The Claim Jumpers and the
Submitted by Gary Reese
Janet Stwalley, "Vigilantes' rule in
county short, in early days of county when law was slow, pioneers took
matters into own hands and killed two desperadoes; but they paid dearly
for their act," Tacoma Sunday Ledger. May 6, 1928 p. A-5.
The doomed man glanced warily about him. On all sides were his stern
visaged escorts, once his neighbors, then his enemies and now his
captors. He clutched his throat and winced at the thought of a noose
tightening about it. No, if go to the scaffold he must, at least he
would go fighting.
The wagon in which the prisoner huddled, joggled from side to side. The
driver back bumped was paying no heed to the horse's gait. He wore an
expression of a man who feels a deed has been well done. At his belt
swung a holster, but butt of a revolver protruding.
A bitter sneer quirked the corners of the prisoner's mouth, as he
contemplated the distance between his right hand and the revolver.
Slowly and stealthily his fingers moved along the edge of the driver's
With a quick movement he jerked the six shooter from its holster and
before his bodyguard was aware of the act, fired a succession of shots.
The driver and several others groaned as bullets plowed their way
though flesh. But the murderous grimace of revenge changed to the pain
as a volley of shot from the guns of his captors caused the crazed
prisoner to pitch forward.
A roughly hewn slab of wood in the little old cemetery behind the
Steilacoom asylum tells the rest of the story, but perhaps the reader
is curious about this man, his name and the events leading up to his
There are few men alive today who remember those trying times in the
"sixties" when owners of Donation Land Claims were constantly at the
mercy of "land jumpers" and "cattle rustlers." And very few in number
are they who recall the formation of the Vigilante committee, one made
up of staunch pioneers who grew tired awaiting the moving of the slow
machinery of the far off government.
In those pioneer days, the law was very lax. It took an itinerate judge
many months to make a circuit of the judicial districts. During the
interim the district sheriff held miscreants for trial pending the
judge's visit. Steilacoom was the third judicial district as well as
the county seat in the early days.
One of the old timers who can recount the happenings of those years is
Robert L. Chambers of Custer Station, the only living son of Thomas M.
Chambers whose name is known to all pioneers of Pierce County.
A boy in his teens then, Bob Chambers was impressed by the seriousness
of the situation still fresh in mind he has given the writer a resume
of the history of the famous Vigilantes.
The lack of extradition laws made it possible and quite simple for
Canadian reprobates and desperadoes to cross the border into the
sparsely settled regions of the northwest. They were safe from the
tentacles of Canadian government and free to commit desperate acts
instilling fear and hatred into the hearts of the pioneers.
Of such ilk were Charlie McDonald and his pal Gibson who came to his
sad end at the beginning of this tale. Both had been dodgers of
Canadian law since they had killed a man in British Columbia. They were
partners in a donation land claim on Muck Creek near Roy in the early
Another pal of the two was Abijah O'Neil of Thurston County. In the
fall of 1869 O'Neil jumped an improved farm belonging to a certain
Charles Wren, a French-Canadian who was forced to vacate his claim on
Muck Creek after the people of the county found him guilty of cattle
The vigilantes formed their ranks at this time and after a stirring
mass meeting at Steilacoom, September 11, 1869 with Thomas M. Chambers
as chairman and Frank Clarke, secretary, they decided to exercise their
united power in removing O'Neil from the Wren property.
In short order O'Neil and his family returned to Thurston County but
the pioneer fathers didn't count on incensing Gibson and McDonald by
this act of justice. However, it didn't take long to discover that the
hot blooded desperadoes were seeking to avenge their pal.
The members of the committee were duly alarmed for the safety of
themselves and their families. McLean Chambers, brother or Robert L.
Chambers, proved to be the first vigilante molested. He was followed
home one evening after a day's hunt by the two renegades.
While at supper someone pounded on the door, demanding to see Chambers.
He sense who his visitors were and refused to go to the door, well
knowing that if he did so there would be one less vigilante to go down
in the annals of history. He then asked them to come in. They thought
little of accepting the invitation and with not another word rode off.
This turn of events led the committee to increase its ranks and devise
a method of capture. Sam McCaw, then owner of a Steilacoom dry
good store, was chosen captain. With a number of recruits and a
motley assortment of firearms, the vigilantes picked a place of ambush.
It was in a deep gully screened from the road by heavy timber, situated
between American and Gravelly Lakes.
The planned to waylay their prey at this point, take them alive and
hang them from the nearest tree.
At the agreed time the forces assembled. LaGarde Bonaparte, a young
Frenchman appointed as lookout climbed a tall fir giving a vista of the
surrounding country. He had not long to wait. Soon he saw two
horsemen on the ribbon of road wining beneath him. After making sure of
his quarry word was relayed to the alert vigilantes below.
It seemed an interminable time before the command to advance was given
and in the excitement someone grew nervous and fired. Thus warned the
hunted men spurred their horses, the vigilantes hot on their
heels. Gibson and his horse were wounded but McDonald escaped
injury making his getaway.
With their captive in a wagon the little band proceeded to Steilacoom
where they surmised McDonald was hiding. The Westbrook saloon seemed to
be a probable place of concealment and as the story goes, there it was
they found him.
He had already surrendered to the barkeeper and faced his scowling
captors in a most debonair manner. Desperado though he was, he was
never dubbed a coward.
But McDonald lost his attitude of levity, when, angrily, a few
impatient members of the group demanded that someone shoot him. Before
a fire of oats and threats he fled through a side door. After running
but a short distance down the alley, he fell like a plummet under the
fire of the vigilantes. Thus McDonald expiated for his misdeeds.
Then the committee turned to the next item on the "docket" namely the
hanging of the other victim. The reader remembers how Gibson met his
end. And although the determined vigilantes failed to carry out
the approved method of exterminating the desperadoes, the residents
felt they had established a good precedent.
But the valiant committee was short lived. A few months later the two
score men who took active part in the machinations were charged with
manslaughter and indicted by the federal grand jury.
Only after a stiff legal battle at Steilacoom wee they exonerated. The
best lawyers in the countryside were hired, which mean that the members
of the ill fated committee had to dig deep into their pockets. A dollar
then meant a great deal to the hard working pioneers and the enormity
of the fees left them with little more than their donation claims.
All middle aged men at the time, not one of the original vigilantes
survives. Many descendants, however, are scattered over the United
States. A few of them still remain in Pierce County. Among those who
live in Tacoma and vicinity are: Robert L. Chambers, Custer Station,
Steilacoom Lake; John Murray, Tacoma; Mrs. Belie Downey Bartlett,
Tacoma; Ira D. Light, Steilacoom, John and Mat Mahon, Parkland and
William Smith, Parkland.
Janet Stwalley, "Vigilantes' rule in county short." Tacoma Sunday
Ledger. May 6, 1928, p. A-5.
"Pierce County Troubles," The Olympia
Transcript, January 29, 1870.
In our columns will be found particulars of the troubles in Pierce
County which resulted in the death of Charles McDonald and B. Gibson by
shooting at the hands of a vigilante committee at Steilacoom last
Saturday. Their action has caused considerable excitement in our
midst and every kind of intelligence concerning the matter sought with
From all the information we can gather, it would seem that the citizens
of the county had become exasperated by the conduct of these men, who
appear to have put law and order at defiance, and taking the law into
their own hands, pronounced the verdict of death upon them and executed
It would appear that the citizens deemed the action justifiable to
protect their own lives and property as well as the rights of others.
Whether they are justifiable or not rests with the public to decide. If
they had taken those men and hung them, perhaps the public sentiment
would not have been so shocked; but the cause of their action rests
If sometimes seems that communities as well as individuals are
compelled to protect themselves. The lawlessness and crime run riot to
such an extent that all law and order becomes overpowered. In such
cases it becomes the duty of all good citizens to protect their own
lives and property.
They cannot do less, or else perish. We do not sanction mob violence or
lynch law. Every good man will sustain the majesty of the law, but if
that is overpowered and rendered futile some remedy for the peoples
rights must be maintained.
If the vigilance committee of Pierce County acted in the cause of
right, public sentiment will justify them.
"Pierce County Troubles," Olympia Transcript. January 29, 1870.
"Are the acts of a vigilance committee
Transcript, January 29, 1870.
Early in December, I think, B. Gibson, who was a friend of Charles
McDonald and who was living with McDonald at the time went and took the
keys of Charles Wren's house, ordering the old man in charge to take
what he had of his own out of it and leave the premises. Gibson,
as the man passed out, locked the house up, put the key in his pocket
and said, " I have taken this as my ranch."
F.A. Clarke, who rented the farm and who has occupied the house for the
last six years was at Victoria. The house taken possession
of by Gibson is a large two story house, well built, with a large barn
and some other out houses. They farm has 640 acres or over under fence.
The house had Clark's beds, furniture, etc. in at the time. He had hogs
feeding, meat in the smoke house and grain in the granary and stock in
the pastures. Gibson coolly took the keys and possession of the place
giving orders for Clarke to remove his stock and goods by
Saturday or he would turn them loose.
As soon as Clarke came home, he had this man arrested and held to
bail. McDonald and another man becoming Gibson's bail, the
Justice of the peace not demanding the keys. As soon as Gibson
was released he went to Clarke's house and taking McDonald as his
witness ordered Clark to move his stock and household goods at once and
threatened to drive out the stock.
Gibson was again arrested, one of his bail men withdrew the bail and he
was sent to jail. Gibson made all kinds of promises to not molest
Clarke or his hired man in the peaceable possession of the place, and
agreed not to trouble or disturb the stock and to keep out of the
enclosures, so long as Clarke had possession of the farm.
On the 12th of January, 1870, Gibson again goes upon the farm, builds a
log house in the door year and puts a notice up that he is the owner of
the place. Charles Wren being up here went out to see Gibson. He
was not at home or on Wren's farm. This was January 17th. About this
time or the day before, Charles McDonald sent word to Clarke that
Gibson had turned his stock out of the pastures.
Clarke went out with Wren, and as Gibson was not there Clarke went to
McDonald's house to see him. Clarke again having put into the pastures
all the stock he could find. Wren took down the notice and left.
Gibson was in company with Charles Rhodes and they were out hunting,
but came back to McDonald's while Clarke was there. Gibson in the
meantime seeing that some one had taken his notice down, as soon as he
saw Clarke he started abusing him and wanted to fight but Rhodes and Mc
Donald spoke to him and when McDonald him that Wren took his notice
down he swore that he would kill Wren. McDonald and Gibson went in hunt
of Wren but did not find him.
As you know the people of this county drove Wren off in 1864 and feel
it their duty to defend and protect his property. Then his two brothers
and a nephew who appealed to the people. "You have driven Wren away,
then do not let these men steal his property."
Abijah O'Neal, his family and a man named Lashuer were removed from one
of Wren's farms which they had jumped in Yelm Prairie and
admonished to stay there.
The people went to the Muck Farm, tore down Gibson's house and left a
notice for him to leave the property alone and signed their names.
Clarke again had Gibson arrested but he refused to come in with the
sheriff. Gibson fortified an old log house to defend his right to
jump the farm, worth $5,000 or more. He promised to be in Steilacoom
the next day so he did, but made many threats against the twenty men
who warned him to leave the place, each one had to die for taking down
his house and leaving their names there.
In the meantime McDonald came into town to let the people know that
Gibson had three hundred shots and that he wold be with him to defend
their rights; said that Gibson would not come with the sheriff and that
the first man that entered the lane leading to the house would be
Not being satisfied with this, Gibson and McDonald rode around the
country to find several men who had signed the notice notifying them to
leave Wren's farms. Luckily Gibson and McDonald found none at home. And
the threats they made to kill these twenty men cost them their lives.
It was, as you see, self-preservation either Gibson and McDonald must
die or these twenty men and God knows how many more, as McDonald and
Gibson had made threats that they would have twenty rough and desperate
men in Seattle, who would come to their assistance, and who would also
take claims here.
But all things must have an end. while Clarke and Wren were in Olympia
settling up their old and long dispute, other men were being hunted by
Gibson and McDonald. The citizens became satisfied that either
the parties who were in this trouble would be killed or Gibson and
Mcdonald must die, so they determined to same themselves. Though
the whole thing looks bad and as some say it is cold blooded murder,
still who would not do as these men did?
While we cannot so fully indorse lynch law these men had placed
themselves outside of all law by their threats and acts
The vigilantes shot at McDonald and Gibson on the road and wounded
Gibson and his horse badly, but McDonald escaped uninjured and when he
arrived here he was told that if he remained in town he would be
killed, but refused to leave, thinking that they were not in pursuit of
The vigilantes followed Gibson to the garrison and took him, and then
proceeded to Steilacoom, where they killed McDonald as you have
learned. He gave his pistol to a friend and begged for his life.
Said he was disarmed; but when he was killed he had a bowie knife found
upon him. He is believed to have killed Adams in british Columbia,; and
had been in so many bad scrapes that these men could not trust him.
He was shot running for his life, a whole load of buckshot passing into
one ear and coming out back of the head.
Gibson is supposed to have killed a man in Idaho and one in California
and to be a desperate character. He was no coward. When he found
Mcdonald was killed and he was being taken out to be hung, he grabbed a
pistol from one of the committee and shot him through the foot. Another
man was shot through the thigh by one of their own party before
Gibson was killed.
The Sisters of Charity took the bodies and had them prepared for burial
and they were buried side by side.
While no one can wish to see any one punished in this way and without
legal proceedings, still when men like these defy the law, what is to
be done? Let an impartial public judge.
"Shooting of McDonald and Gibson," The
Olympia Transcript. January 29,
The following telegram is from the Intelligencer and contains most of
the details we have learned concerning the shooting of McDonald and
Steilacoom, January 23rd.
It appears in relation to the shooting yesterday that one B. Gibson,
formerly of Idaho, and who rumor said was an escaped murderer, some
time since jumped the land claim of Charles Wren of Victoria, and was
made to vacate it by a Justice court subsequently.
The same man rejumped the claim, was arrested and brought to trial on
Friday last before E. R. Rogers, Justice of the Peace, who granted
Gibson a continuance until Saturday, at l o'clock.
On Friday night it seems that Charles McDonald and said Gibson
rode to several farm houses in the county and threatened bodily injury
to the owners among the number McLain Chambers.
The impression now prevailed that said McDonald was an accomplice of
Gibson's and upon such impression the citizens of Muck Prairie formed
themselves into a vigilance committee, and started in pursuit of the
Early on Saturday morning at a point about five miles from town, Gibson
was shot, supposed mortally, and was brought to the city. Meantime
McDonald had entered the city and made boisterous demonstration, and
while doing so the Vigilance committee came down with the body of
Gibson and surrounded McDonald at Westbrook's saloon.
McDonald disarmed himself of all weapons, excepting a large knife, and
wanted to make a statement but would not be listened to when one of the
committee cried "Shoot the son of a b------!"
McDonald then ran through the alleyway jumped over a railing and was
making his way out betweens Wood's law office (formerly) and Cates'
building, when a ball entered his left temple and he fell. After
struggling about three hours, he died.
Gibson in the meantime was taken up on to the hill beyond the jail,
when lo and behold he raised up and grabbed John Highstream's pistol
and made fight, firing two shots, the ball taking effect in the leg of
John Legard and Highstream, but wounding them very slightly.
gibson was then shot through the head and died instantly. The bodies
were taken charge of by the Sisters of charity and will be buried today.
The committee has abandoned their organization and returned home and
thus has ended a most deplorable trouble.
We learn further that sheriff Carson started from town for the place
where the first shooting occurred immediately upon hearing of it. At
the garrison he, with his deputies, were taken by the vigilantes and
kept under guard during the day.
The funeral took place on Monday, the bodies being buried at the
"Shooting of McDonald and Gibson," Olympia Transcript. January 29, 1870.
Mrs. George Blankenship, "The McDaniel-McDonald Affair," Early History
of Thurston County. Olympia: n.p., 1914, p. 262-264.
Within a few feet from the grave of this honored man [William H.
Wallace] is standing a wooden slab bearing this inscription: "In
mem¬ory of Charles McDonald, aged 36 years. Died at the hands
of violence, 1870."
Mr. Guyot's account of the tragic circumstances of McDonald's death is
given in his own words:
"Charlie McDonald and his partner, named Gibson, had staked out a claim
not far from Fort Steilacoom, which they had worked and improved until
they had developed a valuable property. McDonald was a remarkably
handsome young man with black flashing eyes, black hair, worn, as was
the fashion of the time well down over his coat collar, erect figure
and gallant bearing. He was a fine figure of a man as he rode
into town mounted on his spirited horse.
Now, infesting the prairie and surrounding section held forth as
lawless and vicious a band of men as could be found on the
The leader of these leagued rogues had cast covetous eyes upon
McDonald's and Gibson's claim, and as was so often done in those wild
days took steps to secure the land by preferring the charge that the
partners were what was known in the parlance of the day, "claim
jumpers." McDonald and Gibson acknowledged the subpoena served upon
them and set out to appear in court to answer to the summons.
When within a short distance from the fort, where the trail wound
through the woods, the men were ambushed by the gang of claim jumpers,
who began pouring a rain of bullets at them. Their horses dashed
forward and McDonald escaped unharmed, but not so Gibson, who was
unfortunate enough to receive eight bullet wounds in his arms and none
striking a vital spot, however.
McDonald helped his partner into the fort, where he was turned over to
the army physician to have his wounds dressed. The young man then
rode on into the town of Steilacoom to demand protection of the
Sheriff, Ike Carson, who was, however, out of the country, as the mob
Soon the gang followed him into town ranging themselves in line on the
opposite side of the street from a saloon in which McDonald was
standing and began to call upon him to show himself. Thinking to
argue with the mob, McDonald stepped to the door, and said, "Now, boys,
let's talk this matter over. There must be some misunderstanding
and to show you that I want peace I'll throw my gun away."
Suiting the action to the word he hurled his weapon into the dust of
the street. Scarcely had he done so, however, when the gang
opened fire. Realizing then that they would not stop short of
murder, McDonald turned and ran through the saloon and down an alley in
the rear. The men started after him in full cry, firing as they
ran. Before the fugitive had gone forty feet a bullet reached its
mark and he fell mortally wounded.
As he lay there in the pitiless sun, a small boy, attracted by the
shots, came down the alley. Hearing McDonald's gasp¬ing cry
for "water" the lad started to bring him some, but the leader of the
murderers stepped out and warned the child that McDonald's fate would
be his if he dared to relieve his distress, the boy shrank, whimpering
away, leaving the dying man to groan aloud in his death agony.
But, look, is this an angel bending piteously over the sufferer? So she
must have seemed to McDonald as his dying gaze looked into the sad,
tender eyes of a Sister of Charity.
This sister, one of a band of noble women inhabiting the nunnery, which
the Catholic Church had early established in Steilacoom, had hastened
to the awful scene as soon as she heard the shots and realized that her
ministrations might be needed.
"Go, sister, leave me, your life is in danger," gasped
Mc¬Donald. "By all the powers of God, church and humanity,
I dare them to interfere with me," said the Sister as she
moist¬ened the lips and straightened the limbs of the dying
Not one of that lawless band moved a finger to prevent the sister in
her work of mercy. When life was extinct McDonald's remains were
taken into the little old Catholic Church, which still stands as a
shrine to the weary at the top of the hill, and tenderly prepared for
burial. Not yet satisfied with their bloody work the mob started
back along the road to find Gib¬son.
The latter, after having his wounds dressed, had insisted on being
placed in a wagon and started to town to learn the fate of his partner,
McDonald. Within a mile of town the mob met and surrounded the
vehicle. Gibson, weak and almost fainting from loss of blood,
raised himself in the wagon bed until he could snatch the revolver from
the belt of the Indian driver.
One shot was all he had strength for but that struck one of the mob in
the leg, and had Gibson not been too overcome with the exertion to take
aim correctly he would have avenged McDonald's death. The mob
made short work of Gibson and shot him through the head.
Mrs. George Blankenship, "The McDaniel-McDonald Affair," Early
History of Thurston County. Olympia: n.p., 1914, p. 262-64.
Charles Prosch, "McDaniel and Gibson,"
Reminiscences of Washington
Territory. Fairfield: Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1969, p. 70-71.
The worst case of "mob law" in that county, however, took place about
ten years later,[after Bates being lynched] when two men named Gibson
and McDaniel were riddled with bullets in and near
On the 22d of January, 1870, at an early hour Gibson and McDaniel were
on their way to town to appear before E. R. Rogers, a justice of the
peace, to answer the charge of trespass; Gibson, at the instigation of
McDaniel, having jumped part of the land claim of Charles Wren, a
half breed living in a precinct known as Muck, about eight miles from
When some two miles from town they were intercepted by forty or more
people from the country, who at early dawn the same day had concerted
measures for ... the protection of their rights and the riddance of
Gibson and McDaniel." These men instantly shot Gibson, mortally
wound¬ing him, it was supposed.
McDaniel thereupon proceeded to town as did also the "vigilance
committee," as they were called, with the body of Gibson, who was still
alive, lying in the bottom of a wagon. When in sight of the town
Gibson raised himself in the wagon, seized a pistol belonging to one of
the committee, and fired two shots from it, slightly wound¬ing two
persons. He was then shot through the head and instantly killed.
Meanwhile McDaniel, having preceded the committee, entered a saloon and
voluntarily disarmed himself of all weapons save a knife. He then
came forward and requested to be heard, when somebody cried out, "Shoot
the son of a bitch!" He now started to run, the committee following,
and was making his way in the street leading to the wharf when he was
shot in the head and neck. After falling he received several
shots, and life was supposed to be extinct before the last shot was
The men who did this killing were foreigners with two exceptions, and
many of them were former Hudson Bay em¬ployees, some of whom were
French Canadians and some half ¬breeds. In April, about three
months after this event, seventeen of the participants were indicted,
bonds fixed at $1500 each, and the trial set for the next term of
court, six months distant. Of the whole number only four men were
arrested and none punished.
A deep and widespread sensation was caused by this event, and much
indignation found expression among people in Olympia and elsewhere who
knew anything of the circum¬stances leading to the killing.
Many of those concerned in this bloody tragedy were said to be
worse men than their un¬fortunate victims, and, if justice were
done them, would long before have expiated their crimes on the
These men were creatures of Wren, ready at any time to do his bidding,
and doubtless were hired by him to do precisely as they had done.
He had grown rich by robbing the Hudson Bay Company and other neighbors
of cattle, and could well afford to pay a few thousand dollars for the
murder of two men who had the courage to oppose his depredations.
Charles Prosch, "McDaniel and Gibson," Reminiscences of Washington
Territory. Fairfield, Washington:Ye Galleon Press, 1969, p. 70-71.
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