That time armed men seized an Oregon county and its federal land at gunpoint

This is an excerpt from Law and Order at the End of The Oregon Trail, Copyright 2015 Ken Bilderback and Kris Bilderback.

Few things rile cattle ranchers quite like cattle rustlers. Some folks in the Wild West considered rustling to be a crime on par with murder, and more than a few rustlers found themselves hanging from a tree without benefit of a trial. If there was anything that riled ranchers even more than poaching, it was disputes over grazing land. The land was free to most of the pioneers, given to them as gifts from the federal government under the Donation Land Claim and Homestead acts. Regardless of how they acquired their land, however, some pioneers were willing to fight to the death to protect their claims.

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With that in mind, townspeople thought that they knew who killed pioneer A.H. Crooks and his son-in-law on March 15, 1882, near Prineville. Suspicion immediately focused on Lucius Langdon, who owned a ranch next to Crooks, because the two had been feuding for years over a 40-acre parcel of grazing land. The folks of Prineville had a long history of taking the law into their own hands, according to historian Jim Yuskavitch in Outlaw Tales of Oregon. In the mid-1800s, the sheriff was 100 miles north of Prineville, in the county seat of The Dalles, which was a journey of several days on horseback. Perhaps swayed by the adage that justice delayed is justice denied, the ranchers were not keen on waiting that long for the law to make an appearance. The Crooks murder was a case in point, as rancher Bud Thompson quickly organized a “vigilance committee” to capture Langdon. Langdon eluded the wrath of Thompson and his gang, which allowed time for cooler heads to gather in Prineville. Rancher Jim Blakely notified the nearest deputy sheriff of the murder, then formed a second posse to find and capture Langdon before Thompson’s gang could lynch him. When Langdon heard that the trustworthy Blakely was looking for him, he surrendered peacefully and as promised, Blakely delivered him safely to the deputy sheriff. Langdon’s ranch hand accompanied his boss to help insure his safety until he was delivered to The Dalles for trial. With no jail in town, the trio retired for the evening at a small hotel.

To some extent, all of the arguments supporting vigilantism were mere rationalizations. There is a tinge of terror and revenge in almost all acts of vigilantism, and Bud Thompson was not satisfied when he heard that Langdon was in custody. He gathered his gang and stormed the hotel, where they found the deputy, Langdon, and his ranch hand sitting around a lobby fireplace. Langdon was murdered on the spot. His ranch hand, who had been miles away from the Crooks’ murder scene at the time of the crime, was dragged from the hotel as some of Thompson’s men held the deputy at gunpoint, threatening to kill him if he tried to stop their rampage. The gang dragged the innocent ranch hand down the road to a bridge over the Crooked River, where they tied a rope around his neck and threw him from the bridge, where his body was found hanging the next morning.

Emboldened by the ease of their double murder and acquiescence of law enforcement, Bud Thompson’s posse organized into a permanent group, which became known as the “Prineville Vigilantes.” Thus began a reign of terror that became one of the darkest chapters of law and order in Oregon. No longer content to go after only murderers and cattle rustlers, the Prineville Vigilantes turned their vengeance toward political enemies and others who stood in their way. On Christmas Eve 1882, the Vigilantes stormed a saloon and gunned down a rancher who had spoken out against them, then broke into a boarding house and seized two young men for unspecified offenses. The vigilantes tied ropes around the men’s necks and lifted them over a branch of a tree, but filled their bodies with rifle shots before strangulation could kill them.

While the reign of terror raged, a new county was created in 1882, with Prineville as the county seat. While this move in theory eliminated the explicit rationale for the vigilance committee, it in fact only made matters worse. Elections wouldn’t be held until 1884, and in the interim the governor would appoint a sheriff, judge and other officials. The well-connected Thompson saw to it that the governor appointed his cronies to key positions, including installing Thompson’s brother as the county’s judge. In short order, sleepy Prineville had a new legal system as corrupt as any in the big cities of the East Coast and Midwest.

For the next two years the Prineville Vigilantes continued their murderous rampage, protected by their appointed cronies. As the 1884 election approached, Prineville came face to face with perhaps the most sinister goal of the vigilantes, which was to intimidate voters into giving them legal authority to continue their reign of terror. In 1884, it was easy to intimidate people into voting for a particular candidate or cause, because voters were required by law to cast their ballots orally in public. Viva voce voting was the norm throughout America for the first 75 years of the nation’s history, but by 1871, every state had abandoned the practice in favor of secret ballots, with two exceptions: Kentucky and Oregon.

The rigid conformity to social norms created by voice votes was so powerful that in 1995, two Australian scholars, Paul Bourke and Donald DeBats, spent years researching it for their book Washington County: Politics and Community in Antebellum America. Oregon adopted the practice in 1854, after most states already had adopted secret ballots. By 1854, voice voting had become anathema in the big cities of the East and Midwest because of the rampant bribery it allowed. Party bosses routinely created patronage jobs for their supporters; because people were required to announce their vote in front of those party bosses, dissent of any kind required tremendous courage. The practice lingered in rural areas, however, especially in the South, in part to protect slavery from being abolished at the ballot box. About half of the early Oregon pioneers were from the South, and many hoped to spread slavery to the West Coast. The other half of settlers were of Puritanical New England stock, fiercely opposed to slavery; they viewed public voting as a form of moral courage. New Englanders controlled power in Washington County and much of the territory west of the Cascades. While reports of outright intimidation were rare, societal pressure ensured a fair degree of conformity. The level of that pressure to conform became apparent when viva voce voting finally was abolished in 1891. Within a few years, Oregon transformed from one of the more regressive states into one of the most progressive and reform-minded.

If subtle, implicit pressure controlled voting on the west side of the state, imagine the pressure the residents of Prineville felt as the 1884 election neared. The Vigilantes had been known to brutally murder people for disagreeing with them, and now residents would have to stand in front of the Vigilantes to cast a vote against them. Opponents couldn’t count on protection from outside the county, either. Their stubborn opposition to government power had created unintended circumstances for them; by reining in government, state officials lacked the authority or ability to protect Crook County residents from their ruthless leaders who enforced a dictatorship of fear. To add to their woe, opponents of the vigilantes realized requests for help likely would be futile, because they would be seeking help from the same people who had appointed the killers to the county offices. Harvey Scott, editor of The Oregonian, tried to help by demanding that the Governor stop propping up the Vigilantes, but the residents of Crook County knew that a newspaper editor on the other side of the mountains couldn’t protect them from the vigilantes. With that in mind, Jim Blakely, the rancher who had tried to peacefully arrest Langdon, decided that the only way to ensure a fair election and defeat the vigilantes was, ironically, vigilantism. So he reorganized a group of his own. Nicknamed the “Moonshiners” because they patrolled the streets after dark when the Prineville Vigilantes generally wreaked their havoc, they confronted the corrupt officials, causing at least one to flee town. In early 1884, the Prineville Vigilantes met in a saloon to plot more violence. Blakely’s Moonshiners had seen enough and surrounded the saloon as Blakely demanded a showdown with Thompson’s gang. The Vigilantes cowered inside, Yuskavitch writes, which broke the terror townspeople had been living under. The Vigilantes turned meek and were driven from office when the elections were held, with Blakely elected as Sheriff, by voice vote.