The Killing of Willie Nickell
“I Think the Intention Was To
Get Me In Place Of The Boy”
-Kels Nickell, Willie’s father.
Powers Nickell, Willie’s father, had come to Wyoming
in the mid-1870s, as part of General George C. Crook’s
command. Crook’s force was part of the pincers movement
ordered to entrap Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in the ill?fated
strategy that led to George Armstrong Custer’s defeat
at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876.
Kels P. Nickell
and Mary Mahoney Nickell, Willie’s parents (WY State
|Nickell fought under Crook at the Battle
of the Rosebud in southern Montana, north of Sheridan, Wyoming.
Crook lost the battle, which forced his retreat to the south
just days before Custer’s annihilation.
Confederate Army deserters, guerrillas, had murdered Kels’ father, John
DeSha Nickell, on February 7, 1863, eight years after Kels was born in 1855.
He was killed within earshot of the family on their farm in Licking River, Morgan
County, Kentucky. The killer was John Jackson Nickell, a second cousin, who also
murdered Logan Wilson. Wilson was shot in his bed while recuperating from wounds.
John Jackson Nickell was hanged for the two murders on September 2, 1864, following
Kels’ mother, Priscilla, and his five siblings remained on the farm in
Kentucky for a period until the county circuit court sold it to satisfy a surety
bond the elder Nickell had signed for a county elected official, whose name is
Kels remained in the area and went to work cutting timber that was assembled
into rafts to be floated downstream to sawmills. He married Ann Brown of Greenup
County, Kentucky, in 1873, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1877. One son
was born of the marriage, John DeSha Nickell II, in 1874.
In 1875 he enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry and was assigned to the West. After the
Battle of the Rosebud he was one of two men ordered by Crook to the Little Big
Horn battle site before the dead were buried.
Nickell was counted as part of the force at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in the census
of 1880. After his discharge that year, he moved to Camp Carlin on the northwest
outskirts of Cheyenne, and opened a blacksmith and farm machinery repair shop.
He married Mary Mahoney, an Irish immigrant then 16, in Cheyenne on December
27, 1881. The daughter of a railway construction worker from Cork, Ireland, she
had immigrated to the United States in 1868. Kels was ten years her senior.
The Laramie County Census of 1900, in which the Nickell family was enumerated
at Iron Mountain on June 3 by Hiram G. Davidson, reflected the two parents and
other members of the household:
Nickell had filed a homestead claim, of which he took possession,
in 1885, in the Iron Mountain region. At the same time he filed
for an additional 480 acres of government land, which could be
acquired for $1.25 per acre. Over the course of years, he bought,
sold and filed desert claims (a common way to acquire arid government
tracts by going through the motions of irrigating them) on land
in the area.
Julia, born in 1883
Kels P., junior, born in 1884, whose occupation was a farm laborer
Willie, born in 1887, also a farm laborer
Katie, born in 1889
Alfred (Freddie), born in 1891
Beatrice (Trixie), born in 1892
Maggie, born in 1894
Ida McKinley, a daughter born in 1896
Hiram Harlan, born in 1899.
Nickell was a hothead with an explosive temper, according to
two of his granddaughters who are friends of the author. Testimony
in the coroner’s inquest that followed Willie’s murder
indicated that he was always in some kind of a “jangle.”
The homes he built both in Iron Mountain and later in Encampment,
Wyoming were located close enough to streams to provide his family
with running water, a rare convenience in rural country. The
Iron Mountain home had water piped into it from North Chugwater
Creek, which was a few feet to the south of the structure.
Left, the Nickell
home locale sat in a canyon.
Right, rock formation northwest of where the homestead
sat (author’s photos).
The Nickell family at the
homestead. Willie’s father is not in the photo.
(WY State Archives)
It is incorrect to believe that all homesteaders were barely
literate and not interested in their children’s education.
The Nickell and Miller families worked together to build the
school located about halfway between their homes. Nickell was
concerned for his children’s education, as was manifested
itself in the fact that Kels Jr. was away at a private school
at the time Willie was killed. The father intended to send all
the children to private schools, in order to provide them with
a better education than they could obtain in rural Wyoming.
The prologue that resulted first in the killing of Willie Nickell
on July 18, 1901, and Kels’ wounding on August 4, was the
result of feuds in which Kels had become embroiled as far back
as 1890. On July 23 of that year, he tangled with John Coble
and Coble’s foreman, George Cross, at the western edge
of Nickell’s homestead, over some cattle. He knifed Coble,
seriously wounding him in the abdomen.
Nickell continued to display symptoms of paranoia, manifesting itself in a conviction
that the Iron Mountain people were out to do him in.
The feud was acutely bitter between the Nickell clan and Jim Miller’s,
who lived about a mile south of Nickell. Both fathers and Willie Nickell plus
Gus and Victor Miller, the two older boys, were involved to one degree or another.
Miller had established a homestead in the spring of 1883.
The Miller home as it looked
ca 1900 (author’s photo)
Miller was born in Galena, Illinois in 1855. He was married to
Dora Cora Lemon, who was born in 1864 in Greeley, Colorado. They
had moved from Greeley, where the oldest son, Charles Augustus “Gus”,
was born, in a covered wagon.
After building a log cabin where they lived the first winter,
they established themselves by setting up a sawmill and raising
a few head of stock. Miller sold logs and posts to neighbors
below their homestead, which was at 6,800 feet elevation, such
as the Jordans and Underwoods.
The 1900 census showed that the household consisted of, in addition
to the parents:
Charles Augustus (Gus), born in 1882, described as a farm laborer
Victor Henry, born in 1883, also a farm laborer
Eva Jane, born in 188
Frank, born in 1887
Maude S., born in 1891
Raymond, born in 1893
Ina S., born in 1895
Robert L., born in 1897
Ronald Andrew, born in 1899
Benjamin F., Jim’s brother, who was born in 1858 and was a railroad
One daughter, Bertha May, was born in May 1889 and died of diphtheria when
she was eight or nine years old, in 1898.
Nickell’s disputes, however, were not limited to the Millers
alone. In Tom Horn’s words, the Reed brothers (Joseph and
William, who lived about three miles northeast of Nickell) were “about
the only friends he had.”
The feud with Jim Miller and his boys reached a boiling point a year before Willie
was shot. As the men in the family began carrying guns, a tragedy resulted in
May 1900 from the accidental discharge of a shotgun in Miller’s spring
wagon. It hit 14?year?old Frank Miller in the head, killing him instantly, and
severely injuring Maude. Maude carried buckshot and scars from the incident for
the rest of her life….