A dark time in Oregon’s history began in Crook County and more specifically Prineville, Oregon on March 15, 1882. Two men named A.H. Crooks and Stephen Jory were marking boundary lines near the ranch of a man named Lucius Langdon near the town of Prinville. The two men took a break for lunch and when they returned Mr. Langdon stood waiting with a shotgun and killed them both. Some say this marked the beginning of a dark two year period in Crook County.
A posse went to the ranch of Langdon and arrested him. A masked vigilante group busted into what was believed to be the holding cell area and shot Langdon 5 to 6 times. They then took aforementioned innocent man W.H. Harrison who was the ranch hand of Langdon and apparently nowhere near the murder of Crooks and Jory. The vigilantes accused the innocent man of being a part of the killings, dragged him through the main street in Prineville behind a running horse and hung him from the Crooked River Bridge. The town of Prineville was not in support of the actions taken by the vigilantes but could do little about it as they were armed and masked. With that being said many did support the action taken by the vigilantes at first until they realized that the vigilantes were not on the side of the law.
“When a band of men went outside the law … to revenge the killings, they also hanged an innocent man, and started a rule by gun and rope that is one of the blackest chapters in Oregon’s history,” was what the future sheriff and local rancher James Blakely reported to the Morning Oregonian reporter several years later.
Like most vigilante groups they begin with the support of the community because they are usually formed because of the lack of law enforcement. The Prineville Vigilantes were no different and tried to justify their actions when they knew they themselves were becoming lawless.
In one particular incident the vigilantes hung a horse jockey named Charles Luster as they accused him of trying to steal a horse. Word on the street however was that Luster refused to throw a race on behalf of some of the members in the vigilante group. Many believed it was extremely convenient how Luster suddenly decided to start stealing horses (or was accused of doing so). The vigilantes weren’t the saviors of Prineville, they were the problem and like many corrupt vigilante groups they abused their power.
When the community started to turn against the vigilantes (in support), anything that went wrong in the community was blamed on the vigilantes. When two men that spoke against the vigilantes one was later found dead and the other disappeared without a trace.
Blakely didn’t care for the vigilante behavior happening in his community and decided to be the leader of a group to oppose them. It was an anti-vigilante group which has been known to come out of areas where vigilantism goes wrong. Blakely’s anti-vigilante group was called the Moonshiners because that is when their vigilant watch began, at night. This was the time they looked for anyone wearing a mask while riding.
Blakely had help organizing the anti-vigilante group and they started off very small. They would have secret meetings and little was known what would take place at the meetings. Over time their numbers grew and they could finally take an aggressive stand against the out of control vigilante group led by Thompson.
The vigilante group that Blakely was against was headed up by Col. William Thompson (though apparently he denied any involvement). Thompson wore several hats that included being a pioneer printer, editor, gun slinger and a judge. He was commissioned Colonel in the Oregon Militia to fight Captain Jack’s Modoc Indians.
Blakely came up with a plan to stop the vigilante behavior by spreading a message that would eventually reach Thompson’s vigilante group. The rumor was that each Moonshiner had the name of a man to kill if there were any further murders in Crook County. The vigilantes were plotting to kill Blakely and Blakely knew it. So one night Blakely and the Moonshiners waited outside of the saloon where many of the vigilantes were drinking. Blakely said, ‘If you think you can stop us, come on out and try it! No one within saloon made a move or made a peep. After an extended period of time the Moonshiners departed the area and returned to their homes.
The vigilantes were humiliated over the incident and never rode again and Thompson left town.
The first elected sheriff in Crook County was Blakely which happened two years after he rid Crook County of the vigilantes. Blakely lived to be 100 years old which is quite a feat for any man.