The 2016 “Patriot Militia” comedy is not the first dispute about who are the best stewards of western lands. The Federal Government controls about 75 percent of Harney County, managed variously by the Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.
With about 7,000 people, the population density of Oregon’s largest county is less than three-fourths of a person per square mile. More than half of the people live in the county’s two incorporated cities, Burns and Hines, just two miles apart. Since 2000, the population has shrunk by 11%. Harney County sits on the high desert plateau, 4,000 feet above sea level. Lava from eons of volcanoes formed the basalt base of the plateau. The ebb and flow of ice over two million years created the Harney Basin. Its last retreat formed Harney and Malheur Lakes. The Steens Mountains rise to nine thousand feet along the southeast corner of the county.
The Wadatika Paiute tribes occupied the area for about 10,000 years. In the 19th century, white settlers found them in the way of their ranching and farming. With the help of the U.S. Army, they had them removed to far-off reservations.
In the early 1870s, John William French, later known as Peter, came up from California with 1,200 head of cattle belonging to his employer, Dr. Hugh James Glenn. French encountered a poor prospector named Porter who sold him his small herd of cattle. The sale included Porter’s “P” brand and squatter’s rights to land west of the Steens.
French expanded the P Ranch with financial help from Glenn. He bought land under the provisions of the Swamp and Overflow Act for $1.25 an acre. Undeterred by lack of swamps, French built dams to create marshland. After purchasing at the cheap price, he took out the dams, allowing the land to return to its normal state. He also directed his employees to file homestead claims that he would purchase from them. He had no qualms about fencing public land. He ultimately controlled nearly 200,000 acres.
Peter French made another strategic move by marrying Glenn’s daughter Ella. Three weeks later, a former employee murdered his new father-in-law. Ten years after that, Glenn’s heirs formed the French-Glenn Livestock Company with the now-divorced Peter French as president. He built a mammoth round barn for breaking horses.
In addition to battling Paiutes, stockmen and farmers also fought over land and water rights. On the day after Christmas in 1897, French was shot and killed by Ed Oliver, with whom he had a boundary dispute. A jury found Oliver not guilty. The French-Glenn Livestock Company sold off the ranch. It is now part of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.
Peter French’s body was sent back to California. He is buried next to his father and mother in Red Bluff. The tiny community of Frenchglen is the only remnant of his empire.
In the 1880s, Basque settlers began arriving from northern California, Nevada and southwestern Idaho. Originally from the Pyrenees region between Spain and France, they became the predominate sheepherders in eastern Oregon, taking advantage of public lands for grazing. They lived months at a time in the isolated hills. Basques also worked as ranchers and miners. In the early and mid-twentieth century, Basque boarding houses operated in Jordan Valley, Ontario and Burns. With the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, grasslands came under regulation and no longer free. This was the precursor of the Bureau of Land Management. By the end of the twentieth century, the Basque population had largely dispersed, seeking better opportunities in Boise, Portland and other urban areas.
The Malheur National Forest north of Burns held the Northwest’s largest stand of Ponderosa Pine. The Edward Hines Company in 1928 contracted to harvest the timber. They built the company town of Hines, adjacent to Burns, to house the burgeoning workforce. The lumber mill’s heyday was in the 1960s. After that, production gradually declined. Eventually, the Hines Company sold the mill. It was finally closed by 1990.
Today, about a third of the 340-member Burns Paiute tribe lives on its reservation north of Burns. When the “militia” occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge building demanded that federal land be returned to its rightful owners, the Paiute agreed, as they occupied the land centuries before any ranchers arrived. They were emphatic that the occupiers were desecrating their ancient lands.