About an hour down the road from Powell, I officially became a news writer, joining the small staff of the local paper. It is actually among the oldest newspapers in Wyoming, and it has a rather strange name: the Basin Republican Rustler.
Why would anyone put the nouns Republican and Rustler together and print it at the top of the front page of his or her newspaper? Rustlers, after all, are unsavory characters who run around swiping other people’s cattle. One might think that the person who named the newspaper didn’t like Republicans, and put that name on the publication as a not-so-subtle comment on what he thought of them; maybe he actually knew some Republicans who were rustlers. Besides, the two-word phrase Republican Rustler does roll smoothly off the tongue.
In fact, the Rustler half of the newspaper dates back to 1889, making it the first newspaper in the Big Horn Basin. It was first published in a place called Bonanza, about halfway between Manderson and Hyattville. The paper was then printed in Hyattville until 1900, when it moved to Basin.
Why was the paper called the Rustler? Well, those were the days when people actually did rustle cattle, and the big cattle ranches of the day thought it was out of hand. These big ranches — some of them owned by distant interests in the East or even in Europe — were united in the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, based in Cheyenne, which had a great deal of influence in the Republican party and, consequently, in the state government.
The association set out to stop rustling and other crimes they felt the smaller cattlemen were committing. They hired range detectives, like the infamous Tom Horn, to deal with the problem, and these men were not above lynching or assassinating “rustlers” without trials.
The people who published the Rustler were apparently sympathetic to the small ranchers when they chose the name, so they followed the example of the American colonists during the Revolutionary War. When the British insulted those early Americans by calling them Yankees, the Americans adopted the name and the even more insulting song that went with it as their own. Similarly, the small ranchers, and the newspaper that sympathized with them, probably figured that if the big ranchers kept calling them rustlers, they would adopt the name and use it proudly.
The violence between the two sides hit its peak in 1892, when the Cattlemen’s Association got up an army and invaded Johnson County, which they thought was mostly a nest of rustlers. They planned to lynch or assassinate every “rustler” they found without the nicety of fair trials and make the state safe for big ranchers. They did ambush a cabin along the way and killed two men, but their 50-man army was met by a defense force of a few hundred from Buffalo, which essentially surrounded them; the governor had to get President Benjamin Harrison to send some troops from the real U.S. Army to rescue them.
Now, this being Wyoming, the government was in the hands of Republicans, who had major support from the Cattlemen’s Association. Somehow, the Republican governor managed to extract the invaders from Johnson County, and none of them were ever charged for their crime.
There is one interesting detail in this story. Every one of the 50 invaders was a Republican. The posse that surrounded and laid siege to them were all Democrats. This explains why that little newspaper on the other, western side of the Bighorn Mountains called the Basin Rustler was firmly aligned with the Democrats.
In 1905, somebody decided that Basin needed an alternative voice and founded a new paper, the Basin Republican. Four years later, a few cattlemen attacked a sheep camp near Ten Sleep. They killed three men who were attending to the herd, kidnapped s couple of others and shot all the herd dogs and a large number of sheep. The resulting trials took place in Basin, where the Rustler and the Republican issued competing stories about the event.
After that, though, the range warfare declined and peace reigned. The two newspapers continued to compete until 1928, when they merged. The paper continues to be published from the same building the Rustler moved into in 1924.
Today, few newspapers reveal their biases in their names, but many Americans detect those biases anyway. Most Americans today say they want the news media to provide fair, unbiased reporting of the news, but I don’t think they really do. Everyone is biased in some way, but we only notice bias in the news when it conflicts with our own bias. If you’re a liberal, you probably like your news with a liberal bias, and conservatives are the same.
Most reputable newspapers try to provide fair, unbiased news coverage, but all of them have a point of view. That’s why they publish editorials, endorse candidates and urge votes in support or opposition on ballot issues. They publish columnists with a variety of views, and probably accept and print letters from those who don’t like the positions contained in the editorials or the reporting. That’s what makes them fair and unbiased
If you want balanced news then, my advice is that you read everything a newspaper prints on the issues of the day — even the columnists who present ideas you oppose. Chances are you will find some bias in all that reading, but if you read all of it, you’ll be a fair, balanced reader.
You might even change your mind about something.
(Editor’s note: Much more detailed information about the events covered in the column is available at www.wyohistory.com, which the columnist used to make sure he had his facts straight.)