Make the McKenzie Connection!

Central Oregon's range wars were all about shooting sheep

Continued From Last Week

Signs and threats like the “COMITEE” warnings in the Klickitat Valley showed that this threat was being taken very seriously. Fortunately, though, the worst-case scenario was very rare. There were a few sheepherders who insisted on their right to plunder the public domain regardless of how the neighbors felt about it; but on the Western frontier, disagreements like this had a tendency to get worked out with fists and sometimes pistols. Overall, everyone grumbled, but they all managed to coexist.

But then, something else happened to push the situation into full-blown crisis.

Actually, three somethings happened, all in the early 1890s.

The first was, the Northern Pacific Railroad figured out that it was under no obligation to let sheepherders graze on its undeveloped lands. Railroad lands, of course, tended to be prime country, close by the rivers where railroad construction was practicable. Suddenly, after 1892 or so, those lands were made off-limits to sheep.

This meant that thousands of sheep that had gotten used to fattening up on riverside pastures owned by the railroad had to find other sources.

The second event happened in 1891, but wasn’t really felt until 1894: The federal government created the National Forest Reserves system, which would shortly morph into the U.S. National Forests. Many of the sheepherders’ prime grazing lands were inside these new zones, which in 1894 were declared off-limits to sheep. When sheepmen ignored the limitation, federal marshals showed up and arrested them. So, the sheepherders’ rangeland shrank even more.

And while all this was going on, the Panic of 1893 broke out. Beef and wool prices crashed hard, and so did wheat prices. Desperation drove everyone out onto the public lands to try to get by, and for hard-pressed sodbusters that “worst case scenario” involving fluffy white locust swarms became less uncommon.

In the battle between the “tramp sheepmen” and the stationary settlers and cattle ranchers, the advantage lay with the sheepherders — they could move on to greener pastures any time they wanted, whereas the settlers and farmers, tied as they were to their land, had to just hang on as best they could.

In about 1895, settlers and cattlemen in the area of the little community of Izee, just northwest of Burns, decided to do something to turn that situation around. They got together and formed a little vigilance committee calling itself the “Izee Sheep Shooters.” Their plan was to basically post the rangeland around their place with “sheepmen take notise” signs warning them away, and take turns patrolling it for sheep sign. Then, any time a sheepherder was found inside their “dead line” bringing a flock of “meadow maggots” their way, they’d sneak up on his camp, capture him and tie him to a tree, and slaughter his entire flock with gun, knife or club.

Members of the Sheep Shooters were sworn to secrecy. They all agreed to try as hard as they could not to kill or injure any sheepman, but if that happened, they’d bury him on the spot and nothing would be said.

Word about the Izee Sheep Shooters got around very quickly. Not surprisingly, lots of other homesteaders and cattlemen thought it was a fine idea. Another gang of range-enforcement vigilantes sprang up in Crook County, and another in Lake County. Soon they were everywhere.

By the early 1900s it was clear that a crisis was at hand. There were few places now that a sheepherder could bring his flock to that were not protected by a “comitee” of sheep shooters. So, sheep started to die, first by dozens, then by hundreds and even thousands.

In 1903, 2,400 sheep were slaughtered at Benjamin Lake, north of Christmas Valley, as well as 5,300 in two separate massacres in the Silver Lake area.

In 1906 a gang of masked riders galloped into a sheep camp in Lake County, drove most of the stock over a cliff in a “buffalo jump,” and massacred as many of the rest as they could catch before galloping away. In that attack, 1,800 sheep out of a herd of 2,200 were killed.

Estimates of the total death toll range from 12,000 to 25,000 sheep over the roughly 10-year period when Sheep Shooters’ associations were active. Most of these were small bands of sheep, just one or two hundred, which the vigilantes tracked and pounced upon.

So far as is officially known, no human was killed in the range wars. There are a couple of disappearances that may have been connected with them — especially Shorty Davis, a farmer who ran sheep on his own land who vanished in 1900. There are also anecdotes about gunfights and shallow graves in the Ochoco Mountains, some of which may actually be true.

That lack of human victims probably has a lot to do with the fact that the sheepmen didn’t try taking any vigilante action themselves. They must have been acutely aware that they were much more vulnerable than the farmers and ranchers who were attacking them. The sheepherders lived alone with their flocks and maybe a couple dogs in specially built camp wagons — the precursors of the modern camp trailer — that were pulled from place to place by horses. Sneaking up on them was often easy to do, and for sheepmen who had good guard dogs, all that was necessary was to turn out in force. No sheepherder could do much to defend himself against 15 or 20 masked riders with Winchesters at the ready. Farms and ranches were much more well defended; for the sheepmen, trying to fight fire with fire would have led to disaster, and they knew it well.

They complained to authorities, asking county officials to take action; the sheep shooters responded by urging county authorities to mind their own business and not get involved. For the most part, local governments took that advice.

Sheepmen from Antelope tried to set up a meeting with cattle ranchers from Crook County to work out a peace treaty. Probably sensing they had the upper hand, the ranchers turned them down.

Sheepmen offered a $1,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Sheep Shooters. But, nobody wanted the money badly enough to turn rat for it.

Everything was clearly building to some sort of horrible conclusion. But then, probably just in time, the U.S. Government stepped in and stopped the whole thing in its tracks.

In a move surely at least partly inspired by the violence and damage to land that the old system had caused, the federal government took action in 1906. The Department of the Interior ordered the rangeland supervisor to divide the public land into grazing allotments and give each one exclusively to one operator, for a lease payment.

Not only did this stop the wars, it also went a long way toward solving the tragedy of the commons. A herder who let his stock damage the land would be back again in the same spot the next year, reaping the bitter harvest of his bad decision.

And with the public rangeland now suddenly off-limits to all but one cattle or sheep operation, there was no longer anything to fight over. If one operator was caught grazing on another’s leased land, it was clear to all who was in the wrong.

By 1908, these changes had been fully implemented and started being vigorously enforced. And Central Oregon’s range war just faded into memory.

By the time it did, more than 15,000 sheep had been killed, and at least one sheepherder had been wounded by a stray bullet.

Not a single “Sheep Shooter” was prosecuted, or even publicly identified.

(Sources: Counting Sheep, a book by Alexander Campbell McGregor published in 1982 by the Univ. of Wash. Press; “From Oregon’s Range War to Nevada’s Sagebrush Rebellion,” an article by William R. Lindley published in the Jan. 1999 issue of Journal of the West; “Central Oregon Range Wars,” an article by Tor Hanson published July 7, 2018, by The Bend Bulletin; “The Central Oregon Range Wars,” an article by Melinda Jette published in 2004 by Oregon History Project.)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His latest book, Bad Ideas and Horrible People of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.


Reader Comments(0)

Rendered 04/24/2024 00:24