GUNS AND INTIMIDATION IN HARNEY COUNTY

(The Intermountain West's Continuing Fight with Itself - Part I)

February 2016

A letter to the editor of the Burns, Oregon, newspaper: "It seems that a number of the best citizens of Harney valley have been notified to leave the country. I have seen the following, and others I have seen are similar: 'Mr. A. W. Waters -- Sir: You are hereby notified to leave this country forever within ten days, never to return. By order of 101.' At the top of this notice is a skull and crossbones."

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If you don't remember seeing that particular item in the month-long deluge of press coverage relating to Harney County, Oregon, and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it's because it was written in December 1888. And yet, this 125-year-old story makes the happenings of this last month seem like (in the immortal words of  Yogi Berra) "deja vu all over again." Here's how it was reported in a 1902  Salem, Oregon, newspaper, following an interview with Abner W. Waters - military captain, newspaper owner, U. S. Marshall, Oregon State senator, attorney, and Harney County resident.

 Captain Waters left western Oregon in 1884, "going to the Harney valley country. It was there that he gained some prominence in contesting the claims of the settlers against the encroaching and land-grabbing cattlemen. When questioned about his experiences in this relation, Captain Waters gave an interesting account of his dealings with the selfish cattlemen, who had acquired practically a monopoly on all of the rich and productive land in the best part of the Harney valley. The stockmen had for years held control of these lands, and, by misrepresentation to intending settlers, had defeated the settlement and cultivation of the country. They laid claim to the land on the strength of the assertion that it was all swamp land and non-cultivatable, and insisted that they had the right to range their cattle where they pleased. In this way they appropriated the richest hay-producing lands.

   "Upon being made acquainted with the conditions, Captain Waters, who always did feel kindly toward the under fellow, interested himself in behalf of the settlers, and, being a practicing lawyer, carried their cases to the department of the interior where, after eight years of litigation, he secured for the settlers the title to some of the best lands of the value of about $200,000. The part Captain Waters took in contending for the best interests of the settlers naturally incurred for him the bitter hatred of the cattlemen, whose interests had been harmed. It was not surprising then that the captain soon thereafter received from a mysterious organization, that styled themselves the '101,' a preemptory notice to leave the county, and remain away."

 Threats? Intimidation? Misrepresentation? Prohibiting others from legitimate uses of the land? Where have we heard all that, recently?

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I'm sure there are people in Harney County today who - had they been alive in the 1880s - would have been rooting for the "101." (Some of their forefathers might even have been "101" members.) On the other hand, I'm sure there are present-day Harney County folks who are descendants of those horrible settlers who were trying to "steal" the grazing land that the cattlemen felt was exclusively their own. I have no idea how - or if - the current residents think about these past conflicts. I know that feuds based on philosophies can survive in small communities for many generations. But I also know that, as a whole, people who live in isolated situations - who have to depend on one another, in various ways - also learn to accommodate one another. Fighting old battles - reviving old hurts - is not only pointless, it can be disastrous to every day life.

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You might wonder how Abner Waters reacted to his "get out of town" letter. Well, he didn't accept the "invitation" to leave Harney County. In fact, he challenged the "101." As he wrote in the Burns newspaper in 1888: "Come before me, you dirty curs, and I will spit in your face, and you will be too cowardly to resent it. I can be found at all times, and I now tell you that you need not wait the ten days, but come at once. I will give you a warm reception...  Come and let me kiss your eyelids to sleep with my trusty Winchester."

   It worked. As reported in another news story in January 1889: "Col. W. H. Waters received a letter from his brother, Capt. A. W. Waters, stating that the '101' excitement has about died out of Harney county and that he has not been molested in any way since he dared the desperados to come to his door and have 'death kiss their eyelids down.' The decided stand taken by Capt. Waters, who is one of the coolest and bravest men who ever peered over the sights of a rifle, had much to do with the suppression of this gang of lawless ruffians, who wished to run every man who did not 'stand in' out of the country. They found he was a hard man to handle and accordingly they left him alone."

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© Sanford Wilbur 2018