October 29, 2022 | Last updated May 30, 2023

Flashback Friday: Rifle of Cowboy and Gunslinger Mike Shonsey Donated to Nebraska History Museum

Mike Shonsey holding the rifle that was later donated to the Nebraska History Museum. RG4232-5-11

 

The last surviving participant in Wyoming’s 1892 Johnson County “cattle war” was Mike Shonsey, who later died in Clarks, Nebraska. When Shonsey was a child, he moved from Montreal, Canada to Caledonia, Ohio with his parents. This is how Shonsey came into contact with Thomas B. Hord, who started out in the Wyoming range cattle industry and later owned the largest live stock feeding enterprise in the United States. Shonsey worked as a ranch foreman for Hord in Wyoming and played a key role in the cattle war.

In early April of 1892, twenty-four cattlemen accompanied by twenty-five hired Texas gunman, invaded Johnson County to execute the plan of “war.” This episode resulted from an effort by cattle “barons.”  They were affiliated with the Wyoming Stock Grower association to kill or drive out small ranches. Operators who were increasingly moving into ranges where big companies ran big herd were targeted. Mike Shonsey, who had previously worked for Hord and would do so again, was with the invaders when they gunned down two “rustlers” by the name of Nick Ray and Nate Champion.

As the cattleman made their way towards Buffalo, they soon found themselves surrounded by small ranchmen and local lawmen. The cattlemen went to court, but ultimately the case was dropped. In 1893 Shonsey had a deadly encounter with Champion’s brother, Dudley Champion. Dudley wanted to seek revenge on Shonsey for killing his brother. On May 24, 1893 Dudley rode to meet Shonsey. Ultimately, the word had gone out about Champion. Shonsey had his revolver ready. When Dudley reached for his gun, Shonsey fired. Dudley fell from his horse and tried to return fire, but Shonsey fired again. Although some witnesses claim that Dudley had not pulled out a gun, the jury acquitted Shonsey on the grounds of self defense. Knowing he was a marked man,

Shonsey soon moved to Central City, Nebraska, where he became foreman at the feeding station. In 1898 he moved to Clarks to manage the Hord feeding station there. In 1906 Shonsey became a partner in several of the Hord enterprises. By then the wild days of the open range were long gone. In the early twentieth century Hord’s Nebraska enterprises were known for their enormous scale—thirteen feed lots around Central City, annually finishing 10,000 cattle, 10,000 sheep, and 7,000 hogs—and for modern innovations that made Hord’s operation a model of scientific management. In this environment the events of the 1890s were relegated to an increasingly mythologized past.

 

Mike Shonsey’s rifle was recently donated to the Nebraska History Museum.

 

Shonsey’s rifle was recently donated to the Nebraska History Museum, and it serves as a reminder of the “open range” era and of the birth of the modern cattle industry. Jim Potter, late NSHS senior research historian, wrote about Hord and Shonsey in “Thomas B. Hord: From the Open Range to ‘The Largest Live Stock Feeding Enterprise in the United States'” (Nebraska History, Fall 2015). The article received much interest from people with ties to the cattle industry, to Central City, and among Hord and Shonsey descendants, including Michael Shonsey, who recently donated his great-grandfather’s rifle—the one shown in the famous photo—so that it may be preserved as part of the story of that tumultuous era.

— Brittany Hamor, Editorial Assistant, and David Bristow, Nebraska History Editor

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