Looters of the Public Domain

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Portland, Oregon, 1908




Copyright, 1907

By S. A. D. Puter and

Horace Stevens










By Horace Stevens

FROM the dismal recesses of a prison cell, S. A. D. Puter, the acknowledged leader of the Oregon land-fraud ring, who was pardoned by the President, December 31, 1907, after serving 17 months of a two-years' sentence in the Multnomah County jail for conspiracy to defraud the Government of its public lands, has sent forth through these pages a series of narratives that is reasonably certain to stimulate deliberate thought and give expression to intelligent opinion in every quarter penetrated by the recitals. In them are depicted conditions, the revelation of which ought to have a tendency to awaken the lawmakers of the country to the necessity for providing legal safeguards against all such contingencies. Through this medium, courts may ultimately come to perceive the importance for removing most of the rigid bars that now operate as a protection to the criminal element, and permit the introduction of apparently irrelevant lines of testimony that material evidence might be fortified.

The whole civilized world has a listening ear to the ground, trained in the endeavor to catch some sound that will appeal to the harmonies of human nature; that will operate to lighten the burdens of existence, and foster the higher principles of life. The better elements of/society are ever on the alert to gain new ideas that will aid in the development of these commendable features, and I am convinced that this work, unclassic as it may seem at times in expression, cannot fail to fulfill some hopeful expectation of that character.

I have collaborated throughout with Mr. Puter in the preparation of the book, under very trying conditions, and together we have endeavored to clothe the different narratives with some degree of human interest, commensurate with a strict adherence to the element of fact. Furthermore, out of all the mass of information bearing upon the subject that has been .furnished me by the author, I have selected only such portions that appealed to me as having anf important relationship to the whole fraudulent system, realizing full well the utter impossibility of publishing in one volume even the meagre details of the various transactions in which Mr. Puter has figured, covering a period of at least a quarter of a century.

It may be urged by some that the printing of such a book, exposing, as it does, numerous human frailties, can accomplish no genuine benefit to mankind, but I beg to take issue with all such criticism. Several local clergymen, besides many others vitally interested in the problems affecting racial advancement, have become deeply concerned in this publication, and have urged me repeatedly to probe the ulcer to the bottom, upon the hypothesis that the light of day would furnish ample remedy for any existing social ill. We have therefore undertaken, without fear or favor, or the exhibition of the slightest particle of rancor, to comply with this seemingly spontaneous demand, and present herewith what we know to be the truth, let the blows fall where they may. If they are productive of bleeding hearts, then it is because those organs are of the same quality of weakness that distinguished a failure to resist temptation.

It was in the destiny of things that the extensive land- frauds prevalent upon the Pacific Coast should have been exposed, just the same as it is natural that any congestion shall finally be relieved. Great floods may overflow a river's banks, but we realize that if is not an everlasting condition; epidemics may devastate communities, thoug-h history shows their existence is short-Hved, and that nothing- abnormal is ever eternal. Consequently, the problems incident to the looting of the public domain were gradually working out their own solution, and made palpably so by reason of the fact that the disciples of the wrong were becoming .so bold in their operations, and blazing such a well-defined trail, that the conclusion to their rascalities was plainly inevitable.

One of the most significant of the many morals pointed by the different narratives in these pages is the powerful emphasis to the old-fashioned creed that honesty is always the best policy. Although Mr. Puter has gone very thoroughly into details concerning numerous fraudulent land transactions, it does not appear that he profited to any great extent by any of his crooked deals, and in most instances whatever he made by these unlawful operations was consumed by expenses incident to getting his bogus claims through the Land Department, or by the adoption of desperate and costly efforts to cover up his tracks. The gross proceeds of the notorious 11-7 deal aggregated but $10,080, all of which went to pay the price of corruptive tactics, leaving him practically without a dollar to face the criminal charge remaining as the only legacy of his wrong-doing.

Experience and philosophy teach us that there is a cause for every effect, and the influences at work with sufficient vigor to impel men to risk life and liberty in their efforts to wrongfully acquire Government lands, were not of a character to reflect general discredit upon the citizenship of Oregon, merely because there were those within her borders base enough to permit greed and graft and their love for Mammon to run amuck with principle.

It is one of the most remarkable features of the whole situation that while dishonesty was the basis of these frauds, many of their perpetrators were punished upon the threshold of their offenses, among their friends and neighbors, and by juries composed for the most part of those who had been life-long associates of the accused, and naturally entertained, sympathetic interest in their behalf, if there was any sort of compassion one way or the other.

It may be said, also, to the everlasting credit of the manhood of Oregon, that there was no shirking of duty when it came to a question of dealing out the full measure of justice to the guilty. The eyes of humanity were fixed upon each person sitting in judgment as a juror in the various cases, and the honorable part of the whole world applauded every verdict returned. Rank cut no figure with them. All criminals looked alike to Oregon juries. Thus, a United States Senator, a Congressman, two former United States Attorneys, several members of the State Legislature, and others of more or less political renown, were actually convicted, while another Congressman, numerous personages in the millionaire class, and many others of greater or less degree of prominence in the political, commercial and social sides of life, have been indicted, and are now awaiting their fates with chilling marrows. Further along I present a complete list of all the indictments that have been returned up to the present time in connection with recent land frauds by the Federal grand juries of Oregon, together with a brief synopsis of the social status of each person implicated thereby. While it may seem appalling, in a way, it is not without its morals, because it indicates more plainly than words of mine can portray that Justice has stalked in blindfolded fashion through the ranks of crime.

Portland, more beautiful than Palmyra of old, with a moral refinement and culture that shines with lustrous brilliancy in the galaxy of Northwestern cities, and famed as the most healthy municipality of the world in civic and climatic conditions, had no important share in these land frauds, after all the aspersions that have been heaped upon her fair name.

Oregon, one of the grandest regions of the universe, whose light is fast emerging from the bushel under which her charms have been so long hidden, does not hive all the land rogues of creation by any means, and never reared within her borders the soul so base as to inspire this wholesale depredation; and I hurl back in the teeth of those who have been foul enough to make the charge, the contemptible reflection that has been cast upon her law-abiding community.

Practically all the arrangements for this immense plunder originated among unscrupulous residents of distant parts—in the ranks of the devout moneyed aristocracy beyond the Rocky Mountains, and it has remained for the honest manhood of Oregon to redeem the commonwealth from the stigma of dishonor that has been written across its fair name by the polluted hands of Eastern commercial greed.

Careful analysis of the situation indicates that most of these stupendous schemes of plunder were concocted in the cunning minds of those who had made a life-study of the subject. Upon the States of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan rests the principal burden for this kind of offspring, because they produced —

A JIM HILL, with his Rainier Mountain Forest Reserve steal of the Northern Pacific;

A WEYERHAEUSER, with his tainted timber wealth that has made him "Richer than Rockefeller;"

A THOMAS B. WALKER, with his 500,000-acre grab of the public domain in California and Oregon, and his celebrated art gallery in Minneapolis, famed for its rare exhibit of $100 bills on the back of picture frames as a kindly remembrance to needy Special Agents of the Land Department;

A C. A. SMITH, with his army of "dummy" entrymen, and his 100,000 acres of perjured titles, which the Government ought to cancel.

And a host of others who are responsible for present conditions. They are the ones upon whom these crimes should be fastened; they are the ones who have waxed fat in the grease of loot at the expense of the rising generations of the West—who, after committing their base robberies, have attempted to affix its stain upon a proud-spirited people, and then laughed in their sleeves at the discomfiture they have caused by the lying insinuation—and it was the kind of laughter that is heard in hell over the loss of a soul.

The records will show that these men have been engaged in like pursuits — as the immortal sea-rovers of olden times followed the Spanish Main—since the days when their own States were the banner lumber producing districts of the country, and that the motives which prompted them to turn their greedy eyes towards Pacific shores, were inspired by the same debasing principles of pillage that actuated Alexander the Great in seeking new worlds to conquer.

Having exhausted the timber resources of the Middle West by their wanton processes of destruction and waste, the virgin forests of the Pacific Coast appealed to them as only purity can attract the elements of lust. —

The question naturally arises: "Why were such men as Thomas B. Walker and C. A. Smith not prosecuted criminally for their plain and deliberate violations of the land laws of this country, but permitted to go scot free when the records show that they fraudulently acquired enough land from the Government to make Puter's efforts along those lines puny in comparison?"

The answer is embodied in the fact that both are millionaires, and because the United States Attorneys for Oregon and California during 1902 and 1903 simply shut their eyes to their duties. In consequence, the statute of limitations was permitted to run against their offenses, but that does not hinder the Government from cancelling their fraudulent claims, as six years from the date of issuance of patent is allowed by law in which to begin such proceedings.

On the Smith entries in Oregon, this time will expire June 4, 1908, and if there is an honest Department of Justice in Washington, there is still ample opportunity for checking this immense steal. The proofs of the frauds relative to much of the Smith lands are in evidence as Government exhibits at Portland, Oregon, in the case of the United States against John H. Mitchell, and have been there since June, 1905, and if no action is taken by the authorities in Washington to utilize this proof and save to the public this vast domain, then it is high time that those responsible should be impeached in disgrace for their perfidy.

In the case of the Walker lands in Northern California and Southern Oregon, embracing several hundred thousand acres of valuable timber, much was located by process of "dummy" entrymen in 1902, but patents were not issued for fully a year thereafter; so there is no excuse for allowing the period to go by in which to proceed, as there is still fully a year left.

That the Land Department in Washington has winked at these frauds all along is a matter of history. On November 9, 1902. the writer made a complete report to Lewis E. Anbury, State Mineralogist of California, covering extensive investigations of Walker's fraudulent timber land operations in the Susanville and Redding Land Districts of California, and a synopsis of this report was not only published in the San Francisco newspapers on November 12, 1902, and sent broadcast throughout the country by the Associated Press, but complete copies of the report itself were transmitted to the Interior Department and General Land Office, and are still on file in those offices.

In that report, fully fifty specific charges of fraud were alleged, and yet. in the face of this evidence. Commissioner of the General Land Office R. A. Ballinger. during his visit to the Pacific Coast in the Summer of 1907, in the course of an interview in the San Francisco Examiner, is cjuoted as declaring that his Department would make no efl:"ort to investigate the Walker entries unless the California State Mining Bureau, or others equally interested, should furnish the General Land Office with "specific charges" of fraud! Just as if it is at all necessary for any State officer to call the attention of a high Government official to matters afi^ecting the public domain of the United States!

It is an episode of history that Nero fiddled while Rome was burning, and it is self-evident that Commissioner Ballinger is a firm disciple of the doctrine that there ought to be a repetition of history, whether the people want it or not.

At the door of avarice can be laid all the sins of the land frauds, and this trait is responsible for the ultimate undoing of the perpetrators. Had Mays, Jones or Kribs been liberal enough not to have allowed avarice to blind them, and had come to Puter's rescue with bonds after his conviction in the 11-7 case. he would have been the last man on earth to have exposed them, and it stands as an indelible record that Puter's co-operation with the Government was the key that unlocked the vaults of corruption, and furnished the means by which United States Senator Mitchell, and others in high official power, were made to suft'er for their offenses.

It was the narrow, selfish natures of this trio that made them afraid of their souls, and caused them to tighten their purse-strings when their old associate in crime pleaded with them for the small boon of freedom. Ready to put up thousands or any unlimited amount when it came to a question of bribery or the corruption of public officials, they were too deeply impregnated with the germs of covetousness, too much the slaves of greed, to chance the loss of a picayune, even though well aware that by reason of their complicity in his fraudulent operations they were completely at his mercy, and that their indifference to his fate was planting in his breast those seeds of hate and revenge whose harvest must be their own dishonor and downfall.

Had Senator Mitchell refrained from making his unfortunate speech in the United States Senate immediately after his first indictment, the probabilities are that the full measure of his infamy would never have been known, because what he said upon that memorable occasion amounted to a challenge for Puter to do his worst, and I have no desire to rake up the dead past to show what that all meant. It is idle for Eastern magazine writers of the "slobbery" variety to declare that Puter's so-called confessions were brought about by detective ability of the "sixth sense" order. I am in a position to state authoritatively that he went to Heney on his own volition, exactly as he has described in one of the chapters, and gave to the Government the information that sounded the doom of the Oregon land frauds.

Those who profited most by Puter's fraudulent operations had recognized in him a daring spirit whose early environs had stamped him with courageous instincts, and they knew he was not afraid to take chances-—-with law or anything else. They found out that they could use him as a battering-ram to break the laws, and open the doors to a vast treasure trove. Sordid motives were behind all their concern for Puter, and when the time came—as come it must where dishonest methods are the incentive—and they realized that the "jig was up," they deserted him as rats leave a sinking ship. To them he was simply a worked-out gold mine, and with all their assumed superior intelligence, blunted, perhaps, by constant contact with greed, and with minds intoxicated by the stimulant of illegitimate gain, they were unable to cope with the problems of retribution—the unexploded blasts in the abandoned shafts.

To Ethan Allen Hitchcock, ex-Secretary of the Interior, must be attributed the principal credit for the suppression of the land-fraud evils, and his greatest luster shines forth as a limelight upon the class of enemies he has made by the operation. Every scoundrel in the land has denounced him for doing what they well knew was his plain duty as an honest official, and if any reward must come to him, it must be in the future from the hearts of a grateful people, and not from politicians.

If doubts have ever existed as to the necessity for the adoption of stringent measures that marked the prosecution of those involved in the crime of looting the public domain, I am reasonably sure a perusal of these pages will have a tendency to remove any such feeling, and convince the most skeptical that Secretary Hitchcock was actuated by sound and lofty motives when he throttled the land-grabbers with the iron hand of the Government. That he did so at an opportune moment, none can deny, because he was dealing with an element that had become so bold in their designs that they felt themselves above the law, and it was a case of a desperate ailment requiring a desperate remedy.

The influence of any class imbued with corruptive methods is detrimental to the best interests of a community, and there is no use in denying that those who have been instrumental in causing so much rank perjury in connection with the acquisition of titles, are responsible for a condition that has left its mark upon the people of the public land States in a manner comparable to the trail of a serpient.

There is a compensating side to these land frauds, after all. The fact of attempted fraud of so stupendous a character discloses in itself that the prize was great which moved men to chance their reputations and jeopardize their personal liberty. They were at least seeking something that was worth the having. Men are not likely to take these risks unless the inducements are sufficiently alluring to excite, to the last degree, the cupidity in their natures. This does not involve any defense of fraud. It simply brings to the attention of the world, through this medium, the marvelous opportunities for the honest acquisition of wealth that abound in the West.

The history of any great undertaking wherein exploration has figured, and wherein conditions have demanded the exercise of abnormal energy, indicates clearly that there is nothing in the world worth having that can be attained without a compensating hardship of some sort. The gold of the Klondike was buried far below the surface in icy moss; the treasures of Tonopah and Goldfield lie deep beneath the sands of an appalling desert; and so of the vast domain of Oregon, with the immense wealth that is wrapped up in its undeveloped forests and stock ranges; they offer difficulties in the way of acquisition by legal process that have moved men to criminal expedients that the road tlirongli honest attainment might be shortened.

It might be erroneously supposed, because of this criminal activity, that there was lack of opportunity for the honest acquirement of public land in this State; that as a matter of fact such land was scarce. The contrary is the case. There are millions of acres of Government land lying within the borders of Oregon. By far the greater portion of it is subject to entry on a legitimate basis and in various ways. In short, the opportunity has ripened since thieves have been run to cover for l)ona-fide settlers to come forward and secure the cream of this immense domain.

The land area of Oregon is more than 66,000,000 acres. Of this 17,730,000 acres is vacant Government land, available for settlement, according to the last report of the Commissioner of the General Land Office. That it varies in character goes without saying, but there is a sufficiency of most excellent quality to induce any honest citizen to become a prospector upon a legitimate basis, with the view of acquiring a homestead or timber claim. The land laws of the United States are liberal enough to suit every requirement. They were framed originally to encourage the settlement of the country. In many localities chances offer for a person to obtain temporary employment in the neighborhood where he desires to locate, which brings to hand a measure of income while he is proving up his claim in accordance with law. He is permitted to do this under the regulations of the Land Department, providing he does not abuse the privilege.

Soil that is rich enough to grow pine trees of the magnitude that flourish in the Northwest, is certainly sufficiently prolific to produce fruit of the size and flavor that has made this region famous, and which retail in all markets at attractive figures, so the inference is obvious, and the value of logged-ofif lands for agricultural purposes has been thoroughly demonstrated in every section of the Northwest.

That this book will be found unique in many respects, is a foregone conclusion. Probably no other work of similar import has ever been published, and in all human probability, occasion may never again arise for its counterpart, because the inspiration for the idea was based upon conditions that are fast disappearing, and the reign of the landgrabber, of the type with uncouth methods, like the rapidly dissipating ranks of the buffalo herds, the decadence of the red men, and the passing of all that goes to make up the picturesque features of Western history, has departed forever, and as a class that has been considered in these pages, they have made their last stand of any serious consequence on this continent. In their stead has arisen a new generation of plunderers, more subtle and swift in their operations, because the looting of the public domain has now become one of the gentler arts, and the "dummy" timber entryman and perjured homesteader, with their ways redolent of the frontier, have given place to the polished enactments of a subservient Congress, which is interpreting the land laws to meet the requirements of greedy corporations, without any heed whatever to the people's rights.

It is noteworthy that the contents of this volume furnishes an object lesson in support of the idea that there is remarkable similarity in all fraudulent enterprises, and that the scheme of looting the public domain is merely a by-product of the general system of plunder running riot throughout the country. The same tools are used upon all occasions where it is found expedient to rob the people. The same Courts are tampered with, the same members of both branches of Congress are in line, and the same heads of Departments in Washington are polluted each time, until it has come to be regarded as certain that vast interests have fattened on the life-blood of the nation by process of having a veteran force at their constant command. It goes to show that there is a close bond between the plunderers of every description, upon the same principle that there is honor among thieves, and they have developed a vein of activity in this country that has its parallel in the history of the downfall of the Roman Empire.

No nation can long survive the reign of corruption that has characterized the speculative craze existing in America during the past decade. It has permeated all branches of public service, and the history of the land frauds of the West is the history of corruptive tactics in other directions. Corruption is a hydra-headed monster of hideous mien, and the fact that it has been exposed wholesale by the land fraud trials in Oregon, and the graft prosecutions in San Francisco, and in retail fashion in other States and other cities, should never be accepted that it is dead beyond all power of resurrection.

Portland, Oregon, March 10, 1908.

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Buffalo Head on Wyoming Plains


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Puter's old home in Humboldt County, Cal. It was here the author was reared. When scarcely 19 years old, he built the house and barn almost without assistance. Puter may be observed standing by his sister—on horseback

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).