Mrs. Velma Johnston typed letters, filed carbon copies, and answered the cellphone at the insurance coverage workplace exactly where she worked as a secretary. She dressed conservatively, smiled usually, and spoke kindly. She sat with excellent posture, as excellent as she was ready, as extended as she could.

Her husband Charlie drove her to operate every day by means of the dun-colored hills of Virginia City, Nevada. From her window, she could see some of the handful of wild horses that nevertheless ran free of charge.

1 day in 1950, Velma looked ahead at a truck they followed by means of the hills. When they grew shut, Velma gasped. Blood ran from truck and dripped on the street. Wild horses had been gathered violently and crammed in the bed. Mares and studs had trampled a yearling beneath their hooves. The truck turned, and headed out of town towards a cannery, exactly where wild horses have been purchased for a handful of cents a pound and killed for pet meals.

Velma could not breathe. When she received house that day, she started to make cellphone calls. She started to request queries. She discovered out the grisly reality about the mustangs and what would occur to them subsequent. She resolved to place an finish to the slaughter, nevertheless she could. She would battle for the dignity of wild horses from that day, for the rest of her lifestyle, from her county seat, to the Nevada state Capitol, then lastly, to Washington, D.C.

This is the story of how Velma Bronn Johnston grew to become Wild Horse Annie.

Velma Bronn Johnston (Alternate crop, Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Velma Bronn Johnston (Alternate crop, Denver Public Library, Western Historical past/Genealogy assortment)

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Mustengos when roamed the higher plains in the hundreds of thousands, in herds of a handful of dozen, or as handful of as a handful, a manada. They ate native grass, trampled their native dun-colored hills. They ran free of charge. 

Stallions led harems of mares until finally they misplaced management. Youthful horses challenged them when they grew previous. They fought bitterly with hooves and teeth until finally 1 gave up, or died.

Smaller sized than draft horses and Percherons, thicker than Arabians, the scrappy survivors had descended from domesticated horses left behind by Spanish colonial armies and American colonial settlers. They doubled and trebled until finally their herds painted swaths across the West in a rainbow of earth colours, gray and brown, spotted and buckskin.

In the 1800s they swarmed across lightly populated territories, but as individuals plains have been settled and planted, new herds of livestock displaced the horses. Cattle required the grasslands to thrive and to feed settlers. They took the spot of the mustangs, and ranchers took the mustangs in flip.

The wild horses of a romantically rendered, bygone era have been broken and place to operate by miners, homesteaders, sharecroppers, and dairy farmers. They have been free of charge for the taking. They have been excellent at operate. The mustangs had lived in challenging scrubland and could select their way by means of rough terrain. They could travel for miles with small or no water. They could survive on small meals. They have been sensible adequate to anticipate cattle movements, and cowboys could count on them to support with the lonesome, tiring operate of roundups.

A population of much more than two million wild horses fell to twenty,000 ahead of Planet War II. These left behind retreated to the most remote stretches of the Nevada desert. They have been underfed, scrawny. They have been misfits.

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Velma Bronn Johnston, Wild Horse Annie (Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Velma Bronn Johnston, Wild Horse Annie (Denver Public Library, Western Historical past/Genealogy assortment)

Joseph Bronn practically starved on the extended journey his loved ones manufactured from Nebraska to California in a covered wagon. The loved ones ran out of meals when they reached the Nevada desert. Bronn’s father killed a mare that had just provided birth, and gave its milk to his son.

Bronn thrived, and grew up to ranch loved ones land in California. He and his wife raised a loved ones on it. They welcomed Velma on March five, 1912, then 3 much more kids. 

The loved ones lived an idyllic farm lifestyle, Velma later on recalled, but her childhood ended cruelly when she contracted polio in 1923. The loved ones rushed her to San Francisco in the hope of a remedy. The medical doctors wrapped her in a cast from her waist in excess of the prime of her head, and left her in it for 6 months. She broke out in tears when medical doctors lower the cast away. Her head had grown distorted. Her chin had receded. Her jaw muscle tissue had pulled to the appropriate. Her appropriate eye had risen larger than the left.

She came house to a fully distinct entire body, and to a fully transformed lifestyle. Although gone, her brother died of polio, and her father had moved the loved ones from California to a Nevada ranch. To ease her recovery, her father gave her a horse, which she named Hobo.

When Velma went to college, kids teased her due to the fact of her appears. She steeled herself and turned their insults into an chance. She asked them to perform, and her classmates stated yes. Individuals stared, and she knew how she looked to them, but she often smiled—and they smiled back.

Velma grew up, and left house, for a although. She married a strapping Native American guy, Charlie Johnston. At six-feet-four and 225 lbs, he was her opposite. He bore a sturdy resemblance to John Wayne. He assisted her run the Lazy Heart Ranch that belonged to her dad and mom. Quickly the younger couple purchased the ranch and renamed it: the Double Lazy Heart Ranch. 

Even though they had none of their personal, the Johnstons took in kids and immersed them the attractiveness of nature. They taught them how to trip, although Velma chain-smoked menthol cigarettes, and smiled her broad, crooked, welcoming smile.

* * *

A mustang can survive on small meals and small water, but it can’t survive the worst of males.

Ranchers broke mustangs and place them to operate, but even then, the horses expense funds. Farm machinery could do much more operate and could do it much more cheaply. The horses had been trusted allies but they grew to become a nuisance.

In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act opened up Bureau of Land Management lands to livestock grazing. For pennies, ranchers could allow their livestock roam free of charge on public land. Cattle and horse now competed for the very same meals. Ranchers complained the horses killed grasses although they rooted for winter meals. They broke fences. When they stampeded, they spooked cattle and undid a extended day of roundups.

The mutts of the horse globe, mustangs weren’t wild animals, not by the letter of the law. They have been feral, reverted from individuals domesticated horses when they have been abandoned. Other species fell beneath protective custody the horses have been left vulnerable.

Initial, ranchers experimented with to starve the horses. They fenced off 1000’s of miles of selection, and prevented the mustangs from reaching water and meals. Then they started to destroy them. They rustled them in cruel jags. They chased the horses into canyons and dry lake beds. Horses broke legs as they scrambled. Cowboys lassoed them and tied them to truck tires to exhaust them. They bound their legs and dragged them on trucks, and stripped their hides in haste.

The colts suffered the worst. Separated from their mares, usually the colts have been crushed in the stampede as ranchers fired at them from trucks and airplanes. Typically, the colts have been merely abandoned. They have been tiny, and wouldn’t deliver much more than a handful of cents at slaughter.

The cowboys offered the horses to canneries, exactly where meat fetched up to ten cents a pound. In 1 fell swoop, the ranchers eradicated a nuisance horse, gave cattle much more meals, and took house $50. Some ranchers could collect a hundred horses or much more a day. 

Even cowboys who profited from the violent trade expressed remorse.

“I know it is a sing and a shame for anyone who likes horses to run them mustangs,” 1 Nevada hunter informed Newsweek magazine in 1963. “A dude girl when stated to me why did not I get an trustworthy work stealing cattle, but somebody’s going to get that funds, and it may as properly be me.”

A lot more dead than alive, Velma stated as she recoiled, when she described the bleeding horses she noticed that day in 1950. They have been victims, she stated, of unbelievably brutal treatment method. Some of the horses in the back of the truck had stayed on their legs only due to the fact they have been crammed in so tightly. 1 horse’s eyes had been shot out.

Their story grew to become her stump speech as she campaigned for regional, then state, then federal safety of wild horses and burros. 

In June 1952 she discovered the BLM had provided permission to pilots to drive horses off a selection south of her Double Lazy Heart Ranch. She organized a protest at a commissioner meeting of Storey County. She and other individuals stood up towards a sheep operator, a rendering operates official, and BLM personnel. She questioned them, refuted their arguments, took them on in heated exchange—and won. Storey County grew to become the initial county in Nevada to outlaw roundups of mustangs and burros by airplanes and helicopters.

The polite secretary had turn out to be an activist. From that minute, the fate of the mustang fell into her hands.

* * *

Wild horses (Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Wild horses (Denver Public Library, Western Historical past/Genealogy assortment)

Velma Johnston stood ahead of Congress in 1959. In the days ahead of she entered the stately committee space, males had greeted her and wished her luck. Senators and congressmen, cabbies and elevator operators, newsboys, pageboys, and clerks.

The papers referred to as her Mrs., and referred to as her slender and demure. They place her nickname, Wild Horse Annie, in estimates. They underestimated her.

In the 9 many years given that she initial noticed wild horses on the way to slaughter, she had turned their plight into a result in and had turn out to be their voice. With typewriter and ribbon, she initial papered the Nevada papers and polled Nevada politicians. She contacted each member of the state legislature and explained how horses have been handled when they have been captured. She contacted riding groups, humane organizations, citizens, and buddies.

She demanded a statewide safety bill. 1 law guy snorted at her efforts and catcalled her “Wild Horse Annie.” The nickname caught.

In 1955, the Nevada Legislature manufactured it unlawful to destroy, harass, or molest any animal from aircraft, some game animals excepted. The crime could finish in a $500 fine or 6 months in jail. The bill did not avoid acts on federal lands, even though, and given that most of Nevada fell beneath federal management, Johnston turned her sights to Washington. She started a kitchen campaign: She and Charlie wrote letters at house, and asked colleges to get college students to create to Congress, to defeat the “mustangers.”

Hundreds of thousands study her story, and heard her message in Reader’s Digest, and in The Denver Submit.

“We are making an attempt to avoid an additional mass extermination,” she informed the paper, in sharp phrases that additional to the stampede of mail. “These animals are getting brutally annihilated. These that are left should be protected ahead of it is as well late.”

By the late 1950s, most Western states had outlawed mustang hunting on state lands. Velma had set her sights on Congress. She demanded, and received, meetings with Nevada Rep. Walter Baring and Sen. Howard Cannon, an previous mustang breaker. 

On Monday, July 27, 1959, she manufactured her way to Washington D.C. for a Residence Judiciary Committee subcommittee meeting on no matter whether Congress need to restrict mechanized pursuit on public lands took spot.

In two hrs of testimony, Velma informed the subcommittee how the horses have been roped, injured, abused, slaughtered. How she had documented it all with a camera although her husband watched close by with a loaded gun as 4 males experimented with to rope a herd into a truck for slaughter.

“I turned the camera towards the 4 males getting ready to load the animals, and they piled into their automobile as even though I had pointed a machine gun at them,” she testified. “Heading their automobile straight towards our car, they veered off just inches from our bumper when they have been faced by my husband armed with a .38…these males meant organization, and so did I.”

She informed the subcommittee of fiercely proud and gorgeous animals that had been decimated, virtually driven from the encounter of the earth. Public land shouldn’t be the province of wealthy, properly-linked ranchers, she stated. It belonged to all Americans.

When she informed the committee how the mustang stood for America, they stood in silent deference.

”The mustang does not belong just to Nevada. He is a symbol of freedom for all. He is our American heritage, as meaningful to us as the battlefield at Yorktown or the white church at Lexington. Even much more so, due to the fact he is a residing symbol.”

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Velma Bronn Johnston with children (Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Velma Bronn Johnston with kids (Denver Public Library, Western Historical past/Genealogy assortment)


Velma took on mustangers in Washington, and won. On Sept. eight, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed HR 2725. It prohibited motorized pursuit of wild horses and burros, and pollution of water holes on public land. An exception carved out a spot for humane kills, when the mustang population grew as well huge. 

That week, newspaper wires across the nation spread the legend of Wild Horse Annie. Her encounter appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Herald, in tiny-town papers in desert California and Idaho, and in the industrial heartland, in the Detroit Information.

Her legend grew. As it did, Velma Johnston grew to become conscious of how she appeared in public. The game display “To Inform The Truth” invited her as a guest and asked for a photograph. She sent 1. The display canceled her.

At 1 level Annie experimented with to get a photograph she would like. The kids knew her actions as gorgeous, but she desired 1, just 1 photograph, that softened her cheeks, set her eyes evenly, and showed much more than the hint of chin her cruel polio cast had left behind. She wrote a photographer that she desired to be noticed as gorgeous to much more men and women than just her husband Charlie, who had died of emphysema as Velma started to comprehend her operate may never ever be accomplished.

Wild Horse Annie had won a round, but it would be hard to defend the 1959 law. Wild horse captures ground to a halt for a although, until finally ranchers discovered approaches to get about the law. They mingled their horses with wild horses, and claimed them all. They set traps that drew in wild horses beneath the cover of evening. The exception left in the initial federal law widened to a loophole.

By the mid-1960s, Velma shifted her campaign to a battle for federal safety for wild horses and burros that would forbid any harm. Even though Charlie no longer sat across from her at the kitchen table, she never ever stopped creating letters. She relied on vigilant citizens to report mustangers across America: a DuPont in Delaware, a sharecropper in Alabama.

She implored 1000’s much more schoolchildren to create their representatives in Washington. In the latter portion of the decade, Congress acquired practically as numerous messages in favor of wild horses as they did letters in protest of the Vietnam War. 

By the flip of the decade, Velma had won yet again, this time with The Wild Cost-free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which referred to as the animals “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” The new federal statute protected the horses and burros from capture, branding, harassment, and slaughter.

Velma’s recognition came in the type of a letter from President Richard Nixon, dated Nov. thirty, 1971: “In these days when we are all concerned with preserving and restoring our normal surroundings,” Nixon wrote, “it is particularly encouraging to note your commitment to conserving these splendid wild animals so that potential generations of Americans could have the pleasure of seeing them roaming free of charge in their normal habitat.”

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Velma Bronn Johnston and Ford Mustang (Denver Public Library, Western History/Genealogy collection)

Velma Bronn Johnston and Ford Mustang (Denver Public Library, Western Historical past/Genealogy assortment)

Mustangs nevertheless lived a lifestyle in limbo, even with federal safety, on ranges established to shield them across the higher plains and Rockies. Their freedom was bounded but their numbers started to expand, as Velma believed they would, as hostile ranchers knew they would. 

In 1974, she acquired a warning from an Idaho vigilante group. She took the risk lightly and hung it on of wall of mementos.

She retired as a secretary, and place individuals abilities to operate with a new group she founded: Wild Horse Organized Support, or WHOA. She served as president of the Global Society for the Safety of Mustangs and Burros. But she no longer had shut speak to with the horses themselves. She’d turn out to be allergic, and broke out in hives about them.

She had lived to comprehend the which means of the dark codicil embedded in the wild horse safety act: The Secretary shall result in further extra wild free of charge roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by competent people does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and expense productive method attainable. At some level, the horse and burro population would expand so huge, the herds would have to be culled.

Velma died from cancer on June 27, 1977.

A lot more than any other individual, Velma manufactured the mustang resonate with readers of the Sunday paper, with congressmen on the way house to their districts, with kids in creating class in principal college. It is unimaginable that the story of the mustang did not resonate with the designers and marketers of a new automobile particularly aimed at girls, at secretaries like Velma Bronn Johnston. Or with the men and women they polled and asked to select from a record of names for the new automobile: Torino, Allegro, Cougar. Mustang.

Of program they chose Mustang. They have been grown-ups by then, but they have been nevertheless boys and ladies raised on the legend of Wild Horse Annie. Poems and odes weren’t getting written about cougars, following all.

Velma Bronn Johnston had noticed the the spirit of a bygone era dying in the back of a truck, and rescued it. She revived the mythology of a Wild West that was no longer so wild. Wild Horse Annie wrote her personal legend—a legend that takes place to be correct.


For much more, read “Wild Horse Annie : Velma Johnston and Her Battle to Conserve the Mustang” by A. J. Kania, and “Wild Horse Annie and the Final of the Mustangs” by David Cruise and Allison Griffiths. Photographs courtesy the Denver Public Library’s Western Historical past/Genealogy assortment. 


For two months, Motor Authority crisscrossed the U.S. in an automotive icon looking for stories about the Ford Mustang’s spot in American historical past. These are our stories from the street about its owners, its historical past, and its standing as an evolving symbol of our partnership with autos in America.