dealing with a woman whose legend doesn't hold a candle to the truth.

My first clue was when I discovered she'd bucked society decorum and divorced her first, abusive husband on Feb. 14, 1884—and then broke the rules one more time by demanding her maiden name back. “I walked out of that courthouse a happy woman for the first time in a long time. I pressed my hands against my heart and beamed, like I'd just gotten the best Valentine's present ever.”

Then I discovered she went west by herself—not with a father or brother or husband—but on her own. Why? “Pa, I want to own my own land, like you and Grandpapa. I want my own cabin and my own crops and my own herd. There's not many places a woman could have all that for herself, but Wyoming Territory is one of them. Women can even vote out there, Pa. Imagine that.”

I discovered that this Canadian-born woman had filed to become an American citizen. That she was raising a boy. That she was cooking meals in her husband's roadhouse to earn a living. That she'd bought 28 cows for the below-rock-bottom price of $1 a head. (And the chapter that imagines how she did that makes everyone laugh.) Oh yes, I discovered she'd blindsided the stock growers and got herself a brand under their noses.

One of my favorite scenes is about the boy she was raising: “He had me forever the day we were in the garden, tying up the tomatoes. All of a sudden, I felt the swish of the hoe behind me. 'Got him!' Gene yelled like he'd won a prize. I turned around to see him holding up a long rattlesnake. I tripped over myself running to the cabin. Gene got the hiccups, he laughed so hard. “Ma, don't worry, I wouldn't let him get you!' he yelled at me as he flung the snake away. That long, slender body sailed through the air, making wavy patterns in the sky and it was the first time in my life that a snake ever looked beautiful to me. I guess that means anything can be precious the first time you're ever called Ma.”

I found evidence of her kindness and caring, of her dreams and aspirations, of her friendship with a Shoshone band that came by regularly, camping out at the stream near her cabin.

The Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne has the beautiful beaded moccasins she had just gotten from her Indian friends the day she was murdered—she kicked them off as she strangled to death at the end of a cowboy's rope. And then I learned about her husband. The Cheyenne papers labeled him her “pimp.” In reality, James Averell was as successful a settler as you'd find—appointed postmaster by President Grover Cleveland, notary public by Wyoming Gov. Thomas Moonlight and a justice of the peace by the Carbon County Board of Commissioners.

When you plough through all the gunk and lies they heaped on this couple, and get down to what really happened, it not only breaks your heart, but you have to agree with former Wyoming Sen. Joseph C. O'Mahoney who suggested her life story should be entitled: “The Homesteaders' Heroine, Cattle Kate, and the Land Grabbers in the West.”

I came to love this woman. To respect her. To admire her. To hurt for her, and in the end, to grieve for her.

There were many times during the writing of this book that I'd say, “Ella, how would you have handled this?” She never actually answered me, but darn if I wouldn't stumble across something that at least gave me a clue.

But I am pretty certain about one thing. One day I wrote, “And now, in the 125th anniversary of her murder, her true story is finally told.” That was supposed to be the last sentence. But then, my fingers added this: “If Ella Watson could, she'd say, 'It's about time'.”'


credit: Lisa Garcia
Jana Bommersbach is one of Arizona's most acclaimed journalists. The Arizona Press Club has recognized her lifetime of achievement with its highest honor: The Distinguished Service Award. And the Society of Professional Journalists have inducted her into the Order of the Silver Key as an "inspiration to the state's media community." She has been Arizona Journalist of the Year and twice was recognized as the nation's top city magazine columnist. Jana is a communications expert who has won accolades in every phase of her career: journalist, author, broadcaster and speaker.  Her debut novel, Cattle Kate, is published today by Poisoned Pen Press in hardcover ($24.95) and trade paperback ($14.95).  Visit her website at www.janabommersbach.com.


  1. I have never heard or read anywhere else before:

    [ " I was reading a historical novel on my mother's garden patio in Hankinson, North Dakota . . . . " ]

    My life revolved around Wahpeton, but Hankinson was part of the orbit, as in the summers of swimming lessons in Lake Elsie.

    The first thing that came to mind with your introductory sentence is a lovely, small history study of the single women who homesteaded in North Dakota. Most of those who had not been widowed, or given over their brother's interest when he / they lost interest, gave the reason for doing so as wanting land of their own. More than one might think their enterprise was supported by, or at least approved of, by their fathers and family.

    The tragic story you tell also inevitably brings to mind Owen Wister's The Virginian, set in the same years in the Wyoming Territory. From that novel -- even without any other information -- one just knows that the powerful Cattlemen Association would not allow her outfit to survive, even with the very acres of grassland and feet of water she had.

    Her story quite puts the lie -- as it if is needed! -- to the fantasy spun by unreconstructed confederate Wister, as to the courtly, chivalrous respect accorded women in the Territory.

    Thank you -- and Sarah -- for this!

    Love, C.

  2. Those ill-understood and often-disregarded women of the past are just waiting for us to revisit them.

  3. This is absolutely fascinating!