Into this under-populated area that had marshland and meadows for grazing cattle came Peter French in 1872. French was a man of small stature and depending on who you talked to either a generous, benevolent boss who loved children; or a thieving jack-n-apes; or crazy as a coot because his anger caused him to kick a dog or shoot his gun at someone who angered him. His employees and children loved him. Those who dealt with him in business and trying to homestead didn't like him.
He had the backing and cattle that belonged to Hugh Glenn a businessman in California. First French started a ranch at Roaring Springs, grazing his cattle along the Blitzen River drainage where bunch grass grew up to a man's waist. Eventually he brought his cattle to Harney Basin an eighty mile by eighty mile valley with several lakes. Some lakes are so shallow the water is alkali and not worth drinking but others that are fed by the rivers made a natural watering hole for his cattle.
This area that Peter French brought his cattle to was had nearly three thousand square miles of valleys and range land. French set forth to claim it all for his cattle.
He had the Roaring Springs Ranch at the south end of the valleys, built the P Ranch where the Blitzen River entered the valley floor from the Steens Mountains, and established Sodhouse Ranch at the north end of the valleys.
His vaqueros took care of the cattle and built the miles of wire fences he stretched from one holding ot the next, not bothering to worry that he was fencing in land he didn't own.
On Rattlesnake Creek at the north end of the valley sat Camp Harney and the Malheur Indian Reservation.
|Peter French (photo from Wikipedia)|
As more people wandered into the area trying to make good on the 1870 swamp land act (land qualifying as "swamp" could be purchased at a rate of $1.00-$2.50 an acre.) it found homesteaders crossing French's fences to get to the marshland he had fenced in but didn't own. In some cases, once those that had purchased the swamp land found they couldn't deal with the pressure of French, they sold their land to him for the same price they purchased it. In some cases, local business men purchased the swampland at the low rate and then turned around and sold it to French for a small profit.
The Bannock and Paiutes were tired of the reservation life and started causing trouble in the region. Many locals and army men were killed before the tribes were contained and sent back to the reservation. The P Ranch suffered not only human lives but cattle as well. The Indians slaughter the cattle for food and for revenge.
After the Indians were controlled the cattle industry in the Harney Basin grew. French had 25,000 head of cattle and most of the land they grazed wasn't under title to him or Hugh Glenn.As French grew richer and his cattle herds grew, the homesteaders became more angry with him keeping them from good land with his fences.
After 1880, the time frame of my story Davis, there were nearly fifty homestead claims within the French fence lines. These were claims taken on land that French didn't own but had fenced off. There were court battles and animosity toward Mr. French for twenty-seven years.
In December of 1897, one homesteader had had enough. Edward Oliver crossed French's land to get from his in-laws to his land. He was confronted by Peter French and after a confrontation, he shot French in the head.
Ed Oliver was released on $10,000 bail and local businessmen paid it for him. At the end of the trial the jury found Ed Oliver "..not guilty as charged in the indictment." The case was closed. Peter French was buried in Red Bluff, California.
One of his oldest rivals, David Shirk said this about Peter French. "Thus ended the life of Peter French, a man of many admirable qualities of mind and heart, but whose tyrannical and overbearing temper brought about his own ruin. He lived a live of violence, and by violence he died."
Source:Untamed Land: The Death of Pete French & The End of the Old West by Mark Highberger.