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Welcome to Offbeat Oregon History, a public-history resource for the state we love. Here's what you'll find here:

  • A weekly newspaper column published in about a dozen Oregon community newspapers;
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Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)

 

 

DALLAS, POLK COUNTY; 1850s:

In lieu of prison, convict was auctioned off as slave

By Finn J.D. John
August 1, 2022

IN THE FIRST month of 1852, everyone in the frontier community of Cynthian was talking about the big crime wave.

Well, it was big by frontier Oregon standards. Although it was (and still is) the seat of Polk County, Cynthian — which was renamed Dallas later that same year — was a tiny place, with no more than a few hundred residents.

But, it seemed, one of those few hundred people was a burglar, and had hit three different homes over the previous few months.

Folks around Cynthian had a suspect in mind, or at any rate they later claimed they did. Their suspicions centered on a laborer named Return Everman.

Return Everman and his brother Hiram were new arrivals in town, having traveled to Cynthian on the Oregon Trail the previous summer, and were living with the Goff family on their homestead claim as hired hands. The community’s impressions of the two were mixed — everyone seems to have gotten along very well with Hiram, but Return had a more squirrely reputation.

So nobody was very surprised when, in January of 1852, Return was spotted sneaking out of Cyrenius C. Hooker’s farmhouse when the family was away. And when Hooker came back home, and found that the unknown burglar had struck again, he was not slow to point the finger at Return Everman.

There wasn’t any proof. Everman, it later turned out, had hidden the pocket watch he’d stolen from the Hooker home under a log by Rickreall Creek, and he stoutly denied having done the burglary.

But Hooker didn’t back down. And Everman was afraid to back down. He figured that most of the community believed him to be innocent, but he thought if he tried to patch things up with Hooker, they’d interpret that as evidence of a guilty conscience and turn against him.

So he decided it would be best if he just went ahead and, well, murdered him.

“I would rather the news would get home that I had killed a man for trying to injure my character, than for news to go home that I had stolen a watch,” he wrote later, in his written confession. ...

This article is still under its initial two-month embargo, during which participating newspapers have exclusive rights to it. Then, on June 11, 2021, the rest of this article will appear here!

In the meantime, you can probably find it published on the Website of one of our member newspapers or community radio stations. Thanks for your patience, and thanks for supporting your community newspapers and radio stations!

The Polk County Courthouse as it appeared in 1859. It was one of the second-story windows on this building that Enoch Smith leaped out of in a desperate attempt to escape from custody and avoid a death sentence. (Image: Polk County Historical Society)

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