Keeping Law and Order Required Special Talents
in Early Oregon Territory
By LARRY MARTINOf the many courageous and colorful figures who came to the Oregon country when it was little more than a wilderness, the name of William Martin would have to rank near the top of the list.
Born February 2, 1822 in that part of Virginia now known as West Virginia, he moved with his family to Missouri in 1841. Two years later the St Louis newspapers announced that Dr. Marcus Whitman, the noted missionary-physician, had arrived from Oregon and would pilot an emigration party across the plains, taking the wagons through to the Columbia River.
The 21-year-old Martin was enthralled by Dr. Whitman's revelations of the wonderful country west of the Rockies and his plea that the region could only be saved for the United States by immediate settlement by determined Americans.
In the spring of 1843 young Martin joined the Daniel Waldo family and began the momentous journey by the first organized group of such size to come to the Northwest. The expedition involved approximately 900 persons--more than three times the white population in Oregon at the time.
Peter H. Burnett, who later became famous as an Oregon jurist, was elected captain of the wagon tram but resigned after eight days. Martin, despite his youth, was chosen to succeed Burnett and continued in that capacity until the arrival of the company in the Willamette Valley the following December.
The Waldos took a claim in the rolling hills east of what is now Salem and the hills bear the family name. Martin, having agreed to pay for his passage west by working as a Waldo farmhand for six months at $10 a month, met his obligation even though offered a job at $60 monthly by another settler.
While the Waldos were building their first log house they occupied a tent and had a brush camp. The latter took fire and in saving the contents one of the daughters, Avanilla, was badly scorched.
Waldo had 33 cows, 12 oxen, four mares, and a black stallion named Martin Van Buren, so called because he was won on an election bet. The family also had a rather choice bull, and the rapid increase of this stock made Waldo wealthy. Good crops also helped him prosper.
In 1846, at age 25, Martin became the first elected sheriff of Champoeg County, one of the four political districts of the Oregon country under the Provisional Government. Champoeg--originally spelled "Champooick" but changed by the Legislative Committee--embraced all the valley on the east side of the Willamette, from the Molalla River on the north to the summit of the Calapooya Mountains on the south--all of what is now the counties of Marion and Linn, a portion of Clackamas, and the part of Lane east of the Willamette.
One might wonder how a sheriff could keep the peace in such a vast territory, but at this point the country was still too young for much crime. The settlers had scattered themselves throughout the Willamette Valley, each staking out a claim of rich farmland or perhaps finding temporary employment as carpenter, mechanic or laborer. The newcomers soon became a fairly influential people, eager to build homes and preoccupied by the task of cultivating the land.
The more unstable and dissatisfied drifted off to California where there was more excitement, thereby leaving Oregon's population more or less free from the reckless and criminal element which usually pervaded a new frontier.
Real criminal acts were few and far between in early Oregon. The rough frontier character was softened and even changed under the stress of the new environment.
As one pioneer wrote in his memoirs: "It was interesting to observe the influence of new circumstances upon human character. Among the men who went to Oregon the year I did, some were idle, worthless young men, too lazy to work at home and too genteel to steal; while others were gamblers and others were reputed thieves. But when they arrived in Oregon they were compelled to work or starve. It was a dire necessity. There were no able relatives or indulgent friends upon whom the idle could quarter themselves, and there was little or nothing for the rogues to steal; and if they could steal, there was no ready way by which they could escape into another community, and they could not conceal themselves in Oregon. I never saw so fine a population as a whole community as I saw in Oregon."
As sheriff, Martin made his headquarters at the Waldo farm, and the justices held court in their own houses. F. X. Matthieu was justice of Lower French Prairie and Daniel Waldo of the Salem precinct.
The most "famous" trial was that of a family named Brown charged with stealing wheat from Reuben Lewis and tried before Waldo. Brown gave Sheriff Martin a "heavy blessing" when the family was arrested. Prosecutor was James W. Nesmith, later U.S. senator, while the defense attorney was Burnett.
The wheat in question had been ground at English's mill and although the prosecution proved the presence of shavings in it and that cats had camped in the wheat bin, the jury couldn't agree that the Browns were guilty. The defendants were so elated at having escaped conviction that they wanted Nesmith to go after Lewis for malicious prosecution, but Nesmith told them they were lucky to be acquitted and he saw nothing to be gained by further proceedings. The Browns found it an unhealthy country to live in and moved to California.
Another case that created amusement was the suit of W. H. (Billy) Rector against a man named Force for $250, the price of a carriage in which the latter drove across the plains. Force didn't pay, so Rector brought suit before Justice Matthieu.
The case was set for a certain hour in the morning and Rector called at the Waldos' for Sheriff Martin. Waldo decided to go along "for his own pleasure." Rector was a man of considerable ability and aggressive character but rather quick tempered and irascible. When the group neared Matthieu's place they met Force, who told them they needn't go any farther as he had been awarded a non-suit. It seems that as soon as the hour set for the trial arrived, he had moved for a non-suit, as the plaintiff had not appeared.
This aroused Rector's ire and he started after Force as fast as his horse could go. Rector had a heavy rawhide in his hand and used it on his horse, as well as on Force's back as often as he could catch up. The prairie was all open land there and the two spectators--Sheriff Martin and Waldo--got in the center of the circle occupied by plaintiff and defendant.
Rector "prosecuted" his suit after his own fashion until tired out, and when they came riding up to the others, Force was laughing good-naturedly at the rage of his antagonist. Another suit was begun and the hack finally paid for.
As Sheriff Martin recalled in an interview many years later, suits were not often of much importance and were sometimes the cause of fun or gossip for the whole community.
One of Martin's duties as sheriff was collecting property taxes for the county. Records show that a total of $133.25 was realized in 1847.
On November 29 and 30, 1847 the peaceful Oregon country was stunned by the murder of Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa and 12 others at the Whitman Mission near Walla Walla by Cayuse Indians who had gone on the warpath. Indignation was great throughout the entire region and the cry went up for volunteers to fight the marauding red men. Emotion was so high that
15 young women of Oregon City announced they would "refuse to condone any young men who would not enlist."
Three new companies of volunteers were formed--one jointly by Champoeg and Linn counties; one by Benton, Polk and Clackamas counties; and the other by Yamhill and Tualatin counties.
His term as sheriff having expired at year's end, Martin immediately joined the Champoeg-Linn company and was commissioned a captain. The expedition against the Cayuses lasted nine months, and during its progress the volunteers often smelled gunpowder smoke and were targets for arrows.
The first skirmish was in Sand Hollow in Morrow County, where several soldiers and a number of Indians were killed or wounded. The belligerent redskins were eventually subdued, and most of the volunteer soldiers returned to the Willamette Valley. Captain Martin and 50 men, however, remained to command Fort Waters and protect emigrants en route to the Whitman Mission. When this was accomplished Martin and his group returned home.
In the spring of 1849 he went to the gold fields of northern California and mined on the Trinity River. That winter was severe and the miners weren't able to reach the lower Sacramento for supplies. Food was $3 a pound, much stock died, and many miners killed and ate their mules. It took an average of $15 a day to live. A pair of brogans (shoes) cost an ounce of gold, then valued at $16.
When the camp ran out of meat, Martin quit his mining, which averaged more than $30 a day and many days yielded from $100 to $200, to go hunting. He was the best hunter in camp and in 16 days sold venison at 75 cents a pound for a total of $1,142, though others sold the meat for $1.75 a pound.
In the following year he began driving cattle purchased in the Willamette Valley or Southern Oregon to Yreka, Scotts Bar and other gold mining camps in California.
Martin was with General Joseph Lane when a treaty was made with the Southern Oregon Indians in 1853. During the Rogue River Indian uprising of 1855-56 he headed a company of volunteer soldiers from south of the Siskiyous as a major. He served with distinction in the conflict and was mustered out as a lieutenant colonel.
He resumed his cattle business and in 1860, while living in Siskiyou County in the neighboring state, was elected sheriff--only one of two Oregon sheriffs to serve in that capacity in two states. He also was married in California.
In 1862, after 12 years in the stock business, he headed for Florence, Idaho, where a rich gold strike had been made. While crossing the John Day River he tried a panful of dirt, found "colors" and did further prospecting, eventually finding rich ground. He took up a claim and for the next 13 years mined on the John Day, settling there before the towns of Canyon City and John Day were founded.
In 1875 he moved to southern Umatilla County and pioneered the raising of cattle on Camas Prairie. He moved to Pendleton in 1886 and was elected county judge in 1888. He served in the latter capacity until his death June 25, 1899.
Statesman Journal, Salem, June 8, 1975, page 64
Last revised October 19, 2016