When war raged on the range
In the early 1900s, as farmers sowed wheat in the fields of bucolic Yamhill Valley, the picture east of the Cascades was vastly different.
East of those mountains, war simmered, and the resulting Range Wars, lasting from 1902 to 1906, were said to be “unique in the history of the west in ferocity and loss of livestock.”
This feud between cattlemen and sheepmen had long smoldered. They fought over uncontrolled rangeland: rangeland such as Ochoco’s open pine country where grass grew high and water was ample. This war over grazing rights resulted in the massacre of more than 10,000 animals. Haystacks were torched, sheep sheds burned. One man’s death was attributable to the conflict.
Yamhill County settlers were lucky. Range Wars were not a concern. The Willamette Valley area was well suited for crops quite different from east of the mountains where land was especially suitable for raising horses, cattle and sheep.
So numerous were the pioneers who opted for land in Yamhill County during 1843 and 1844 that the county was dubbed, “Yamhill, Mother of Oregon.” “Dictionary of Oregon History” notes, “‘Yamhill Against the World’ was the slogan adopted by these hardy pioneers and was based on the high quality of farm produce exhibited at early state fairs and national expositions.”
Although settlement east of the mountains was slower, with the coming of more settlers, the number of cattle rapidly increased in the 1860s, and huge spreads began to result. The domain of Peter French, in the late 1880s, encompassed more than 100,000 acres; 30,000 head of cattle; 3,000 horses and mules; 500 miles of wire fencing.
John S. Devine and Henry Miller likewise owned large spreads, as did William Hanley whose several ranches at one time totaled almost 25,000 acres. From the gate of his Double O Ranch to his front door was eight miles.
When cattle and sheep were forced to share this grazing land, the uncontrolled area spelled trouble.
Cattlemen said the sheep overgrazed and destroyed the range; cattle would not graze on land over which sheep had passed. They claimed that sheep pulled up grasses and other plants and ruined native bunchgrass.
Come spring, when weather moderated and grass was sufficiently high, thousands of cattle and hundreds of thousands of sheep were trailed to the high mountains. Mostly the cattle were from Wasco, Crook, Gilliam, Sherman, Morrow, Lake and Harney counties.
In an attempt to cut off competition, wily cattle ranchers often bought up water sources and fenced them to keep out smaller operators.
The lower-elevation range was traditionally cattle country, but sheepmen thought it unfair that cattlemen excluded them from public lands, and controlled water sources.
Eastern Oregon’s cattle business was fashioned much like the Mexican model in California. Cowboys were called buckaroos — a term derived from the Mexican vaquero. A mixture of Basque and Irish generally comprised the sheep businesses, and these varied ethnicities likewise feuded — especially in neighborhood saloons.
In 1902, the war erupted with cattlemen’s attempts to exclude sheep from the lower-elevation grazing. According to “East of the Cascades” by Phil F. Brogan, skirmishes had erupted even earlier. In the late 1890s, came hints of battles to come when Grant County cattlemen formed Izee Sheep Shooters, a paramilitary group. Its members later helped organize a second such group: Crook County Sheep Shooting Association. Goal of the groups: eliminate sheep — and anyone who tried to stop them. Of the more than 10,000 sheep massacred between 1895 and 1906, the greatest number of killings was near the Crook-Lake County lines.
Identity of members and leaders of the Sheep Shooter groups was as secret as those of the Ku Klux Klan. Method of “attack:” capture herders and camp tenders, blindfold them, tie them to fence post or tree — and proceed with the sheep kill. The surprise attacks usually were early dawn or evening. Sheep were shot or clubbed and sometimes driven over cliffs.
Sheep Shooter “bylaws” minced no words: Their mission was kill sheep. If necessary, shoot herder or camp tender; bury victim where he fell. If a Sheep Shooter was killed, he was to be brought home for burial but nothing was to be said about how he met death. If any association member was brought to trial for sheep killing, other members must go on the witness stand and swear to lies to obtain acquittal.
In addition to burning haystacks and sheep sheds, pressure was brought to prevent sale of hay to sheepmen. “East of Cascades” notes that one Wheeler County sheepman lost many sheep one winter because the rancher who was to provide him with hay had been threatened.
Sheep Shooters posted “boundaries” that sheep were not to cross, and if they did so, would face slaughter. Herders also faced possible death. Boundaries were indicated by “blazes” on trees — large “saddle blanket” type blazes, which half a century later, could still be seen on pine trees in Central Oregon.
Probably the bloodiest battle of the Range Wars was in July 1903 near the Crook-Lake line, when 2,400 of a band of 2,700 sheep were killed.
In an attack in May 1904 in Lake County, masked men attacked the herd of Parker & Green stock firm, and most of a band of 2,200 sheep were driven over a steep cliff. Those not killed when they plunged to death on the rocks were shot.
Resolution of the War came finally in April 1906, when a Prineville forest supervisor received from a Washington, D. C., national forester, provisions for allotments and grazing permits. At a Canyon City meeting Nov. 15, 1906, forest officials assigned each stockman who had prior history of grazing in the Blue Mountains an allotment for summer range on Federal Reserve land. Maps were provided showing clearly marked boundaries.
But, long, long after the Range Wars ended, bleaching bones of massacred sheep marked the killing sites.
West of the mountains, in the Yamhill Valley, farmers sowed and harvested their wheat, and all was well. No whitening bones from Range Wars were anywhere to be seen.
Elaine Rohse can be reached at email@example.com.