A significant number of southeastern Oregon’s early stockmen, particularly those who settled in Lake County in the 1870s, came from the older ranching country of the Rogue River Valley, around Jacksonville and Ashland. Seeking new spreads and plenty of elbow room, many of them brought fairly small herds and established comparatively modest-sized operations in the Silver Lake, Chewaucan River, Goose Lake, and Warner valleys. George Millican, a stockman from the southern Willamette Valley near Eugene, established a sizeable ranch within the largely waterless country of present-day southeastern Deschutes County.
The smaller number of better bankrolled cattlemen who originated in California generally headed for more remote locations located east of Lake County, such as Harney Valley, Donner and Blitzen River—named by a German-speaking Army trooper for the severe thunder and lightning storm he witnessed there—Catlow Valley, Alvord Basin, and the upper Owyhee Basin. Their early Harney and Malheur county ranches represented something totally new to Oregon. They were huge livestock operations in terms of herd size, water rights, and acres; they were absentee-owned by distant investors often residing comfortably in places like San Francisco and Sacramento; and they were run by experienced junior partners or trusted employees on the scene. California cattleman John Devine became Harney County’s first permanent settler in 1869. He and his partner, W.B. Todhunter, who oversaw operations back in the San Joaquin Valley, established the great White Horse Ranch in the Alvord Basin, east of Steens Mountain. Soon “Todhunter and Devine” cattle ranged well into the upper Owyhee country; the partners also developed the naturally irrigated Island Ranch on the north shore of Malheur Lake.
John Devine, who dressed like a “Spanish grandee” in silver-studded leather riding gear and raced both thoroughbred horses and greyhounds, brought with him a large crew of “Mexican vaqueros” to handle the herds. Actually, these low-wage employees were Spanish-speaking Californios, Indians of central California who had grown up riding and herding on the Central Valley’s Mexican land grants. Also accompanied by his own vaqueros, Peter French—junior partner, and soon-to-be son-in-law of wealthy Sacramento Valley cattleman Hugh J. Glenn—arrived at the western foot of Steens Mountain in 1872. French, of shorter-then-average height, shared in the exhausting toil of his vaqueros; however, he could be abrasive and strong-willed with competitors, sometimes to the point of recklessness. His “P Ranch,” with headquarters at Frenchglen, became the seat of a vast cattle barony, this one centered along the marshes and streams of the Blitzen Valley.
The firm of Riley and Hardin, with large ranches in California’s Shasta County and Nevada’s Quinn River Valley, built another such enterprise, headquartered just north of Harney Lake; the two partners’ trusted superintendent, Isaac Foster, ran their Oregon operation. John Catlow, David Shirk, and other California cattlemen soon followed to Harney and Malheur counties. In southern Malheur County, Pick Anderson arrived in the 1880s and developed one of the largest cattle-and-sheep spreads in the county. A bit further south, Tom Turnbull started up a large sheep ranch in Barren Valley during the same period. Southeastern Oregon’s largest and by far most powerful livestock operation, the California firm of “Miller and Lux,” arrived on the scene in the early 1880s, buying up herds and ranches from failing companies like Todhunter and Devine, who, after several successive years of disastrous high desert weather, were in a mood to sell out. The “ZX” Ranch, Lake County’s only really large operation, formed a bit later in the century through consolidation of earlier, smaller holdings in the Chewaucan Valley near Paisley.
The nation’s first trans-continental railroad, completed in 1869, passed across northern Nevada, and the new railroad’s shipping point of Winnemucca became the main destination for many southeastern Oregon cattle drives, large and small. In the late 1870s, long-distance cattle drives eastward from the Oregon high desert even competed with those coming north from Texas to establish a new cattle empire on the northern Great Plains of Wyoming and Montana.
© Jeff LaLande, 2005