Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Pacific Region

A Little Bit of Malheur History


The Harney Basin where Malheur Refuge is located has been occupied by Native Americans for over 11,000 years. Sites containing the history of these early inhabitants are found throughout the basin in a variety of landscapes and in the surrounding mountains.

The first Europeans to visit Harney Basin were fur trappers from the Hudson's Bay Company.  Peter Skene Ogden traveled along the north shore of the lakes in 1826 in search of fur bearing animals. This was one of the first contacts between the Northern Paiute of the Harney Basin and Europeans. Unfortunately for Ogden he remained in the vicinity of the lakes and did not see many fur bearing animals. Ogden named the area "Malheur" which means misfortune in french and moved to other trapping areas. Other fur trapping expeditions followed in the 1830s.

Wagon trains were the next significant presence of Europeans in the basin. The 1845 Meek Wagon Train crossed along the northern side of the basin and camped along Harney Lake on its journey west. In 1853 the "Lost Wagon Train" led by Elijah Elliot detoured along the south side of the lakes and crossed the Blitzen River at "Rockford Crossing."  After passing by Malheur, Mud and Harney Lakes (all containing alkaline water), both wagon trains used the abundant springs in the Double-O area for water.

Various military expeditions ventured into the area in the late 1850s, and several military camps were established in the basin in the 1860s. Steens Mountain is named after Major Enoch Steen who made the first non-native trip up the Blitzen River in 1860. Many early bird observations were recorded in military journals from these expeditions. The first published observations of waterfowl and wildlife in the area occurred in 1874, when Captain Charles Bendire wrote about the various birds found on Malheur Lake.

John W. "Peter" FrenchIn 1872 John W. "Peter" French, a few Mexican vaqueros and 1,200 young Shorthorn cows and heifers headed northward from California into Eastern Oregon. They drove the cattle northward to Catlow Valley where they encountered a prospector named Porter. Down on his luck, Porter sold his small herd of cattle to French. With the sale of his cattle went Porter's squatter's rights to the west side of Steens Mountain and his "P" iron brand. Further explorations of the area ended in the discovery of a lush valley to the north--a valley where melting snow from Steens Mountain meandered slowly northward for 40 miles before reaching Malheur Lake. This was the end of French's journey -- the lush Blitzen Valley.

After several years French's operation, financed by California stock grower Hugh Glenn, had expanded.  The P Ranch became headquarters for the French-Glenn Live Stock Company. Fences were built; freight wagons loaded with goods came from Ft. Bidwell, California and La Grande, Oregon; drainage and irrigation of parts of the valley began; hundreds of horses were broken for freight teams, haying, and for buckarooing; more vaqueros and ranch hands were imported; and native hay was cut and stacked.  Under French's management the P Ranch expanded to include the Diamond Valley, the entire Blitzen Valley to the south shore of Malheur Lake, and Catlow Valley.

The Long Barn at P Ranch (with its beef wheel on the west side) and the Round Barn north of Diamond remain from French's period of expansion. Sod House Ranch (near refuge headquarters) was a northern sub-headquarters for French's ranch. The long barn at Sod House Ranch has been restored, and restoration of other buildings at the ranch continues. Sod House Ranch is open to the public from August 15 through October 31, the remainder of the year it is closed to meet wildlife objectives. The P Ranch long barn, Sod House Ranch and the Round Barn are all listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Conflicts between French and other settlers over land access and ownership eventually led to French's death in 1897. At the time of his death French was managing over 110,000 acres for Hugh Glenn's heirs. Eventually debts accumulated by Glenn's heirs forced the gradual sale of stock and land.

In 1907 the ranch was sold by Glenn's heirs to Henry L. Corbett and C.E.S. Wood. Called the Blitzen Valley Land Company, they would reorganize in 1916 as the Eastern Oregon Live Stock Company when Louis Swift of the Chicago Swift Meat Packing Company became a partner. The company intended the colonization of the Blitzen Valley. The company established a hotel and store at Frenchglen in the mid 1920s. Initial channeling of the Blitzen River and creation of several large irrigation ditches in the valley occurred under the control of the Eastern Oregon Live Stock Company.

At the turn of the century plume hunters came to Malheur Lake to harvest swan, egret, heron and grebe feathers for the millinery trade. Feathers from these birds were being sent to New York and France to be used as decoration for hats and accessories. An ounce of feathers was worth more than an ounce of gold at the height of the plume trade. The great egret population was nearly exterminated and other species were greatly diminished.

Lobbying for creation of a bird reservation at Malheur Lake by William L. Finley, Herman T. Bohlman and the Portland Audubon Society would prevent further commercial use of these birds. The Lake Malheur Reservation was created in August 1908 under proclamation by Theodore Roosevelt to provide nesting and resting habitat for birds, and to halt the slaughter of birds by plume hunters. The new reservation included Malheur, Mud, and Harney Lakes. Early wardens patrolled the reservation using canoes and motorcycles.

Diversion of water from the Blitzen Valley for irrigation and drainage of wetlands in the valley greatly reduced the amount of water flowing to the Lake Malheur Bird Reservation robbing migratory waterfowl of traditional resting and nesting grounds in this part of the Pacific Flyway. Several exceptionally dry years in the 1930s were the catalyst for government acquisition of land within the Blitzen Valley. Control of water within the Blitzen River would ensure stability for breeding grounds in the valley and on Malheur Lake. In 1935, 64,717 acres from Frenchglen to Malheur Lake, were purchased from the Eastern Oregon Live Stock Company for $675,000. This land was annexed to the 81,786 acre Malheur Bird Reservation and was renamed the Malheur Migratory Bird Refuge.

Beginning in 1936 the refuge hosted three Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camps, one at Sodhouse (Refuge Headquarters), a second at Buena Vista and a third camp five miles north of Frenchglen. When the camps were closed in 1942 the CCC had constructed the stone buildings at refuge headquarters, the buildings at Buena Vista Station, major portions of the Center Patrol Road, four concrete dams, numerous canals and ditches, stone water control structures, hundreds of miles of fence, bridges, and four lookout towers.

The refuge name was officially changed to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 1940. The last major segment of the refuge, 14,751 acres in the Double-O Unit, was purchased in 1941 from the William Hanley Company. Martha Hanley was an avid bird watcher and wanted the ranch to become part of the refuge.

More information about Peter French can be found in:
  • Cattle Country of Peter French, by Giles French, 1965 Portland, Oregon.
  • Life and Death of Oregon "Cattle King" Peter French, 1849-1897, by Edward Gray, 1995 Eugene, Oregon.
  • Pete French, Cattle King, by Elizabeth L. Wood, 1951 Portland, Oregon.

The Harney County Historical Society Museum in Burns also has information and exhibits.

More information about the history of Southeastern Oregon can be found at

Last updated: August 23, 2011