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History mystery: the Oregon land fraud and the Republican nomination of 1912.

August 28, 2009, 11:54 am

In the Report of the Public Lands Commission published 1905, you will find this discreet description of land fraud beginning on page v:

Under the act of June 3, 1878, generally known as the timber and stone act, there has lately been an unusual increase in the number of entries, which can not be accounted for by an increase in the demands of commerce or by any unusual settlement of the localities in which the greater part of the entries were made. … The law was enacted to meet the demands of settlers, miners, and others for timber and stone for building, mining, and other purposes. There is much evidence, however, going to show that many entries have been made for purposes not contemplated by Congress. … The Commission believes that Congress did not intend that this law should be used for the acquisition of large tracts of valuable timber land by individuals or corporations, but it has been used for such purposes. … [M]any of these entries were made by nonresidents of the State in which the land is situated, who could not use the land nor the timber upon it themselves, and it is apparent that they were made for speculative purposes and will eventually follow the course made by many previous similar entries and become part of some large timber holding.1

The Timber and Stone Act was supposed to provide settlers with timber and stone from lands neighboring their claims, offering such lands not suitable for farming for sale in tracts sized up to 160 acres at $2.50 an acre.

Misappropriating timber lands was big business in the Pacific Northwest, involving pillars of the community like Senator John H. Mitchell, and Representatives John Williamson and Binger Hermann, who assisted investors in finding timber lands they might find suitable, whether or not they were entitled to such lands under the Timber and Stone Act.

Under Theodore Roosevelt, agents of the Secret Service—among them, William “Billy” Burns, who would later become a celebrity private detective and be disgraced as director of the Bureau of Investigation for involvement with the Teapot Dome scandal—worked with prosecutor Francis Heney to bring cases against the fraudsters. They obtained a variety of convictions, including Williamson and Mitchell (though not Hermann).

In 1912, applications for pardon in some of the convictions came before the Justice Department headed by George Wickersham for President William Howard Taft. And Taft did indeed issue some pardons, most notably to one Willard Jones:

… [I]t is perfectly clear that his conviction was effected by the most barefaced and unfair use of all the machinery for drawing a jury that has been disclosed to me in all my experience in the Federal court. It gives sufficient reason to justify the pardon of Mr. Jones, as well as the condemnation of the methods of Mr. Heney and Mr. Burns. …

Sincerely yours,

Wm. H. Taft

Now, astute readers will have thought, as indeed Congressman Israel Foster mildly says here, “1912 was the year there was quite a contest between Taft and Roosevelt, was there not?”

His interlocutor rather hilariously replies, “I do not recall.” Indeed, it was an unprecedentedly and unrepeatedly epic contest. And Theodore Roosevelt, bitter to the last about its outcome, wrote in his Autobiography,

One [sic] of the most conspicuous of the men whom they had succeeded in convicting was pardoned by President Taft—in spite of the fact that the presiding Judge, Judge Hunt, had held that the evidence amply warranted the conviction, and had sentenced the man to imprisonment. As was natural, the one hundred and forty-six land-fraud defendants in oregon, who included the foremost machine political leaders in the State, furnished the backbone of the opposition to me in the Presidential contest of 1912. … [H]alf of the delegates elected from Oregon under instructions to vote for me, sided with my opponents in the National Convention—and as regards some of them I became convinced that the mainspring of their motive lay in the intrigue for securing the pardon of certain of the men whose conviction Heney had secured.

In fact, the Republican National Convention was held just the week after Jones’s pardon—though Taft’s review of the cases extended well into late 1912.

So here’s the mystery: was Roosevelt’s belief that the pardons were politically motivated a correct one? On Roosevelt’s side, the timing is interesting. And most of the time I side with the sentiment of Thomas Gore—”I much prefer the strenuosity of Roosevelt to the sinuosity of Taft”—even if I have a hard time associating that much adiposity with a characteristic sinuosity.

On Taft’s side, Billy Burns was not known for observing the niceties when dealing with juries. And generally, one suspects Taft took the law pretty seriously. Still, you never can tell.

Or maybe you can: does someone know all about this, and I just haven’t seen it?


1Report of the Public Lands Commission with appendix. Serial Set vol. no. 4766, session vol. no. 4. 58th Congress, 3rd session. S.Doc 189.

See also John Messing, “Public Lands, Politics, and Progressives: The Oregon Land Fraud Trials, 1903-1910,” Pacific Historical Review 35, no. 1 (February 1966):35-66.

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