Hanged Woman's Treasure

By Ben Townsend
From page 14 of the April, 1976 issue of Lost Treasure
Copyright © April, 1976 Lost Treasure, Inc. all rights reserved

Sandy-haired Ella Watson and her lover, Postmaster Jim Averill, were hanged in a gulch near the old Bothwell Ranch in the Sweetwater River country of Wyoming one summer's day in 1899. They met their fate under mysterious circumstances. Whether the lynching was intentional or not is still debated among Wyoming cattlemen.

However, no one disputes that with their deaths no one remained who knew where the pair had cached $10,000 to $50,000 in gold and silver, which they had accumulated from stolen cattle deals.

The valuable caches have lured treasure hunters over the years, but not one is known to have been uncovered. No one can begin to estimate how much the gold and silver coins would bring if found today. They would be worth many times their original value.

After the hangings, Sweetwater Valley swarmed with persons hunt-ing the treasure. Interest heightened a few weeks later when Ella's father, Tom Watson, and his brother drove up in a wagon from their farm in Smith County, Kansas.

The Watson brothers were rumored to know where the caches were. It was said that 28-year-old Ella, shortly before being hanged, had written her father providing directions to the caches. No one knows whether the Watsons actually knew the hiding places. If they did, they never got to recover the loot. They found the local men bristling towards them. When they were told they were in danger if they stayed around, they got back in their wagon and returned to Kansas. They never visited the area again and, after a few years, the hunt for the treasure was forsaken by most. Over the years it has been almost forgotten.

The caches started piling up in 1885, when Jim Averill made his first appearance in the Bothwell Ranch area, riding in on a spent dun mare, his clothes caked with dirt. Averill spent several days scouting around. Railroads were pushing in and the wide range country was filling up with fat cattle. He figured it was the ideal place for starting a rustling operation.

Averill built a plank shanty. Running a partition through the center, one side became a saloon, the other his sleeping quarters. At the back of the shanty, he built a small corral to hold the cattle he expected to rustle.

The saloon was the only one within miles. Soon it was doing a big business from thirsty, free-spending cowpokes. Many were small-time cattle thieves preying off the herds of big ranchers.

Averill made deals with them to take the stolen critters off their hands. They started driving the animals to his corral. When he had a sizeable herd, they were driven to the railroad and sold.

Averill was soon prospering, but he always feared the cattlemen might get wind of his operation and decide to check his corral. He needed a respectable front and set out to get it.

Riding to Cheyenne, Averill met with leaders of the Democratic Party. When he departed a few days later, the Democrats had seen
to it that he had the job of postmaster. He divided the saloon with another partition and was soon selling stamps and dispatching mail.

About the time Averill became postmaster, so many head of stolen cattle were arriving that he decided to take in a partner and move the animals away from his business.

Averill had heard of Ella Watson from his saloon customers. She had run away from her farm home in Kansas when in her teens. Roving the west, she was soon known as a crack shot with a six-shooter. Her hands were in many shady deals, from rolling drunken cowhands to stealing cattle.

"She's a good looker, cept she guzzles so much whiskey she's gettin on the beefy side, specially round the hips," a drifter told Averill.

That concerned the postmaster not in the least. Knowing from first hand experience how slow the mail was, Averill gave a drifter $10 to ride over to Casper and deliver a letter to her. Shortly, she and Averill were nailing up a cabin with a big corral about a mile from his saloon and post office. When it was finished, Ella settled in.

Henceforth cowhands dropped of the stolen cattle at Ella's place. When the corral was filled, Ella drove them to the railheads and pocketed the fat profits. Out of the proceeds, she and the post-master kept only enough for their everyday needs. The rest was cached, supposedly near Ella's cabin, for the day they would pull out for new territory. When that day came they expected to take a fortune with them.

The afternoon of July 20, 1899, was warm. Ella had propped open the cabin door with a rock to let in any stray breeze. She sent a 14-year-old boy who was helping with the chores to the well for a bucket of drinking water.

All of a sudden, Ella heard a racket outside. She ran to the door in time to see a wagon with two men on the seat and four horsemen come crashing through her gate. A cloud of dust whirled up behind them as they galloped towards the cabin.

"That sure ain't no way to come callin'!" Ella yelled at them.

"We ain't visitin'," a rider replied curtly. He dropped the reins and got off his horse.

"What you here for then?" Ella asked as he approached.

"We came to take back our cattle. Them beefs in your corral is ours," another rider said.

"Like hell they are!" Ella spat. "You ain't touchin them critters!"

She ran inside and snatched a six-shooter hanging in its holster from a chair. Two cattlemen grabbed her and took the pistol away before she got it cocked.

At the well, the 14-year-old boy heard the commotion. He watched horrified as the cattlemen smashed the gate and raced to the cabin.

Setting the bucket down, he sprinted to the barn and saddled a horse. Walking it several hundred feet away from the cabin so as not to be heard, he leaped in the saddle and raced off to find Frank Buchanan, one of the rustlers who supplied Ella with stolen animals.

Tears were in the lad's eyes when he found Buchanan.

"They're gonna hang her, Frank!" he cried. "I know they are. I seen the ropes in their hands."

Buchanan buckled on a pair of pistols and picked up his Winches-ter. "Come on. We'll see what we can do," he said, and they galloped off towards Ella's place.

When Ella was disarmed, one of the cattlemen pushed her down into a chair.
"We don't want to have to do nothin' drastic," he told her. "You say them critters out back are yours?"

"Mine and Jim's," she said.

"Then you show us the bill of sale," the cattlemen demanded. Ella paled visibly.

One of the men came in the back way. "Every one of them beefs got our brand on 'em," he said.

The cattlemen grabbed Ella by the arms and walked towards the door with her.

"Hold on!" the woman exclaimed. "Give me time to straighten up be-fore we go into town. I want to put on a clean dress."

The cattlemen laughed.

"You're dressed good enough for where we're haulin' you," one of them said.

They pushed her up on the wagon seat and rode out the broken gate toward Averill's place, arriving just as he was riding out on the way to Casper. The cattlemen drew their pistols on him and he meekly climbed into the wagon. It lumbered off down the Sweetwater road.

After a few miles the cattlemen halted. Leaving Averill and Ella in the wagon, they went off a ways and spoke in low tones. After a few minutes, one of the men rode up to the wagon. He said the group had decided to let them go if they'd dig up the caches, pay for the cattlemen's losses, and then leave the area before nightfall.

"Go to hell," Averill snorted.

"Your choice," the man said. They rode single file down the road. Before long they halted again, offering the pair their freedom. Again they refused.

A short distance farther, they left the road and turned into a rugged gulch. Two of the men uncoiled their ropes and shot them over the limb of a large cottonwood tree.

Ella and Averill watched silently as they fashioned two nooses. Averill edged closer to Ella.

"Theyre bluffin'," he said. "Don't give in. When they see we won't talk, they'll turn us loose. They ain't got a shred of proof."

Ellas eyebrows arched. "No proof!" she exclaimed. "They seen their brands on every one of them critters in the corral." She glanced at the nooses in the cattlemen's hands. "Anyway, they don't need none."

She turned to the cattlemen. "I hope you'll be gentlemen enough to tie my skirts before you hang me."

While one placed the nooses around their necks, another took a short piece of rope and tied it around Ella's dress, just above the ankles.

"How's that, Ella?" he asked.

Ella glared at him. "A fittin way for a woman to hang," she said.

The men backed off from the wagon again. After a whispered huddle, one of them spoke. "One last chance," he said. "You willin' to cooperate?"

Averill turned and faced Ella. She shook her head. "They ain't about to hang us," she whispered.

"I ain't so sure no more," Averill said.

Edging the bluff was a dense thicket of trees and large boulders. Frank Buchanan and the boy crept through the thicket until they could see Ella and Averill standing on the wagon, the nooses around their necks. Off to one side the cattlemen stood conversing.

Up ahead was a fallen tree. Buchanan and the boy quietly made their way to it, then spread out on their bellies behind it. Buchanan placed the barrel of the Winchester on the dead tree and sighted down it.

The cattlemen broke up and started to the wagon. Buchanan squeezed the trigger. What happened next is not known. Some say the team bolted, jerking the wagon out from under Ella and Averill. Others claim that, upon being shot at, several of the cattlemen shoved the pair off the wagon to their deaths.

Scattering for whatever offered protection, the posse began firing into the clump of trees. When no answering fire came, they combed through the thicket without finding any trace of Buchanan or the boy.

On the way back, the cattlemen stopped at Averill's place. They searched for the caches inside and outside the building. Their efforts yielded nothing.

Riding on to Ella's spread, they conducted a thorough search with-out luck. Breaking down the corral gate, they drove the cattle back to their ranches.

Later, the cattlemen were brought to trial for the hanging. Those who could have testified had vanished. The boy had died, many believe from being poisoned. Others were found drygulched, their vests riddled with bullet holes.

The cattlemen were freed, the charges against them dismissed.

For many months they continued to search for the caches. They were never successful. But a modern treasure hunter with good equipment just might discover some or all of the fabulous loot.