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Governor's kindness led frontier city marshal to die in gunfight

Offbeat Oregon History

As every sensible person knows, there is pretty much no such thing as being “cruel to be kind.”

Sometimes it does work the other way around, though. Now and then you run across a story in which someone did something that was intended as a kindness, but turned out to be anything but.

Such a case happened in the office of Oregon Governor Oswald West, sometime in 1912. It had to do with a little shooting scrape that Z.H. Stroud, an acquaintance of West’s, had gotten into in the little frontier town of Harney City, where he was the town marshal.

Reading between the lines of the story, it’s clear that the governor’s well-intentioned intervention was probably the worst thing that could have happened to Marshal Stroud, and precipitated the closest thing Oregon history has to Arizona’s famous O.K. Corral gunfight. Which, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, the lawman lost.

Harney City today is one of Eastern Oregon’s most-gone ghost towns. You have to know just what you’re looking for to find any trace of it. It was located a dozen or so miles out of Burns, just off Highway 20 on Rattlesnake Road. Although it was once the county seat of Harney County, it’s been a ghost town since the 1930s, when the last of the high-desert homesteaders (the early-1910s cohort that included “Klondike Kate” Rockwell) gave up and moved away.

But in 1910, when Os West first came to town, it was a thriving community of about 100 souls, with a couple of sawmills, a stockyard full of sheep, a Presbyterian church, a general store, and a saloon.

West was on a campaign tour at the time. He was the Democratic Party’s candidate for Oregon governor, and he was roaming the state trying to talk as many voters as possible into supporting him.

West surely wasn’t the only Western state governor to have made a speech in a soon-to-be ghost town, but he probably was the only one to have made a full-blown stump speech in a town that tiny.

The other unusual thing about the speech was, before making it, Os West — a hard-core temperance man who would be signing a Prohibition ordinance into effect shortly after taking office — rang the bell in the local saloon, and bought the whole house a round of drinks.

Here’s how it happened:

West was stumping his way around Central and Eastern Oregon — where, he joked, “voters were few and charitable” (West famously hated making speeches, and considered himself very bad at it.)

Riding out of Burns on Highway 20, on his way to Vale for another campaign event that night, he found himself passing within a few miles of Harney City. Since he was there, and had a little time to spare, he thought he might as well stop in for a quick stump speech.

So upon arrival there, he headed straight for the general store and talked to its proprietor, Fred Haines, asking him how he might arrange it.

Haines was a staunch Republican but graciously refrained from throwing this young Democrat off the premises. He told West that town meetings were usually held in the church.

Prompted for more information, he allowed how the town marshal was the man to talk to about making such an arrangement.

Prompted again — Haines was not bending over backward to be helpful here — he told West that he would find the town marshal across the street in the saloon, which he owned.

Probably secretly gritting his teeth, West thanked him and headed for the door.

“Crossing the street to the saloon, I found sitting at card tables or standing about the room, about 40 sheepherders and packers,” West wrote, many years later, in his reminiscences. “The marshal was officiating behind the bar.”

It was a fairly large saloon! One hopes there were swinging doors, but given the climate in the high desert in wintertime, probably not.

In any case, the bartender-marshal introduced himself as Z.H. Stroud. Bartender-marshal Stroud was much more helpful than storekeeper Haines had been — maybe he wasn’t a Republican. He told the future governor that he would be happy to open the church up for him, and even offered to help him pack it with voters by shutting down his bar for the duration of the speech.

“Although a pronounced Prohibitionist,” West recalls sheepishly, “I didn’t have the crust to ask such a favor without setting up drinks for the crowd.”

Following the pleasant little task of pouring more than three dozen drinks and collecting payment for them from West, the bartender bellowed, “All of you get the hell out of here. I’m going to lock up. We are all going down to hear West here make a speech.”

Stroud then trotted across the street, opened the church, and vigorously rang the steeple bell, bringing the non-day drinking population of Harney City on the run to see what was happening.

Soon nearly the whole town was there. No pressure, right?

“After delivering a lousy speech, I headed for Vale,” West recalls.

A year or two later, West was in the governor’s office in Salem. He had, of course, won the election, and things were going well so far. The Oregon Beach Highway law, which he had campaigned on, had passed. An alcohol prohibition law, which he had most definitely NOT campaigned on but had had high hopes for, was almost in the bag.

And that’s when the Harney County Sheriff stopped by to let the governor know he was bringing an old friend to Salem — to the Oregon State Penitentiary.

West learned that in the year or two after he’d made that fateful speech in Harney City, two brothers named Frank and James Buckland had opened another saloon in town to compete with Marshal Stroud’s establishment, and Marshal Stroud had not taken this well. This town, it seemed, was not big enough for two saloons.

“(The sheriff) informed me that my Harney town marshal-saloonkeeper had engaged in a shooting match” with the Buckland brothers, West recalls, “and he had winged one of them.”

“ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘when you bring him down drop in here on your way to the Pen’ — and so he did,” the governor continued. “I had a pardon prepared for my Harney friend and, as I handed it to him, I said: ‘Brother, go thy way, and shoot no more.’ “

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story. And you can probably guess why. Stroud had tried to kill a man — he was embroiled in a hot feud with his business rivals. Going to prison for a year or two might have saved his life — it would have given the rivals some time to cool off, and also a sense of justice served (or retribution satisfied, depending on how you look at it). Moreover, he probably would have had to sell his saloon, so that there would have been nothing left to fight over.

Instead, he was sent trotting triumphantly back to town with a pardon in his hand, ready to take things up where he’d left off.

The end came in September of 1912 when a big OK Corral-style shootout took place outside the post office in Harney City. The details are sketchy, and vary depending on the source — but here’s my best shot at picking the truth out from among the chaos of dueling newspaper stories about it:

Four men — rival saloon co-owner James Buckland and his friends Burbank Clay, G.H. Matheny, and Otto Lowell — waited for Marshal Stroud to go to the post office, and took up positions around it as he arrived and went inside. Once Stroud was inside the post office, Clay and Buckland stepped into the street, got their Colts out, and fired a couple of shots — evidently at various targets like street signs and such, as rowdy cowboys used to do in the days of the Wild West. Meanwhile, their two comrades lurked out of sight, guns ready.

The goal, according to Matheny’s later testimony, was to bait Stroud into coming out of the post office and getting into a gunfight with them, at which point he would be essentially ambushed and gunned down in “self-defense” as their other two friends, Matheny and Lowell, would step in.

And, well, that’s basically how it went down. Stroud stepped out of the post office and shouted at the men to “cut it out,” and told them to consider themselves under arrest, and that’s when the lead started to fly. No one at the scene seemed to know who fired the first shot, but most likely it was Clay because he’s who Stroud was shooting at.

Witnesses said a total of about 25 shots were fired, including the fatal shot, which came from a Winchester .30-30 rifle fired by Matheny from a prepared firing position inside the Buckland boys’ saloon. Stroud did manage to hit Clay once before he went down, but it was a flesh wound. Other than that shot, and the fatal rifle round, none of the bullets hit their targets.

Stroud shot through both lungs with a deer-rifle slug, staggered back into the post office, and collapsed dead on the floor.

The four killers were promptly put on trial, of course, along with a fifth defendant — Frank Buckland, brother of James and co-owner of the rival saloon. (Frank Buckland was not involved with the shootout directly, but apparently, he was being charged with conspiring to bring it on. Most likely, he’s the one Stroud “winged” in the earlier incident.)

The town of Harney City seems to have been fairly evenly split between the marshal’s friends, and the Buckland brothers’ friends, and that split was reflected in the jury. Half the jurors were dead set on acquittal, and half wanted the men to hang.

In the end, they compromised. Burbank Clay and Jim Buckland were found guilty of manslaughter; Frank Buckland was found innocent; Matheny gave the state’s evidence and was not charged; and after that authorities lost interest in prosecuting Lowell, who had demanded a separate trial.

So it seems the Buckland brothers, the upstart saloonkeepers who had feuded with City Marshal Stroud, ended up “winning.”

But then again, by the time Jim Buckland finished his sentence, the saloons they were all fighting over would be shut down by Oregon’s Prohibition law. And not many years after that, the entire town would be left to the jackrabbits.

(Sources: “Reminiscences and Anecdotes,” an article by Oswald West published in the December 1949 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly; Harney County and Its Range Land, a book by George Francis Brimlow published by Binford & Mort in 1951; archives of the Burns Times-Herald, Malheur Enterprise, and Portland Oregon Journal, 1912-1913)

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


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