The Story of Nate Champion

Courage under fire.
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Courage under fire.
Nate Champion (left) with other Wyoming ranchers.

Nate Champion (left) with other Wyoming ranchers.

On a raw, rainy pre-dawn April morning in 1892, some 50 armed men—wealthy members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and their cadre of hired killers—surrounded the small cabin of Nate Champion’s KC Ranch. Champion’s name, and that of his partner, Nick Ray, topped a death list that the small army carried when they invaded Johnson County the day before. Ostensibly, they were on a mission to eliminate rustlers; the list, however, included small ranchers, everyday citizens, and the county sheriff—essentially, anyone whom they considered “undesirable.” And while Nate might not have been a rustler, he was the unofficial spokesman for the small ranchers of the region, and a thorn in the side of the cattle barons. Six of the cattlemen’s hired killers had attempted to ambush him months earlier, but Nate had shot one and driven the others off. 

When Nick walked unsuspecting out of the cabin, he was met with a fusillade from the stable, 75 yards away. He fell mortally wounded, whereupon Nate, Winchester in hand, bolted out of the cabin, seized his friend’s collar, and dragged him inside while firing back at the gunmen. Thus began a siege that lasted nearly the entire day, pitting one lone man against 50. It was, perhaps, the most unique siege in the annals of the West, mainly because Nate Champion—while thousands of rounds turned the inside of the cabin to splinters, and his friend and partner lay dying just a few feet away—had the presence of mind to keep a journal of the event. 

Written in pencil in a little red tally book, it is a remarkable document. It begins matter-of-factly: “Me and Nick Ray was getting breakfast when the attack took place.”

At times, the shelling grew intense: “They are still shooting and are all around the house,” reads one entry. “Boys, there is bullets coming in like hail.” 

Nate saw to his dying friend as best he could—“Nick is shot but not dead yet. I must go and wait on him.”— but there wasn’t much to be done.Miraculously, Nick clung to life for a few hours, but eventually, Nate wrote, “Nick is dead. He died about 9 o’clock.”

Assessing his situation, Champion realized that surrender was not an option, and that his situation was grim, if not hopeless. “I don’t think they intend to let me get away this time.” Yet, only once does he allow his emotions to show.“Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone with me so we could watch all sides at once….It don’t look as if there is much show of my getting away.”

An excellent shot, Nate managed to score a few hits on his attackers, but as the day wore on, they settled on a strategy against which he had no defense. At around 4 p.m., he wrote,

“Well they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I hear them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive.”

However, his attackers had a schedule to keep, and they had already wasted an entire day trying to kill this one man. They would not wait for nightfall. Commandeering a wagon, they loaded it with hay and pine poles, set it alight, and ran it into the cabin wall, beneath the window. Within a short time, the one-room cabin was ablaze, smoke billowing out of the windows and up through the roof. Resolved to die game, Nate wrote one last entry: “The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.” He signed his full name—Nathan D. Championand tucked the little journal into his vest pocket.

As the house burned, Nate’s attackers assumed he had succumbed. To their surprise, he suddenly dashed out of the burning building, Winchester in hand and Colt revolver in his waistband, and sprinted toward a nearby ravine. He didn’t know that half a dozen gunmen had been waiting there all day, just in the event of such an escape attempt. Nate managed to fire one last round as he fell in a hail of bullets. 

The killers gathered around his body. A reporter whom the cattlemen had brought along took the bloodstained, bullet-pocked notebook from Nate’s pocket, as someone pinned a paper to his chest, reading, “Cattle Thieves, Beware!” One of the leaders of the expedition grudgingly acknowledged, “He came out fighting and died game.” He also managed to keep his killers occupied all day, thereby allowing word of the incursion to reach the town of Buffalo. Hundreds of armed, angry citizens rode out to meet the would-be regulators, stopping the Army of Invasion in its tracks. Champion’s grit and his heroic stand in the face of certain doom saved countless lives, and helped put a swift end to what became known in history as the Johnson County War.