The Horse King of The West: Legend of Oregon’s High Desert

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He was a “bad man” from Texas by the name of John Overstreet, and he was grazing his sheep where they didn’t belong.

Overstreet had the misfortune of trespassing onto a meadow owned by three of the Brown brothers, who had originally settled in New Era between Canby and Oregon City, before looking east. Two would eventually return.

Of the three, the eldest was William Walter, better known as W. W. or simply Bill, and especially “Old Bill” in his later years.

“Tall and gaunt as a wind-whipped juniper tree” and “tougher than sun-tanned rawhide,” he was destined to become a legend — one of the most colorful figures in eastern Oregon and, at one time, one of the richest men in the Pacific Northwest. Newspapers would dub him the “Horse King of the West” and the “Millionaire Horse King.”

But on this day, he was just William Brown, a 31-year-old former schoolteacher. He was the third of seven children, born in Wisconsin to a family of English immigrants.

Four years earlier, he had bought an equal share in a flock of 1,000 sheep with his two younger brothers, Robert and George Henry (more on him later). The brothers had driven their flock from the Willamette Valley to Harney County.

They laid claim to a homestead on the east slope of Wagontire Mountain, where they built a small rustic cabin with a dirt floor and no windows whatsoever. Sheep was a growth industry in the 1880s, and the brothers rapidly expanded their herd and their territory by buying up neighboring properties with water sources.

By the mid-1880s, they were producing 32,000 pounds (15,000 kg) of wool per year.

It was in 1886 that John Overstreet stumbled across their path. Bill Brown warned Overstreet that he was trespassing — something he probably already knew. He was their neighbor’s hired hand, after all. But Overstreet refused to move along, and the two men grabbed their guns.

A shootout ensued. Overstreet lost. Bill reported the incident to the justice of the peace in nearby Silver Lake. The grand jury refused to return an indictment, citing self-defense.

This was untamed country. Ranchers faced threats not only from their neighbors, but also Mother Nature. Bears and mountain lions were an ever-present danger. Even the weather could be deadly. In 1889, the brothers lost 95 percent of their herds — which by then had grown to more than 10,000 — during an especially long and brutal winter.

It was what they called a “double winter,” one that would start in October and seem done by February, only to have new snow come and set in again. Only 500 of the Browns’ survived, and Robert and George moved back to the Canby area in search of greener pastures. Literally.

Actually, George seems to have soured on the sheep business altogether. He became a producer of a heartier stock — the potato. He quickly gained the reputation of a pioneer in the cultivation of Oregon spuds, and one of the first to export the commodity to other states via carload.

Whether George was gifted with an especially verdant green thumb, or there was simply something special in the soils of his New Era farm, we’ll never know, but he regularly reported harvesting more than 200 bushels per acre throughout the early 1900s — double the average yield in those days.

Like his brother — who hadn’t yet earned his royal nickname — George was soon known as the “Potato King of Clackamas County,” and potatoes became one of Canby’s main agricultural exports.

The Canby Ferry, trundling slowly across the Willamette laden with tons of stuffed potato sacks, was a common sight in those days, and George was a very wealthy man. His reported income of $40,000 in 1917 would be the equivalent of somewhere north of $800,000 today.

He had five children and became president of the Bank of Commerce in his later years, serving as chairman of its board of directors until his death in 1930.

Meanwhile, back in eastern Oregon, Bill Brown was not slouching either. From the 500-some sheep that had survived the winter of 1889, he gradually rebuilt his sheep operation to over 22,000 animals.

In 1892, Bill began buying small horse herds from his neighbors, usually for around $3 to $10 a head. Though his sheep operation was larger, and the sheep were always his favorite, it was his vast herds of wild horses that he would come to be known for.

As with most things, he was eccentric about his horses. He bought good stallions, and raised “American” horses, he would later tell the Statesman Journal.

He marked them with the Horseshoe Bar symbol, and he guarded his brand with a ruthlessness that would have impressed Steve Jobs. He refused to sell them to his neighbors — or anyone who planned to use them in Oregon — and so, any horse in the state bearing the Horseshoe Bar was presumed to be the property of Bill Brown. Every horse he sold had its Horseshoe Bar mark carefully exed out with hot irons.

It became one of the most famous and instantly recognizable symbols in eastern Oregon, the Bend Bulletin would later note, the “coat of arms” of Bill’s rangeland empire.

Chasing and gathering wild horses was tricky business. It required men who knew horses intuitively, better even than the horses knew themselves. Bill’s buckaroos also had to know the land, and had to ride horses that were as fearless and fleet-footed as the stallions they aimed to capture.

They had to trust their horse to smell hidden badger holes, to avoid sagebrush and juniper trees, to know which direction to take their riders, and to have enough endurance to outlast the stallion and his harem. The danger added to the excitement of the chase.

Horse raising was a lucrative enterprise for those who could capitalize on the military needs of the early 20th century, and Bill Brown was one of the first documented defense contractors in U.S. history.

He made a killing, though not literally, in the Spanish-American War of 1898. He sold thousands of horses to the U.S. Army, at shrewdly high mark-ups: $80 to $100 each.

Even after the war ended, he continued to sell thousands of horses to the army each year. Foreign powers, like the United Kingdom, also sent agents to central Oregon to purchase stock from Old Bill.

Sometimes, he would sell horses to an intermediary, who would break them and then flip them for sale to the military. In Legend of Oregon’s High Desert, a book about Bill by Edward Gray, one of his former buckaroos, Sumner Houston, recalled one time he sold a pile of horses to a Montana outfit at an auction in Crane. He brought back a check for $100,000 — well over a million bucks today.

War of a much less profitable sort was about to break out across the open range, and Old Bill would get an unpleasant taste of it. But that story will have to wait till next time, on Canby Then.

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