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Vigilantes went too far with murder of suspected rustler

VigilantesBy Finn J.D. John

John Hawk’s neighbors had few good things to say about him. Nearly everyone agreed that he was the surliest, most unpleasant man they’d ever met.

That, as much as anything else, was why he was about to die, on a cold, clear, moonlit night by the Lostine River in 1881.

Hawk was 31 years old at the time, a native Oregonian born in 1850. He’d boldly gone deep into Nez Perce tribal lands and staked a claim, rather a dangerous thing to do in the days of Chief Joseph, and started ranching on Prairie Creek, three miles from what is now the town of Joseph. Hawk liked his privacy.

Rumors that Hawk was rustling cattle started fairly quickly, and they seem to have been spread at least in part by his father-in-law, George Richardson — who, along with several other neighbors, went so far as to file theft charges against him in 1877.

Hawk was acquitted of all charges in that case, but most other cattlemen in the area didn’t for a minute believe he was innocent — although historians Jon and Donna Skovlin, having examined what remains of the record, suggest he probably was. In any case, after the trial, hostility toward Hawk became open and blatant.

And he responded in kind. After the trial, a group of other stockmen from the area approached him and told him he needed to leave the area if he knew what was good for him. Furious, he had them all arrested and charged with mob action — although the charges were promptly dismissed.

Of course, it would have been easy enough for Hawk to take the pressure off, simply by giving some assurance that he was not in fact a rustler. This he steadfastly refused to do, apparently on the theory that he shouldn’t have to.

That stubbornness would eventually kill him.

Rustling for Fun and Profit

In the late 1870s, rustling cattle and horses was a great business for those who could get away with it. Typically, rustlers would work in gangs, scouting herds of unattended horses and cattle and simply rounding them up and driving them off to faraway markets where the brands wouldn’t be recognized.

The market for stolen horses and cattle was being driven by the process of settlement on the Great Plains. As the buffalo herds were progressively exterminated, farmers were settling and looking around for livestock with which to outfit their farms. A farmer in Lexington, Nebraska, had no way of knowing if a heifer driven in from eastern Oregon was stolen property or not. And he was willing to pay several times more than an animal sold for at local Eastern Oregon markets.

All over Eastern Oregon, the temptation to become a rustler was becoming a real thing, especially for young men. It was a gang of Wallowa County horse rustlers, on the run from the law after they’d been identified, that perpetrated the 1887 massacre of Chinese miners in Hell’s Canyon, not far from John Hawk’s place.

Rustler predation could mean the difference between surviving a lean year as a rancher, and being put out of business for good. Law enforcement was scant and, as Hawk’s enemies saw it, unreliable; they remained convinced he was a rustler, so his acquittal felt like an injustice to them.

Rustlers cartoon

Suspicions grow

And as the following few years went by, they grew more and more convinced that Hawk was a thief. A tough winter had left their herds noticeably thinned, with many animals simply disappearing; perhaps they were rustled, or maybe they simply froze to death on the winter range and weren’t found, but the ranchers blamed Hawk.

Hawk’s herd, however, was big and growing fast — unnaturally fast. As it later turned out, he’d made an arrangement with one of his few friends that explained it. The friend, Fred Proebstel, was going through a divorce, and wanted to hide some of his assets from the court so that his wife wouldn’t get any of them. The deal the two of them struck was that Proebstel would use the assets to buy a herd of cattle which would bear Hawk’s brand, and the two of them would be able to tell them apart by looking at where on the animal’s rump the brand was placed.

This was soon done. But it caused all kinds of unexpected trouble. From the standpoint of everyone else in the area, it looked like their cattle were somehow getting added to Hawk’s herd, and if they couldn’t figure out how he was doing it, that didn’t shake their confidence that somehow, he was.

Finally a small group of cattlemen decided to take action — to kill John Hawk.

The murder

They started off by trying to find a gunman for hire who would do the job. The going rate for this sort of thing was $500. However, Hawk had forged a fearsome reputation, and although they did eventually find a taker, he subsequently backed out.

That having not worked, they started making plans to catch Hawk en masse. Hawk must have had a friendly ear at the table, though, because every time they got together to talk about killing him, he seemed to show up, hand on the butt of his .44, to call their bluff.

“Hello, gentlemen,” he said on one occasion. “I understand you’re after me. Now while you’re getting me, I’ll get some of you. So cut loose.”

Finally, the conspirators decided they would have to resort to extreme measures to get their man: They’d ambush him.

Their first attempt failed. But finally, on that moonlit night, they followed Hawk to his camp on the Lostine River. After Hawk had settled into his bedroll, one of the vigilantes — the one who’d lost when they drew lots — walked into his camp.

A pistol roared. “My God, I’m shot!” shouted Hawk.

Thereupon, the others all fired into the tent — nobody was supposed to be blameless, that was part of the deal — and John Hawk was well and truly gone.

The backlash

The vigilantes soon found that their anonymity was well needed. When the frontier community learned what had happened, even folks who’d hated John Hawk were outraged. A gunfight was one thing, and bad enough, although they’d tolerate it; this was, after all, the American West, and it was, after all, 1881. But a mob of “midnight assassins” sneaking into a man’s camp and squirting lead into him while he slept was another matter, and utterly intolerable.

Soon there was a price on the vigilantes’ heads. Community members passed a kitty and soon there was more than $3,000 in it. John Hawk, as it turned out, was considerably more well-liked in death than he’d appeared to be in life.

Eventually three men were arrested and charged, but it was never clear whether they were part of the vigilante gang or if they’d simply been convenient scapegoats; all three were single, and two of them were oddball characters that few locals much liked. All were acquitted for lack of evidence.

The vigilantes never struck again in Wallowa County after that. There was a sense of shame about the whole affair, and Wallowa County residents who knew the men involved — and disapproved of what they’d done — never let them forget it.

(Sources: Skovlin, Jon and Donna. The Murder of John Hawk. Wallowa: Bear Creek Press, 2005; Eugene City Guard, November 1881)

Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at . To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

Images above: Image: Library of Congress. This cartoon appeared in the July 4, 1883, issue of Puck Magazine. It shows Lady Justice out of a job while outside the window an angry mob of vigilantes is breaking a suspect out of jail and preparing to lynch him. This panel from a Kid Colt and Ringo Kid Wild Western Comics book from 1956 shows a gang of rustlers stealing a herd of cattle, driving it to a rendezvous with an unscrupulous buyer and selling the herd “no questions asked.” Although real rustlers generally stole cattle when no one was around rather than punching out the cowboys guarding them, the illustration of how stolen cattle were sold is historically accurate.



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