5. The Claim Jumpers and the Steilacoom Citizens.
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 seat.

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 capture.

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 1860s.

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 rustling.

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 avidity.

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.

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 with themselves.

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 justifiable?" Olympia 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 killed, etc.

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 him.

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, 1870.

The following telegram is from the Intelligencer and contains most of the details we have learned concerning the shooting of McDonald and Gibson.

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 jumpers.

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 garrison graveyard.

"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 frontier. 

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 well knew. 

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 man¬.

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 Steila¬coom. 

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 Steilacoom. 

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 fired.

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 gallows. 
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.

|Murder Most Foul| |ALHN - Washington Main Page|