The Death of Peter French

Harney County historians still argue whether the shot that killed cattle baron Peter French was fired intentionally or in self-defense.

One thing is certain: French made as many enemies in Harney County as he did friends. A widely-circulated rumor around the Eastern Oregon county following French's death on Dec. 26, 1897 was that a group of influential landowners and local businessmen conspired to murder French.

French had arrived back home from a business trip to Chicago on Christmas day, 1897, loaded down with gifts he had purchased for his wife, children and cow hands. He returned just in time to join a large Christmas party for his family and friends at his Sod House Ranch. But his crew chief who was to direct a cattle drive the following morning became sick, and so French himself assumed the role of trail boss.

Approaching the gate to the big sagebrush field, French threw open the gate to let cattle through. Just as he was remounting, French looked up and saw a young cowboy named Ed Oliver riding his horse at full gallop directly toward him. Oliver's steed collided full force with French's mount. Oliver charged again and French struck him over the head with a willow whip. Witnesses on the scene -- all of them French's cow hands -- reported Oliver pulled a gun from his waistband and fired one shot at French, who was unarmed. The bullet passed through French' s head, killing him instantly.

Oliver, apparently fearing retaliation from French's men, galloped off. Two days later, Burt French, brother of the murdered man, and Mart Brenton, an old friend of Peter French, took the body by horse-drawn wagon to Baker City. The body was embalmed and shipped by Wells Fargo Express to Red Bluff, Calif., to be buried next to the graves of French's father and mother.

Oliver was indicted on a charge of murder, filed by none other than Burt French. But the $10,000 bail on Oliver, which The Oregonian newspaper in Portland criticized as being ridiculously low, was quickly paid by five area farmers and two businessmen.

Oliver' s original murder indictment was dropped the day before he was scheduled to go to trial. On May 18, 1898, a new indictment charging Oliver with manslaughter was filed by Harney County District Attorney Charles W. Parfish, who apparently figured he stood a better chance of winning a conviction on the lesser charge.

The trial started in Burns on May 19, 1898. Several members of French' s cattle crew, including his brother Burt, testified they saw Oliver draw his gun and shoot French while the victim was riding away from the gunman.

Harney County Sheriff Andrew John McKinnon testified he arrested Oliver -- without incident -- on Dec. 27. McKinnon said Oliver was wearing the fatal weapon in his waistband and admitted it was the one he used to shoot Peter French.

Oliver's defense attorney Lionel R. Webster tried to convince the jury that his client shot French for fear of bodily harm. His witnesses testified that French abused and threatened Oliver for years, and that Oliver feared French's power.

One story which circulated at the time, but which was never brought up during the trial, was that three or more men had met to draw straws over who would kill French. As the story goes, Oliver agreed to substitute for the man who drew the fatal straw but who lost his nerve at the last minute.

Webster maintained that Peter French carried a large stick which he used frequently to hit Oliver. Testifying in his own defense, Oliver claimed French said "I'll kill you!" and reached for a gun, although French's men earlier testified their boss was not armed.

Oliver swore he shot French in selfdefense. Accounts of the trial indicate Webster tearfully described Oliver as a fine husband and father, and pleaded with the jury not to divide his client's happy household by convicting him of manslaughter.

Jurors took only three hours to return their verdict: Not guilty. Cattleman Peter French -- the late Peter French-- had lost another battle with settlers in Harney County.

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