TAMING THE FRONTIER
By Ethel Cochran Shinn
This is the first of a two part series reflecting how people lived on the frontier of North Central Idaho in the early part of the last century. This collection of related stories are from family archives. Some of the material was written for a book titled Pioneer Days, published by John Cochran in 1942. In 1968 The Idaho County Free Press in Grangeville printed a portion of this material in a small pamphlet and distributed it to their subscribers.
The Doumecq Plains were made when God created the earth, but like all places, at one time it was just wide open spaces-unexplored by the white people coming to the Northwest. According to history, it was the hunting and grazing land of the Indians until the Nez Perce war of 1877. After the first confrontation between the races at Mt. Idaho the Indians escaped into the Whitebird Canyon, forded the Salmon River and climbed up to the plains. General Howard followed-not far behind. The Indians, under the direction of Chief Joseph, moved quietly and swiftly to the westernmost plateau that is now called the Joseph Plains. General Howard and his troops climbed the mountain across the river from Whitebird, but camped for several days at the highest point and watched for smoke or movement from the Indians they were pursuing. This high spot is now called "Camp Howard" and a spring rising on the flat meadow is the start of Rice Creek that separates Joseph plains from Doumecq. Chief Joseph and his following did not start fires-they moved north, dropped to the Salmon River and crossed at the mouth of Rice Creek, proceeded up Graves Creek and across Camas Prairie. Their next encounter with the whites was at Battle Ridge-in the south fork of Clearwater drainage.
After the 1877 Indian war Doumecq and Joseph plains (the area between the Snake and Salmon Rivers) was considered government land and U.S. Army units patrolled the area occasionally. They provided the only law and order that existed in the region.
In the early 1880s white men began to climb the hill from Whitebird and attempt to make a living in this wild and open country. Most were only squatters on the land. Mr. Richardson was one of the earliest. Mr. Doumecq, a Frenchman with an Indian wife, had cattle and ran them on the plains. Their son, John, had large holdings near Whitebird and his cattle ranged on the grass in the high country. Doumecq Plains is named for him.
The land between the Salmon and Snake River was made available for homesteading after the Indian settlement bill was signed by President
Grover Cleveland in 1888 and people began to go "Up to Doumecq" to find a homesite.. Everyone said "Up" to Doumecq because the plain was about 3000 feet higher in elevation than Whitebird,
Every man and unmarried woman, who was a citizen of the United States and 21 years of age had the right to file on a quarter section (160 acres) of government land for a homestead if he (or she) could find any land. The filer had to promise to live on the land and improve it. In five years the government would give him or her a deed to the land if the promises had been kept. Charlie Crawford was another of the early settlers on the plains. As children, we knew him as Smoky-he had spent his first winter on the plains living in a hollow log.
One of the favorite stories of Charlie Crawford, an early settler on the plains, was of the attempt by the Army to control of the Salmon River country after the 1877 Indian war. This is one of many stories Charlie told fascinated children, including me, during the first few years of the century. He could hold the audience's attention, even though the authenticity of some of his stories probably cannot be verified.
When the land reallocated by the Nez Perce Indian War in 1877 was ready to be released for homesteading local cowboys were hired to gather all the Indian and undocumented cattle and deliver them to the soldiers on the Salmon River. This was done, and all the cattle were assembled in one place. Many soldiers were stationed around the cattle herd overnight. The cattle were very wild so the soldier stations had to be as much as a quarter of a mile from the herd or there might be a stampede. Each station was situated within talking distance of the adjoining one. The first watch was until midnight, then the new guards came on duty.
Mr. Glatina, a Frenchman, operated a store and saloon not far from the mouth of Whitebird Creek downstream from where the bridge now crosses the Salmon River to get to Doumecq Plains. Several men met at the saloon on that night. They left at a pre-midnight hour with jugs of whiskey. When the watch changed a jug of whiskey was placed at each station. The early morning hours were lonely and tiresome. Rather than risk sleep the soldiers freely nipped on the whiskey. In fact, they became drunk.
When the morning dawned there stood, or laid, the watchmen guarding an empty space. The cattle were all gone. The cattle were not branded, the soldiers would not know them. It was strange, but the cowboys could not even find a track to trace the way a thousand head of cattle had gone. It was one of the largest "rustling" jobs ever accomplished.
Land, Land, Land
My father, John Cochran, had come west from Tennessee hoping to find a piece of land of his own. He had learned of the opportunity to homestead land on Doumecq from John Keith, who had stopped at the Cochran home in the Colfax area in the fall of 1897. Father had a good friend, B. F. Maxey, in Cottonwood. They had not seen each other for ten years so Father decided to visit him. It was after this visit that he decided to move his family from the rented home in the Palouse country to file on a homestead on the newly opened land on Doumecq.
The first step was to move from Colfax to Cottonwood (See story in December 2001 Golden Age. Where he rented an 11 x 14 foot cabin with a lean-to kitchen for the family. At this time the family consisted of our parents and seven children-six girls and one boy. I was the second oldest girl. Our family stayed in Cottonwood for a year and a half and the children went to school. Father could earn money with his team and wagon, plowing for farmers and putting up hay. In his free time he worked at the homestead and started building a small log house for the family.
In November 1900 the family moved again-this time to Whitebird that was nearer the homestead on Doumecq plains. Father built a house in Whitebird on a homestead owned by Dr. Wilson Foskett, by his permission. Whitebird was a thriving village. It consisted of a grade school, Methodist Church, hotel, drugstore, post office, butcher shop, blacksmith shop, lodge hall, and two saloons-one of which is still operating. We children attended the school-it had not been operating very long. There was another addition to our family while in Whitebird-little baby Ruth was born. Father worked on the homestead during the week and tried to be in Whitebird on Sunday to go to Sunday school and church. Usually Father and Dr. Foskett were the only men in church.
In the spring of 1901, when school was out, it was time to move to our new home. Our homestead on Doumecq plains was only fifteen or so miles away, but it was not an easy journey. The elevation of the farm was 4000 feet above sea level-it was a difficult climb and the roads were almost non-existent. Our wagon was loaded with household goods and the family started with their animals being driven in front.
Our first obstacle was the Salmon River-we planned to cross it by ferry. When we arrived at the river Mr.Remington, the owner, told us the ferry was disabled by a herd of disorderly horses as they crossed. While the men were working on the ferry a neighbor living on the other side of the river brought back a wagon he had borrowed. Mr. Remington suggested that my father take this wagon which was on the Doumecq side of the river to move us home. Our wagon would be left on the Whitebird side for the time being. Two Doumecq friends, Jake Wooster and John Keith, were at the river and offered to take us across the river in a skiff, if we would swim the cattle. This, my father agreed to do, as it was mid-morning and much more work needed to be done on the ferry boat before it could be used.
The cows were rounded up and they simply refused to swim. Father roped one and dragged her into the river and she floated across with Father holding her head above the water while the other men rowed the boat. As soon as they got her on dry ground and took off the rope, she jumped back into the river and swam back to where the rest of the cows were waiting. After her second trip across the cow was securely tied to a tree. The horses swam across easily. Many trips were made to get all the animals and household goods across the river.
On the last trip, after all the goods were safely packed in Mr. Remington's wagon, Mother and we children were taken across. I was scared of the water. Probably it was my first boat trip. I shouted to any one who would listen, "If this boat upsets I'm not going to do one thing!" What could a frightened thirteen-year old girl do to stop the mighty Salmon River? I was reminded of my outburst many times by family members in later years. It was well after noon before we had all the cattle and household goods ferried across the river, and we were still fourteen miles from what was going to be our home. But all was not lost-the weather was beautiful, the cows seemed to be in a happier state of mind, and we were on the "home side" of the river. There was no real road or switchbacks up the steep hillside. We just drove the heavily loaded wagon up the canyon and the wheels bounced over the rocks and boulders. It was very hard on both horses and machinery, but we children were happy with the exciting new experience.
But, oh, the beauty of the canyon! In June the syringa bushes with snowy white blossoms were all along the creek; the thorn bushes, service berries, and elderberries grew so thick along the creek one seldom saw the water. Great towering pine trees grew on the rocky slopes. We children would gather the green pine needles and make long chain, ginger rings, and spectacles for our eyes.
The terrain between Whitebird and Doumecq Plains.
Salmon River is visible in mid-picture Doumecq plains are on the extreme right. Marion Shinn photo.
About half way up the hill we came to the Newt Otto homestead. He had built a house out of whip-sawed lumber which is still in use today. A spring located a short distance from the house provided an ample supply of water and it ran into a watering trough that had been hollowed out of a log. The cool clear water ran into this trough all the time and overflowed creating a tiny stream. Travelers stopped here to water their horses. Most people traveling in this country used a saddle horse followed by a pack animal-going by wagon was very difficult. Men driving down from the mountain tied a jack-pine on the back of the wagon to keep it from running over the horses.
After hours of climbing over rocks and around logs we arrived at the top of the hill. The land opened out and we were on a beautiful green prairie about nine miles long and six miles wide and at the lower end it was divided by Center Canyon. Trees, mostly pine and fir, were abundant in the canyons. The flat prairie land was covered with lush green native grass. On the east the land broke off into the rugged Salmon River country that is now called Hellsgate, and on the west into the Rice Creek breaks. Further to the west was the Joseph Plains, an even larger flat plateau, which dropped off into the Snake River. Home was three miles further north and travel was easy after we were on the flat open land. Father had built a small log cabin for us. What a thrill-we were home at last!
The Family Homestead
In the fall of 1897 Father could see the Doumecq plains on the horizon to the south from his old friend B. W. Maxey's house in Cottonwood, but it was not easy to get there. He went down a rocky twisty trail along Graves Creek. He crossed the creek 23 times in 10 miles. He came to the Salmon River at the mouth of Rice Creek. He paid Mr. Smith, a Cottonwood resident, fifty cents and crossed on a ferry. He rode up Rice Creek to the mouth of Center Canyon. Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson lived there-they showed him the way UP to Doumecq. The trail up the hill, now called Fick's Point, was very steep. When his horse would get winded Father would get off and walk awhile. After the long, steep climb he came out on a flat field. Father said aloud to his fagged pony "This is the place." He rode to Mr. Keith's home and spent the night. He returned home to the Palouse and told the family he had found the place.
Life does not always happen as planned. When he returned to Doumecq he found that Mr. Fick and his son Ed had walked up the same steep point and discovered that beautiful flat land. They had laid four logs in a square, indicating the land was theirs, and rushed to Lewiston to file their homestead claim. Father had to hunt another place!
After considerable looking Father found another place and it seemed even more desirable than the first. He got his logs from a little grove of trees, crossed them to show ownership, and rushed back to Lewiston to file on the 160 acres of land. The men at the land office said a man named Grant had filed on this homestead a few years before, but he had not lived on it. Father could 'jump' the claim, or locate Mr. Grant and get him to relinquish his right. No one seemed to know where Mr. Grant had gone. Father again got in touch with the land office. They told him that if Mr. Grant was or had been in the army during the Spanish American War, he had a right to keep his claim for five more years, even if he had not improved it. The Grant relatives told Father the young man had not been in the military, but that was not proof enough for the land office. Father was not a trouble borrower and was sure things would work out for the best, so he started to improve the land and build a log cabin. It had two rooms on the main floor and two small bed rooms upstairs. It was barely large enough for the close knit family of 10. A lean-to kitchen and another bedroom was built after the family moved into the house. A room for the post office was attached in 1908. Mr. Grant never did appear and in five years his claim to the land was void. Father filed on it and in another five years he 'proved up' on the property and was given a deed. He was allowed two more years on the land-a total of twelve-before he was required to pay any property taxes.
Log home built in 1900. Two youngest children, Ruth and Sid are on the porch. The lean-to shed on the right was the kitchen. Shinn family photographs circa 1908
Over the next decade most of the available land was filed on by homesteaders and the population on the plains increased to more than a hundred people, We had become a thriving community. Communication and transportation had improved and the people on the fertile homesteads were much more prosperous than in those early years. Father and a couple of other men decided it was time to build better homes. They bought a new sawmill with an engine and hired Jack Spencer, an old railroad engineer, to put the mill in action. The local men traded work to haul the logs and cut the lumber.
Charlie Crawford built the first house and it was beautiful by our standards. There was nothing in the forks of the river that rivaled it. Next, in 1914, it was Father's turn to build. He wanted a bedroom for each of his children-but two of us were married and gone before he started building.
off the lawn
This house was built in 1914 and is still in use. The rock wall and fence was built to keep sheep and cattle
Shinn Family photos
The structure has 12 rooms, a large upstairs hall, and an entry foyer with a beautiful staircase-it reflected the gracious houses of the south. A covered porch extended around most of the building.
The rough-cut boards on the interior walls were covered with cheesecloth and heavy wallpaper. This covering has served well for more than half a century. The exterior siding was tongue and grooved and the boards were planed by hand. The house was painted white and was a showpiece in the community.
In 1906, when she was 21, my sister Edna filed on a homestead north of the home place and built a crude cabin to prove up on her land. Later two other sisters, Mary and Omie, filed on much steeper land further down the canyon toward Rice Creek. When it was all put together (by 1912) the entire spread of family land was over 1000 acres and included both level farm land and steep hillsides suitable for grazing cattle and sheep.
Some of the Early Settlers
Oscar F. Canfield was our nearest neighbor. He was one of the young children that survived the Whitman Massacre in 1847. His father was a black smith and had just arrived at the missionary compound when the massacre occurred. The family was still living in their wagon. Oscar' father hid from the Indians and walked to Spalding to try and find help. The family was held captive for several months before their release was negotiated. Oscar spent fifty years traveling around Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, and California as a miner and farmer. He and his family moved to the Doumecq Plains about 1891. His Doumecq family consisted of his wife Ann, one daughter, Lottie, who married a man named Booth, and four grown sons-Sherm, Bert, Oliver (also called Ol and Gulligan) and Joe. When we arrived on the plains, Sherm and Bert were both married. Two other daughters did not live on Doumecq. Ann Canfield's parents, the Maples, were also a part of the family. Mr. Maples died in 1892, the year after they arrived. Oscar and Ann, Lottie, the four sons, and Mrs. Maples each filed on their own 160 acre homesteads and most of the property joined.
Since Mrs. Maples could not live alone, the Canfield house was built across the property line. Mrs. Maples bedroom was on her side of the line and she proved up on her homestead. One year, as a birthday surprise to her, the family covered her bedroom walls with real wallpaper-the rest of the house was papered with newspapers.
Oscar was almost 70 years old, quite a rough old character at times, but a joy to the younger folks-sometimes to his wife's annoyance. In spite of their tendency to wild living all of the Canfields were very kind neighbors. Many years later we learned that Oliver was a major suspect in the killing of a whole camp of Chinese on the Snake River, but he was never convicted.
The Canfield/Maples house was built about the turn of the century with lumber cut with a horse powered whip saw. The house was later used as a granary and eventually abandoned. Picture taken in the 1930s. It burned to the ground in 1944. Shinn family photo
One of the earliest full time residents was Charley Crawford-he came to the plains in November 1890. The first winter he lived in a hollow log and made a fire just outside of the opening to keep warm. For years he was known as Smoky. Later he built a house, married and had a daughter, Esther. Even though she moved away, Esther remained a friend for life.
H.A. (Alec) Shinn came from Nebraska where he rented land by the year and moved from one farm to another. They came west to be near relatives in Garfield, Washington. They heard of the Doumecq and moved to the plains and homesteaded before 1900. He and his wife, Georgia had eight children. Alec's sister in law, Mrs. Elizabeth Shinn, a widow with four children, came to the plains in December 1900 and her bachelor brother-in-laws Charlie and Ed were with them. Lizzie bought the homestead rights on a piece of land near Alec. This family became important to me-a decade later I married Ray, the oldest son. We worked as a team for more than half a century-first on Doumecq and later in our retirement years
Many families, more than can be recognized in this story, came to the plains in the next decade or two and the population of Doumecq raised to more than one hundred fifty people Our frontier slowly changed from a wild and lawless land to a happy
A Choice--Open Range or Barbed Wire!
The land between the rivers had been mainly open cattle range during the last two decades of the 18th century. The cattlemen marked their animals in various ways so that when round-up time came they could recognize their own. Mr. Wyatt had cattle all over these hills. He marked them with a 'dulap'-a long slit on the front neck that caused the strip to hang down. In an instant one could determine it was a Wyatt animal. Many times cattle would wander twenty miles from the home ranch.
When homesteaders began to settle on the land and build fences many of the old-timers did what they could to discourage them. Some of the cattlemen, especially men whose cattle grazed the open range, responded by putting salt under the fences. The cattle would push the wires to get the salt and frequently break down the fence. While the animals were on that side of the fence they would eat and destroy the crop of grain or hay. Farmers had to inspect their fence lines every day. Sheep men also started grazing their flocks on the plains-the sheep were competition for the grass and they ruined the range for the cattle. Sheep eat the grass closer to the ground. Frequently, there was strife between the sheepmen and cattlemen and it sometimes it erupted into violence.
While we were living in Whitebird, in early 1901, we observed this violence first hand. A man named Myers, who squatted on a piece of land, put up a fence and attempted to plant crops of grain. Farmers were not welcome-the cattlemen wanted the land left as open range and asked Myers to leave. He refused-he wanted a home. The rowdy cattlemen annoyed Myers in many ways. His fence was cut and the crops were destroyed. After about a year he became angry. Seeing a fellow cut his fence, he shot him and that caused resentment among the cattlemen.
I remember well seeing the sheriff taking Mr. Myers through Whitebird en route to the jail in Mt. Idaho or Grangeville. (By this time there was some law enforcement in Whitebird) In about 20 minutes two men rode out of town, soon two or three more, then even more. A total of about 20 men followed the sheriff and the prisoner. There was a whisper through town, "The mob is after Myers!" A mile or two out of town the mob overtook the sheriff and his prisoner and strung Myers from a tree limb-the man that wanted to be a farmer and to have a home was dead.
Father was the first farmer on the plains to plow and plant a significant piece of land. With two or three horses, he turned over about 40 acres of virgin land with a hand-held plow, sometimes called a 'foot burner'-one furrow at a time. While he was plowing a young cowboy rode up and told him he was wasting his time-the cattle would eat the crop. Father replied "I'm going to build a fence." The cowboys reply: "Sometimes fences fall down." Then he rode away. Fortunately, the crop was harvested without incident.
At harvest time Father put some of the ripened grain on a canvas sheet in the corral and drove in a bunch of horses. After the animals had been driven over the grain many times the straw was lifted off with a pitchfork. On a windy day the grain was poured from one bucket to another and the wind blew away the chaff. He separated enough grain for next year's seed. The rest of the crop was fed to the animals without being thrashed.
Before there were drills the grain was sown by hand. On small plots the man would walk the fields with his seed grain in a special sack designed so the top would be held open. On larger fields a saddle horse or a wagon was used. One man drove the team and another threw the grain. Ear covers were used on the horses to prevent grain from getting in their ears.
Much later, after many other farmers started planting wheat, fences divided most of the homesteads and cattle no longer ranged free over the plains. Father, Frank Allen, and D. M. Ripley bought a used threshing machine that was operated by horse-power. A team of horses went around and around to provide power-one man pitched the mowed grain onto a platform where a second man pushed it into a rotating cylinder that ground up the stalks. A third man was needed to remove the straw from the back and a fourth jigged the grain as it poured into a sack. It was a slow and dirty job, but much better than running the horses over it. The straw was valuable as roughage for the animals or for bedding.
The land was productive. One of the best producing wheat species was named Forty-Fold. Frequently the plants were 6 feet tall. It had one great disadvantage, the heads snapped off easily and there was much grain left on the ground. This was not really a waste. The animals foraged on the stubble and retrieved the grain. Shinn Family Photo.
Soon binders became common and the bundles were put in stacks. This allowed the thresher to operate long after the winter rains began.
Eventually ten farmers went together and purchased a new Columbia threshing machine and a steam engine. The engine went up the hill easily, but getting the large thresher up the 2500 feet from Whitebird and around the steep switchbacks was a challenge and required most of the men in the community.
First steam engine A shock of forty-fold
Shinn Family Photos
During the harvest season threshing crews, consisting of 20 or 25 men, moved from one ranch to the next to thresh the grain. They traded time for men and horses instead of using money. The work day was from daylight until dark. It was an even longer day for the men who were wagon drivers-their first responsibility was to their horses.
Feeding the men was a major undertaking for the women in the community. There was a subtle and secret competition between the ladies to see who could put the best spread of food on the table. Desserts were usually a delicacy. Calories were not a consideration in those times. Frequently a sheep or beef was killed to provide fresh meat-there was no refrigeration. None of the homes had running water and everything was heated on the wood fired kitchen range. We used gasoline lanterns for light during preparation of breakfast and the cleanup after the evening meal. Small children, too young to work in the field, were a part of this important annual event. Drinking water had to be provided to the men in the field, there were lots of dishes to wash, and on the days fried chicken was on the menu the children had to catch the chicken, chop off its head, and help pluck it.
A typical threshing crew included four bundle wagons, a water tank, and a wagon to haul grain in addition to the men working around the machine and the pitchers in the field. Shinn family photo.
At mealtime buckets of hot water, soap, wash basins, and a common towel were on a bench outside the door. Men, dirty from thresher dust, lined up to wash themselves before meals. A bucket with fresh cold drinking water, with a common dipper, was nearby so the men could drink their fill after a hard hot day in the fields. A temporary table was made outside by placing long boards over saw horses. The rough boards were covered with strips of muslin cloth. Wooden benches were used for seating. The whole crew was together for their meals and eating, especially the evening meal, was a happy social event.
Men who lived nearby would ride home on their saddle horse to do their own chores. However, many had bedrolls and slept in the barn.
Wet winter weather sometimes struck before the threshing crew could get to all the fields on the plains. Wet grain sometimes sprouted in the shocks. It was not uncommon for farmers to stack their bundles near their barn or feed lots. The heads with the wheat were placed in the middle of the stack to protect them. This was before the day of plastic coverings-it took skill to build a water resistant top on the stack. Sometimes the snow was shoveled from the top of the stack before the grain could be threshed.
Our first combine-about 1939
Shinn Family Photo.
Eventually, by the mid-to-late 1930s, combines pulled by 4 or more horses replaced the threshing machine. The huge threshing crews and the sharing of our community time and talents was no longer necessary. A driver and a grain sack-jigger were all the manpower needed. The sewed sacks of grain were dropped in the field and picked up later. The straw was spread in the field and was no longer available for bedding and supplemental bulk in the feed supply. A decade later tractors were common and draft horses were no longer our major source of power.
Do you know me, John? (Circa 1903)
Father had severe headaches about three times a year. The family called them "sick headaches." He went to bed, Mother packed his head with hot or cold compresses. He groaned and moaned and the children walked to tip toes. It was a serious time, although they never had a doctor. One night between eight and nine o'clock Herman Bicksel came. He talked with Mother a little while, then asked where Father was. She told him that Father had a sick headache and was in bed. Herman asked to see him. She said he was too sick to talk, but the visitor insisted. Mother thought he must have an important reason to see him. Herman went into the sick room. Mother said, "Mr. Bicksel wants to see you." She moved the compress higher on his forehead so he could see. Father opened his eyes and spoke something like "Hello Herman" and closed his eyes again.
Herman said "Do you know who I am, John?"
Father's eyes flew open and he impatiently said, "Yes, I know who you are!"
Herman talked a few minutes on unimportant topics and then said, "Hope you are better tomorrow, John" and left.
The visit left both Father and Mother curious. Why was he so insistent on seeing Father? The next day someone told us the cattlemen and sheepmen had a fight on Rice Creek the night before. A lot of sheep were shot. Herman wanted a witness that he was not with those fighters.
Years later, after I was married and had a family of my own, we moved to the old Canfield Place-Oscar's homestead. My husband, Ray, tore down an old building that had been used for many things-the latest being a granary. He found a pair of boots and a rifle hidden in the floor joists between the upstairs floor and the downstairs ceiling. We suspected the incriminating evidence belonged to one of the cattlemen who was involved with shooting the sheep a couple of decades earlier.
This narrative comes from the information that has been gathered over many decades and is part of the family files. A second story from these files will be published in the June 2003 issue of the Golden Age. It will tell of the development of the schools, roads, and other amenities that make a frontier into a community.