Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Kicking Puppies and Kissing Babies; The Life and Death of Peter French

My soon to be released book, Davis: Letters of Fate is set in Harney County, Oregon in 1880. At the time of my story, it's figured eleven families lived in the Harney Valley which at the time was part of Grant County and the closest town with law and supplies was Canyon City just under a hundred miles away. The closest railroad terminal was 200 miles away in Winnemucca, Nevada.

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)
The camp was the most isolated camp of fort in the Army's Pacific Division. Two hundred infantry and cavalry soldiers called it home. It was a large facility, and as such, had barracks as well as a settler's store, commissary, sawmill, blacksmith shop, hospital, laundry, bakery and ice house.

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.


Rain Trueax said...

Yeah but he killed him right before Christmas when French wasn't carrying a gun. The big ranchers had often swallowed the little ones and it wasn't hard to see how the local feelings would let Oliver off. That happened a fair amount in the West or the other way around and hung someone to get rid of them.

We were at the round barn in '13 which was cool as the first photos I have of us there were in the '70s with our little kids :)

Paty Jager said...

I don't condone what happened to Peter French, just stating the facts and what led to his death. True, he wasn't armed, but he did antagonize a man he had threatened before. And with no one else in hearing range of what happened. Who knows what kind of threat Peter French could have made to Oliver. Many in the county had seen his cruelty. no one knows what happened other than French and Oliver.

We take all our visitors to the round barn it is an interesting piece of architecture.

Thanks for commenting!

Rain said...

It kind of reminds of the stories about Tombstone and the Earps for how the men are seen. Have you read, Cattle Country of Peter French by Giles French? I don't know if it's still out there but makes French's murderer less a heroic figure. It also makes the case for French being a hard man in a time that demanded that. Hero or villain depends on who you read or listen to. At any rate, it's an interesting story with a less than happy ending which is why fictional versions make a person feel a lot better when done reading ;). Good luck with your book set in that region as it's a part of Oregon I much love to spend time, just a long way from my part.

Genene Valleau, writing as Genie Gabriel said...

Looks like a new type of book for you? Seems appropriate with all the research you do. Hope this book does well!


Paty Jager said...

Rain, I agree. It depends on the book you read as to how Peter French is portrayed. I'm not saying he's one of the other, I show him in my book as being both but he is the the external conflict in my story.

Genene, Thanks for stopping by! It's not to far from what I normally write, but enough to make it a shiny new project! ;)

Jacqueline Keeler said...

The way you describe the Bannock Wars is incredibly racist. That was horrific what happened. The tribes were treated horrifically and none of it was legal under international law. The local Paiute did not participate but were stripped of their reservation and force marched--some chained together in leg irons--in foot high snow to the Yakama Reservation in Washington state. Many died and when those who survived returned they had lost their lands and had to live in the dump outside Burns.

Paty Jager said...

Jacqueline, I agree, all American Indians were treated wrongly. This was a generalization of what had happened that was used to show the history of the area in this post. If you read many of my other blog posts and my books you will see I sympathize with the American Indian and write my books to show how unjustly they were treated. Thank you for your comment and instructing readers about the way it was for the First People of this land.