Peter French 1849-1892  

He was born on his father's ranch near Red Bluff, California, in 1849. He ran away from home at a fairly young age. He ended up at the wheat and cattle ranch of Dr. Hugh Glenn near Chico. After a time he married the doctor's daughter.
Dr. Glenn was one of the largest landowners in the Sacramento area and he wanted more. He had heard that there was prime grazing land in eastern Oregon. He sent Peter French up there in 1873 to scout the area. If he saw anything good he was to buy it. French was just 24 years old at the time.
French roamed the area until he came to the Blitzen Valley. The Donner and Blitzen River flowed off of Steens Mountain, feeding 70 miles of lush meadows. There were only a few ranchers in the area. The nearest railroad station was Winnemucca, Nevada, 250 miles away. He bought out the P-Ranch, which would become his headquarters. Soon after that he acquired more land in the valley. Eventually he would hold 200,000 acres. He built a large mansion at the headquarters, built with lumber shipped 150 mile from the Blue Mountains. He also built barns, cookhouses, bunkhouses, and a store.
At one time he had over 200 men working for him. One of the tasks they did for him was to drain the marsh land on his property. They built canals to do this. This marsh land had been much cheaper, since the owner would have the task of draining it and making it productive.
In 1878, an Indian uprising threatened the French-Glenn property. The Bannocks, Paiutes, and Snakes were raiding Nevada, southern Idaho, and eastern Oregon. French and sixteen others had been out working on the Diamond ranch when a large party of Indians came galloping over Steens Mountain. French covered his men while they got away. Then he followed them back to P-Ranch. From there, they rode to nearby Fort Harney, where they joined a group of volunteers. This band of volunteers and troops led by General O. O. Howard beat the Indians at the battle of Silver Creek.
Then a land office opened up at Lakeview. The government was encouraging settlement in Harney, Malheur, and Lake Counties. Settlers and sheep herders came I droves in 1880. To protect himself from getting too crowded, French employed his men to go make homestead claims. Then they would later sell him the land at cheap prices. His men also built dams to purposely flood the land. Then the land could be bought cheaply under the marsh rule. Some of the new homesteaders noticed this however, and dynamited the dams.
He also tried to buy out any homesteader who came close. Most of them sold. Except for one Ed Oliver. He refused to budge. On December 26, 1892, French and his men were working on the Sodhouse ranch. Oliver was seen nearby. French went over to talk to him. They two had words. It is not clear who struck first. But any rate, Oliver shot and killed French. David Crow, an employee, immediately got on his horse and rode like the wind to Winnemucca. He rode for 48 hours straight and changed horses nine times. He got the word to Winnemucca where it spread all over the West.
Oliver stood trial for the murder but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. It was never challenged, but the legend was that French never carried weapons, so self-defense did not seem reasonable.

-Copyright 2000 by Beth Gibson