Published by the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association
Co-editors: Judith A. Gage and H.W. Bill Hawley
Dedicated to the memory of the Sheriffs and Deputies who
made the ultimate sacrifice
and gave their lives in the line of duty.
We wish to extend our thanks to the following for providing invaluable assistance with the research
necessary to assemble this information, and for some of the photos contained herein.
Liisa Penner, Clatsop County; Lona Downing, Coos County; Marsha Sweet, Morrow County; Katherine Johnson,
Tom Pomery & the Polk County Historical Society; Bill Harlan, former Polk County Commissioner; and the
Oregon Historical Society's microfilm collection of old Oregon newspapers.
A special thanks goes to Dennis McCarthy, who worked with his wife, Linda, on the project. He spent hours
writing crime stories for the book while Linda did research for the interesting stories that appear in each
chapter. Without his help, it would have taken much longer to complete.
FRONTISPIECE: Joseph Lafayette Meek. Born in Virginia on February 07, 1810, Joseph
Meek joined the William Sublette hunting party in the Rocky Mountains in 1829. He came to
Oregon in the fall of 1840 and settled in the North Plains area. On May 02, 1842 Meek was elected
Sheriff of Oregon, under Provisional Government, and then "Marshal of Oregon" in 1845 when each district was
given its own sheriff. Joseph Meek resigned this office in 1846. He was appointed as the first U.S. Territorial Marshal,
assuming duties in March 1849. He resigned in 1852. His last public service was during the Yakima Indian War, 1855-1856.
Meek died in 1875, and is buried at the Scottish Church in North Plains.
Copyright 1992 by The Oregon State Sheriffs' Association. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright
Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted mechanically, electronically, or by any other means,
including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without written permission of the
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 91-61429
Printed in the United States of America by Taylor Publishing Company.
Publishing Consultant: W. Keith Padgett, Portland, Oregon.
Even in the days when the Sheriff of Nottingham was chasing the legendary Robin Hood around Sherwood Forest, the office of Sheriff was centuries old. In fact, it may well trace back before the ninth century. The King James version of the Bible, in Daniel, uses the title "Sheriff." Perhaps this was due to an unclear rifle, known to mean someone who gets all the grief and frustrations, plus having to collect taxes. The King James translators probably assumed that person must be the Sheriff, regardless of what title he had in the older Bible!
Seriously though, the Sheriff in early England was a direct representative of the King, appointed to make sure that the Earls, who "ruled" the shires, were not dipping into the tax revenues. Even this had modern-day counterparts, but in reverse, with the Sheriff being the tax collector, although that has largely changed in modem rimes.
Since our first colonists to this continent were mainly English, it was inevitable that they brought with them most of the customs and traditions they were familiar with, including such things as Sheriffs. The responsibilities have remained much the same, with a Sheriff of Oregon being, by statute, the "chief executive officer and conservator of the peace of the county." Through the years, where "crime and corruption" have taken over in a city, it is the Sheriff who has the duty to step in and clean things up.
Down through the years, particularly in the West, we have had many legendary Sheriffs; Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickock, Bill Tilghman, and Pat Garrett among them. Most in our state have distinguished themselves by the way in which they served the public. Eight of them have given their lives in that service. Two others were killed, after leaving office, as a direct result of events which occurred during the time they were Sheriff.
As the problems of law enforcement have gotten more complex, it has required those who choose that career to become much more highly skilled. This has transformed what was at one time a "political" job to a full-time professional career. Today' s criminal justice system requires many varied skills, some of which are highly technical. No one person can do the job alone. Thus, in large departments, the Sheriff may well be for the most part an administrator, one of those skills. But even then, he carries with him all of the duties and traditions which have made his office one of the most respected in the western world.
A history of early county law enforcement in western America does not differ greatly from that of our eastern seaboard. However, instead of shiploads of people who were frequently fleeing from religious persecution, we find the west was settled mainly by persons who sought economic benefits even if only free land. In each situation, there were folks among those involved who were honest and lawabiding, and then there were a few who preyed upon or victimized the others.
Regardless of their country of origin, they lived in a society which, by the 1800s, was reasonably organized and provided a measure of safety for the honest citizens. It was only natural that they hoped for a similar degree of safety in their new area. It was frequently a challenge, as the hazards of nature plus conflicts with the Indians of the region took first priority. Staying alive through it all was paramount, and "crime" did not seem to be very much of a problem.
Indeed, the need for any sort of government was brought about by the death in 1841 of Ewing Young, a wealthy pioneer of "Oregon Country," as it was then called. There was no legal system available to handle the probate of his estate. An effort was then made to organize some sort of government, but it was not perfected. However, following the death of Young, William Johnson had been chosen as Sheriff, but o record of him performing any sort of duties.
Earlier in his life, Johnson had been a British sailor, but he deserted while in Boston harbor and later served on "Old Ironsides" and was wounded fighting against the British in the War of 1812. Johnson made his mark in history in 1842 by being the first resident of what was to become Portland, plus he made a substance known as "Blue Ruin," which may well have been both blue and ruinous !
Some of the pioneers met at Champoeg and took the first steps toward a formalized government in May, 1843 when they chose Joe Meek to be their Sheriff. Meek was a pioneer of 1840, a Virginian by birth, who had been a "mountain man" & fur trader in the Rockies before coming to Oregon. He had married a Nez Perce woman, said to have been a chief' s granddaughter. For the next two years, Meek was all of the law enforcement there was in Oregon, with the possible exception of constables which might have been chosen in some of the settlements.
With the arrival of more settlers, and the vast size of the area at the time, it became apparent that one man could not possibly handle the job. There had been four original "districts" established at the 1843 Champoeg meeting, and Clatsop District (they were all called districts in those early days) was added in June 1844. In August 1845, when the Provisional Government approved the election of Sheriffs in each of the five counties, Joe Meek was designated "Sheriff of Oregon." He chose to resign in 1846, and was elected to the Provisional Legislature.
When the Whitman massacre occurred in November 1847, the entire region was galvanized into action, both against the involved Indians as well as to make further efforts to gain "official" recognition from the Federal government in Washington. Although it had been of little significance in the earlier years, it now appeared that Joe's ties into old Virginia would come in handy. His cousin just happened to be President Polk! Besides, who else could get across the mountains and to Washington D.C. in the dead of winter? Meek and two old friends from his mountaineer days set out in January 1848 and within sixty days they were in St. Louis, a remarkable overland trip considering the time of year. That Spring, there was a bill before Congress to organize the "Oregon Territory." Working with Senator Benton, of Missouri, Meek saw this become a reality despite strong opposition by southern slave-holding states when the bill passed August 13, 1848. Meek was quickly appointed United State Marshal for Oregon, and General Joseph Lane, of Indiana, was appointed the first Governor. The two men came to Oregon via the Santa Fe Trail into California, where forty-six men of their party deserted to the gold mines. Lane and Meek then traveled by ship to Oregon, arriving on March 2, 1849. The following day, General Lane proclaimed the "Territory of Oregon" to be a reality.
Joe Meek continued to serve as United States Marshal until 1855, when he resigned to serve in the Yakima Indian War until 1856. Following that, he retired to his farm near North Plains, in Washington County. He died in 1875.
It may be that the most emotional event during his law enforcement career occurred on June 3, 1850 in Oregon City, when he conducted the hanging of the five Cayuse Indian chiefs convicted of the Whitman massacre, where one of his daughters died.
Perhaps some of you have stopped to read the historical marker beside the Sunset Highway, which states, "A neighbor called him 'very popular and brave as Julius Caesar."
H.W. Hawley, Retired OSSA Historian
West Linn, Oregon
May 05, 1992
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