Hey, Don’t Have a Cow, Take It Izee: The Rise of the Sheepshooters

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Old Bill Brown, one of the most colorful figures of the frontier West, who grew up on a New Era farm just outside of Canby, made his early fortune raising enormous herds of wild horses and selling them — at a premium — to the armies of the United States and our allies.

But war of a less profitable sort broke out in 1895: a range war between sheepherders and cattlemen. It came to be known as the Sheepshooters’ War, and it would rage for more than a decade. Historians say it started with the cattlemen, who refused to share open range with sheepherders due to concerns about overgrazing.

They formed paramilitary organizations that came to be called the Sheepshooters, and they were known to slaughter entire flocks of sheep — and anyone else who got in their way. They would often kill hundreds or even thousands of sheep in a single raid.

I guess you could say they had some serious beef.

To be fair, the cattle barons had gotten there first. For many years, they had held monopolies over enormous swaths of open range in the state’s interior. When the sheepherders started moving in, it felt to them like encroachment.

Plus, the sheep use the land differently, or so they said. Cows are picky eaters. They steer away from anything unpleasant like weeds, which hold down the topsoil and let the grass regrow. When a large herd of sheep go through an area, on the other hand, they leave behind nothing but dirt.

Some claimed that sheep stunk badly, leaving behind smelly fields cattle would no longer enter. Snooty cows. They also said sheep — which they called “meadow maggots” — were polluting the watering holes and making their stock sick.

Calling themselves the “Izee Sheepshooters” (named for the “IZ” brand used by cattle baron M.N. Bonham), the first group of armed enforcers came together in Grant County in 1895. They wore masks and waged an intimidation campaign that proved very successful. The trend soon spread, as new groups formed and established “deadlines” across wide areas of central and eastern Oregon.

The deadlines, or “deathlines” as they would later be known, were marked with tree blazes (stripping bark off one side), pieces of tin nailed to trees or strips of cloth from worn-out saddle blankets. Later, written signs were posted such as this one: “Warning to Sheep Men — You are hereby ordered to keep your sheep on the north side of the plainly marked line, or you will suffer the consequences. Signed, Inland Sheep Shooters.”

These signs probably would have been more helpful if not for the fact that very few sheep tenders could read. Occasionally, one would have the cloth signs read to him and word spread not to go beyond the “talking paper.”

Any flock caught on the wrong side of these boundaries would be subject to immediate slaughter, and the sheepherder — if caught — could face death as well, though often, they were only beaten and let go.

One story tells of a shepherd who was cornered by three armed cowboys and forced to walk around his flock on hands and knees, bleating like a sheep. I guess he didn’t find it funny, because he got his horse and his rifle and rode the men down, killing one, wounding another and capturing the third.

The worst of the violence was in the High Desert — Bill’s country. The cattle and sheep men in this area were forced into conflict by the 1898 expansion of the Cascade Range Forest Reserve, which took away thousands of acres sheepherders had peacefully used to graze their animals.

Many headed to the Blue Mountains, where the cattle barons were king.

Before 1880, there were virtually no sheep east of the Cascades. By 1896, there were over 300,000 in Crook County alone (compared to 40,000 cattle).

By the year 1900, over 2.5 million sheep would crowd the slopes of eastern Oregon’s grazing lands. In some locations, there were as many as 450 sheep per acre, pasturing in the same spot for up to four months.

One of the largest sheep massacres occurred in 1903, on the High Desert near Benjamin Lake. Nearly 2,400 sheep were herded off the high basalt cliffs to fall to their deaths. This was a popular method of slaughter, mainly because it saved ammunition, though any sheep who survived the fall were quickly shot. They called it “rimrocking.”

For the most part, Bill’s herds escaped this slaughter, mainly because by then, his operation was so large and his land holdings so vast that it rarely brought him into contact with other ranchers. Unlike smaller producers, he had no need to share in public land.

But he and his ranch hands did have their skirmishes, mainly with the Paulina Sheepshooters, a particularly violent group believed to have butchered more than 10,000 sheep over a three-year period.

They were an offshoot of the Izees and followed the same rules. They followed a strict code of silence, even agreeing to lie under oath if any of them were ever caught and brought to trial for their crimes. They accepted these vows during nighttime ceremonies that took place before a blazing bonfire.

The Paulina Sheepshooters were also known for their habit of renaming places where they made a major strike. The site of one of their largest slaughters, they dubbed “Battle Ridge.” At another, they slaughtered a band of sheep as well as the herder’s dog, the body of which was left in the creek. The spot has been known as “Dead Dog Spring” ever since.

Bill’s worst loss was a raid in 1903, when 487 of his sheep were slaughtered by a band of armed riders, believed to be affiliated with the Paulina Sheepshooters, though this was never officially confirmed.

The decade-long range war finally ended in 1906, when the U.S. Forest Service took control of the disputed lands and established range quotas for both cattle and sheep.

The end of hostilities brought forth unprecedented prosperity for Old Bill, whose empire soon expanded to more than 36,000 acres, spread across Deschutes, Crook, Harney and Lake counties. He controlled an additional 100,000 acres because he owned the water rights.

His prized horse herds grew to number as many as 10,000 — only a rough estimate because Bill kept no records. They ranged across the interior plateau, from Buck Creek to the Wagontire waterhole, and were valued at upwards of $1 million. That’s the equivalent of almost $17 million today.

During the great war, Bill sold horses to the armies of the United States, Canada, Great Britain and France, often selling 500 head in a single day, at an average price of $87 each. Buyers would then hire trail hands to move their newly acquired horses to the railheads at Bend, Crane or Lakeview for shipment to California, Kansas and East Coast ports.

Bill Brown’s was one of the largest privately owned sheep and horse operations in the country, with annual income that would have made him a millionaire several times over in today’s dollars. Sadly, it was not to last. We’ll tell you what happened, next time, on Canby Then.

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