BY TIM LYMAN
Nothing about the quiet little town of Frenchglen, in southeastern Oregon, would lead you to believe that it was ever part of the Wild West, but in the 1890s, it was the center of a bitter land feud between cattlemen and homesteaders. Peter French was the king of the Oregon Cattlemen, and his 200,000 acre P Ranch was at the center of the dispute.
In 1872, California rancher Dr. Hugh Glenn decided to expand his operation into Oregon, and sent 23-year-old Peter French to Oregon with six vaqueros (Spanish cowboys) and 1,200 head of cattle.
French met an unsuccessful prospector named Porter in the Blitzen Valley. Porter sold French his small cattle herd, his ‘P’ brand, and his squatter’s rights to the west slope of Steens Mountain. French proved a shrewd businessman, and by the mid 1880s the P Ranch covered 70,000 acres, ran 45,000 head of cattle, and realized $100,000 a year in cattle sales. By 1894, The P Ranch covered as many as 200,000 acres.
The P Ranch abutted the southern shoreline of Malheur Lake. In 1881, Malheur Lake broke through the narrow strip of land separating it from Harney Lake, lowering the lake by over a foot, and exposing 10,000 acres of new land. Settlers moved in to claim the new land on the new southern shore. French sent the settlers eviction notices, claiming Oregon law gave him ownership of all land to the middle of the lake. The settlers countersued. The settlers’ dislike of French increased as the cases dragged on.
Settler Ed Oliver was a particular thorn in French’s side. Oliver owned a small piece of land in the middle of the P Ranch, and had sued French for, and won, a right of way to drive his cattle across the P Ranch.
Things finally came to a head the day after Christmas, 1897.
Oliver and French ran into each other while Oliver was crossing French’s land. Oliver charged French on horseback, hitting his horse. Oliver charged French again, and French struck him with a willow whip. As the unarmed French turned away, Oliver shot him in the back of the head.
Oliver’s defense at his trial was that French had reached for a gun as he beat him with the willow whip and screamed “I’ll kill you.” The jury of homesteaders acquitted Oliver after three hours deliberation.
Oliver, portrayed as a model citizen and family man at his trial, deserted his family a short time later, disappearing with the donations made to help his family during the trial.
Peter French was buried next to his parents in Red Bluff, California, and the P Ranch sold to Henry Corbett and C.E.S. Wood’s Eastern Oregon Live Stock Company. 65,000 acres of the former P ranch is now part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge