Reviewed by Luc Nettleton
By Ronald B. Lansing
Washington State University Press, Pullman, 2005
Mention Oregon country and the Willamette Valley and most folks will think of courageous, persevering emigrant families completing the long overland journey to get to a lush distant land where every honest man, woman and child could find new opportunity. Ronald B. Lansing introduces us to a different early Oregon Trail-veteran and Willamette Valley resident, Nimrod O’Kelly. An elderly loner who claimed to have a wife in Missouri so that he could get more land under the Donation Land Act, O’Kelly shot neighbor Jeremiah Mahoney in a property boundary dispute in 1852. Most of this 305-page book deals with what happened after O’Kelly, described as “a simple man with a mulish spirit,” turned himself over to the justice of the peace, claiming self-defense. It is a riveting account of Oregon’s first highly publicized murder case, although the Whitman Massacre trial of 1850 had attracted some notice (see Lansing’s 1993 book Juggernaut: The Whitman Massacre Trial of 1850). The Oregonian used the headline “Horrible Murder” to describe what ornery old-man O’Kelly had allegedly done, while the Statesman called it a “Foul Murder.” The accused was confined 40 days and nights before his trial. “Under guard and iron, deprived of his hikes, hunts, and hermitage, and hung upon the hooks of doubt, Nimrod looked into emptiness,” Lansing writes. “And so, he did what others do to make peace with despair. He wrote a will.”
Lansing shares the evidence with the reader and analyzes it, revealing much about frontier justice. After all, Oregon had no jails, courtrooms or coroners at the time, and the judges arrived on horseback. This so-called promised land, according to Lansing, “was a place of massacre and hanging; of slavery and chaining; of racial, gender, and religious persecution.” The saga of Nimrod is told well, but as the author writes in his preface, a balance had to be found between hard fact and imagination — “a balance that has always troubled the search for, and report of, history.” Lansing uses primary authorities and secondary authorities but also gives the truth as he sees it “in those gaps where the benefit of direct authority was lacking.”
It was the frontier, where men were often strung up in short order, but the court business in this case was prolonged. Without giving too much away, let it be said that Nimrod was saved twice from the gallows, but even then, his troubles were far from over. The case of Territory of Oregon v. Nimrod O’Kelly was not settled until May 10, 1854, when O’Kelly was about 74, and though that would be his last day in court, the life-and-death drama would continue. Today, Lansing says, the mysterious pioneer Nimrod’s grave lies somewhere in the Willamette Valley but cannot be found. Still, the remarkable saga lives on within Oregon’s borders and beyond, and, thanks to Lansing, now has considerably fewer holes in it.