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Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Oregon cowboy Hank Vaughan's most profitable “gunfight”

While the gunsmoke and horsefeathers were flying behind the auction house, legendary cowboy's lawyer was buying his wife's farm back from the government for a song.

The Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra on the Fourth of July, 1915, in Harney City.
This line drawing by Ralph Lee of the Portland Morning Oregonian
shows a gunfight between Hank Vaughan and a member of the Prineville
"Vigilantes," a man named Charlie Long, in 1882. Both men were hit
several times, but made full recoveries. Actually, this illustration gets it
wrong; this particular event was a "Missouri gunfight," in which each
man hung onto the end of a bandanna with one hand and shot with the
other. (March 19, 1939)

(Editor's Note: Offbeat Oregon History revisited the life and times of Hank Vaughan in a three-part series in early 2014. You'll find the series beginning here.)


Of late, a disturbing
number of Americans have seen their homes sold at auction on the courthouse steps. While this isn’t a situation that should be made light of, it’s interesting to think about how one of Oregon’s most colorful characters dealt with a similar situation 120 years ago.

The character’s name was Hank Vaughan. For most of the post-Civil-War 1800s he was a Umatilla County legend. In places like Pendleton and Athena, some buildings that used to be saloons still have bullet holes that he put there, and scars on the floors courtesy of his horse. Vaughan was a gifted horseman and well known as an outlaw, gunfighter and all-around frontier rowdy.

At age 15, he was involved in a shootout that left two lawmen dead. He spent eight years in prison — one source says his family pulled strings and got the governor to pardon him. Once out, Vaughan married a widow with a big wheat farm — the subject, many years later, of the auction I mentioned.

There are many stories about Hank. He would go on benders in which he would ride his horse into every bar in Athena, visit each bartender, take a drink at the bar and move on to the next — without getting off his horse. Then, suitably sozzled, he’d race off through the streets of town, hooting and firing pistol shots here and there. A day or so later, he’d come back to town sober with cash and pay for all the damage.

Hank earned a lifetime free pass on the railroad by foiling a train robbery. He was taking a nap one day when three men armed with revolvers boarded the train and told everyone to put their hands in the air. It should be said at this point that Hank did not look much like an outlaw. In fact, he looked like one of those sober, dignified family patriarchs one sees photos of on the hearths of old-line Quaker families. He was a natty dresser, with a big Jeremiah Smith-type beard and a long black Prince Albert-type coat. People who didn’t know him seldom had any idea that he was possibly the most dangerous man in the state. Nor did they know that big black coat was covering up a pair of big revolvers.

In any case, a minute or two later Hank managed to get his fingers around the butts of those revolvers and that was all he needed. A couple noisy, smoky seconds later, one of the bandits was dead and the other two were running for their lives.

But, the auction: The Umatilla Indian lands were being auctioned off, including Hank’s wife’s spread (she was Umatilla). Hank hired a lawyer to represent him in the auction … he had some business to attend to.

By some odd coincidence, at the exact moment Hank’s wife’s ranch was on the block, a gunfight broke out behind the building. The bidders raced to the scene to see what was going on. It was Hank and another man, who turned out to be one of his friends. They were shouting and shooting, but nobody seemed to be hitting anybody, which — for a pistolero of Hank’s caliber — was odd. Finally things settled down. The bidders re-entered the building.

In their absence, Hank’s agent had bought the farm for him. And with nobody bidding against him, he’d gotten it for a pretty nice price.

(Sources: Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula, MT: Mountain, 1991; Gulick, Bill. Outlaws of the Pacific Northwest. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 2000; The New York Times, May 11, 1891; www.legendsofamerica.com)

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