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Courts, Claims and Killing on the Oregon Frontier

Ronald B. Lansing


In 1852, 72-year-old Nimrod O’Kelly, one of the first pioneers to stake a claim in the lush Willamette valley, killed young Jeremiah Mahoney over a land dispute. The events that followed provide an intricate look at life and law on the frontier. With marvelous depth and a lawyer’s insight, the author presents Nimrod’s incredible story from the simple beginning to its astonishing conclusion.


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“The grass was called kalapuya by the Indians of the Valley. They were the tenders. They burned the fields to keep back the forest and to make the gardens—then, but not anymore. Pioneer settlers from the east saw it as good farm and pasture land—enough fir and pine for siding, ash for stakes, cedar for posts and paling, oak and alder for fire, grass for livestock, creek and rain water for crops, spring water for drink, and fish and deer plenty for belly…Any farmer could see that the kalapuya was prime growing country.”

“Born during the War for Independence, Nimrod was three years old when the colonies won their freedom. He was twenty-three when the States purchased the Louisiana country up to the Stoney Divide. He was twenty-six when pathfinders Lewis and Clark returned from over the Divide with their tales of Oregon. He was thirty-two when the War of 1812 began. He claimed to be a veteran of that war. He lived in the Cumberland Mountains when fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson was raising volunteers for an army. At times, Nimrod told of ‘the laws that I faithfully fought to defend,’ of offering ‘his blood upon the altar of liberty,’ of baring ‘his bosom to danger,’ of rushing ‘at the mouth of cannons,’ and of standing ‘the iron hail.’”

At the remarkable age of 65, Nimrod O’Kelly—loner, former blacksmith—made the arduous trek from Missouri along the Oregon Trail in 1845 and became one of the first to stake a claim in the lush Willamette valley. Although he made few improvements to the land, he professed that he had a wife and family back home and thus had a right to 640 acres—one full square mile—of fertile ground. Over the next seven years, settlers continued to arrive, and many of these new neighbors grew suspicious of his entitlement. Slowly they began to encroach on his property. Eventually the dispute boiled over, leaving young Jeremiah Mahoney dead, a gaping gunshot wound in his chest.

Curiously, the killer—72 year-old Nimrod O’Kelly—chose not to run, but to turn himself in, claiming self-defense. The events that followed provide an intricate look at law on the frontier—a place without jails, courtrooms, coroners, and crimelabs, where many settlers were as wild as the land, where judges traveled on horseback to conduct legal proceedings, and where convicted murderers often met their end on the gallows. Ultimately, Benton County vs. Nimrod O’Kelly was heard by the fledgling territory’s Supreme Court. With marvelous depth and a lawyer’s insight, author Ronald B. Lansing probes and analyzes the evidence, the law, the proceedings, and the politics surrounding Oregon’s first reported murder case, and presents this incredible story from its simple beginning to its astonishing conclusion.

“Nimrod O’Kelley was a marked man. His life would never again be the same. Nimrod means hunter. But from that moment forward, this hunter would be the hunted. Indeed, some would say he was prey and looked in sympathy on him. Others would say he was a predator and called him a ‘menace.’”

Photographs / map / notes / references / bibliography / index / 320 pages (2005)


Additional information

Weight 1.13 oz
Dimensions 9 x 6 in