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Steens Mountain, Oregon: Buckaroos, Basques and glacial gorges

Steens Mountain includes several wilderness areas and dedicated Wild & Scenic River sections of the Donner and Blitzen River, which was named by Col. George M. Curry in 1864 who crossed it in a thunder and rainstorm. Remembering his German lessons he named it Dunder and Blitzen or “Thunder and Lightning,” but settlers changed it to Donner and Blitzen. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Way out west where ranchers’ mailboxes are 50-gallon drums set on their side, I drove northwest of Winnemucca on a straight-line course to Denio, Nevada. As I crossed into Oregon the only trees I saw were planted. Somewhere ahead of me was Steens Mountain.

Across the West vast stretches of Bureau of Land Management land are preserved as National Conservation Lands. One such swath is the approximately 500,000-acre Steens Mountain Cooperative Management & Protection Area created by an act of Congress as a mix of private and public lands. At 9,700 feet, Steens Mountain towers over the northern Great Basin Desert. The Congressional designation includes the first federal wilderness of 100,000 acres that excludes grazing.

The south entrance to Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area can be found off Oregon Highway 202, just beyond the turn to Plush, Ore. Steens Mountain is similar to a Bureau of Land Management National Monument or National Conservation Area, but it has its own unique Congressional legislation. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Rancher Peter French arrived from California in the spring of 1872 with six vaqueros, a Chinese cook, and 1,200 head of shorthorn cattle. He would dominate a well-watered range of natural grasses, perfect for haying, on a flyway frequented by hundreds of thousands of migrating birds, ducks, and geese. From a man named Porter he bought his brand, a huge P for a cow’s left hip, and a few hundred more cattle. Southeast Oregon native-born son, the renowned writer and editor William Kittredge, tells French’s story about how he established a huge ranch close to the Donner and Blitzen River streaming down from Steens Mountain with its unique glacially carved valleys.

The historic Frenchglen Hotel in Frenchglen, Oregon still offers quality sit-down meals in their dining room as well as lodging, but reservations must be made months in advance. The nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge draws birders from across the nation. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

French knew how to pick his ranch land with winter quarters sheltered close to the river and summer range on Steens. Alpine flowers and snowfields high and white into June rose above the southern Oregon sagebrush desert far below. Kittredge writes, “The frontier was closing back on its remnants, and Peter French was riding to some of the last empty country, where he found oasis lands that became his true homestake in the world.” He would come to own the horizon but be dead at age 49.

Peter French could pick his ranchland but not his neighbors. By the late 1880s, the wide-open rules of the Homestead Act meant small farmers and ranchers came on to land French claimed as his own. Kittredge tells the story. The threats with guns and knives. Horses run off and women and children left a foot. Cowboys, called buckaroos in that high sage of northern Nevada and southern Oregon, sometimes sided with their ranch bosses, and sometimes favored settlers and their pretty daughters. For all his wealth in land and cattle, French couldn’t control his neighbors or his temper.

Few structures remain from the massive P Ranch of thousands of acres founded by Peter French in 1872, but this stout and sturdy horse barn still stands on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

He threatened to horse whip one settler. French jumped off his buggy while a man repaired a gate. “Mr. Rienaman,” French said according to Kittredge, “It’s time I gave you a good whipping.” But the rancher’s arm remained upraised as the settler aimed the business end of revolver at French, who then said, “Mr. Reinaman, I’ll postpone this job until another time” and drove off.

French angered a good many settlers living hand to mouth, sagebrushers they were called. Finally, Ed Oliver came at him out of the snow and cold the day after Christmas in 1897. Here the narrative diverges. One storyline has settler Oliver threatened by a willow whip switch wielded by French. Another has French beating on Oliver with a wooden fence stave. Regardless of the varying angles, Oliver’s .32 caliber revolver fired one shot, hitting French above the eye. Kittedge notes, “In both versions, against any imaginable odds, the bullet explodes from beneath Peter French’s left ear and the history of that country is marked by a turning.”

A jury of his peers acquitted Oliver. French’s vast domain unraveled. I’ve stood in his remaining wooden barn, a prominent structure on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge close to Frenchglen, Oregon, and I’ve camped along the Donner and Blitzen River that waters all the wetlands French once claimed. The federal wildlife area was established in the 1930s, and the famous P Ranch now has more ducks than it ever had cattle, but what I really came to see was Steens Mountain.

Forty percent understaffed, the Bureau of Land Management depends on dedicated volunteers like Normandy and John Helmer to tell vital stories about Western history on National Conservation Lands. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Glaciers from the last ice age carved huge U-shaped gorges including Little Blitzen, Big Indian, Kiger and Wildhorse. I’ve walked along the rim of Kiger Gorge as red-tailed hawks drifted below me searching for prey in sharp afternoon light. Peter French’s ranch has given way to migrating birdlife and small clouds of summertime mosquitoes. I enjoyed visiting the smaller but more intact 1,120-acre Riddle Brothers Ranch, which is its own National Register Historic District within the Steens Mountain Cooperative Area.

“We’re the only staff down in this end of the Steens,” caretaker John Helmer tells me about himself and his wife, Normandy, who live seasonally in a cabin near the ranch. “These three Riddle brothers were here mostly raising cattle. They never left and never married.” Helmer says that old-time ranchers come by visiting the historic site and, “They climb out of their trucks with tears in their eyes. Memories. They used to work here.”

“The BLM doesn’t try to interpret the ranch’s history after the mid-1950s, so we interview everybody who comes. We compile information and disseminate it,” explains Normandy, a former university archivist. She wants to be sure I recognize Carrie Riddle who also homesteaded and contributed to the ranch holdings. “That’s how they knitted it together by adjacent homesteads. You could see the river running through their ranch and the cattle higher up,” she adds.

John offers that, “Walt was the businessman while his brother Fred was known for his good conversation, sourdough biscuits and cowboy coffee.” The Riddle boys “didn’t have a lot of education, but they conversed well.” An interpretive sign says that Frank Riddle kept 40 cats and served them three gallons of milk twice a day. I’m sure the felines kept the mice away. Open to visitors, the ranch buildings include a two-story house, a separate small bunkhouse as a “honeymoon” or cook’s cabin, a blacksmith shop, barn and other structures reputedly once including a still for making moonshine.

This unique landscape, a 65-mile-long gently sloping mountain high above the Alford Desert, has been saved for all of us. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt flew over the area with the Oregon governor and said, “It’s the only place I’ve seen where you have alpine glacial valleys end in the desert.” John Helmer explains that for the management committee, “One of their visions was to look out over the landscape and not know if its public or private land and for the most part, they achieved it.”

Thousands of homesteaders moved into the Northern Great Basin between 1900 and 1920. Most of them dusted out and moved on. A hardy few stayed, and the Riddles represent them. Another large group were not cattlemen but sheepmen both Irish and Basque. Buckaroos and Basques mixed like oil and water but eventually they learned to tolerate each other. On Steens Mountain there was enough range to go around.

Kiger Gorge is one of four spectacular glacier-carved gorges that drop precipitously off Steens Mountain. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Daughter of an Irishman come to the desert, Eileen O’Keeffe McVicker, in her memoir “Child of Steens Mountain” writes that as a young girl: “There would be deer feeding quietly in the rim of big rocks; lichen in many colors, which we could see if we looked closely; stones to gather for our pockets; and wildflowers that grew in abundance in the shade of the rimrock where it was cool and moist ... We gathered flowers in armfuls and when we took them to our mother, she filled the galvanized washtub with water for us to put them in.”

Her sheepman father struggled through the Great Depression herding his flock and “working out” like everyone had to do. It was a tough, hardscrabble life, but she remembers the comfort of looking across the Steens Mountain plateau at night and seeing small flickering campfires from other herders.

Snowfields lingering in June kept me from driving the 52-mile Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway, but I did hike along the Wild & Scenic River section of the Donner and Blitzen River. I stopped to watch a female mallard in repose on a wet rock in the middle of the river. We made eye contact and she looked at me for a while as cold dark water purled around her rocky perch. When she took off, so did I.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and professor of History at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu