Pete French


Not all early settlers were as literate as others. Peter French and Hugh Glenn left no journals, diaries, or letters with their impressions of the Harney County landscape in which they built a cattle empire in the late 1800s. We know, though, what drew them to the valley of the Dunder und Blitzen River as it wound north off Steens Mountain. We can read the same reports from the military and from the California press to which Glenn had access. As an established northern California rancher and wheat farmer - one of the most successful of his day - Dr. Glenn read these reports of rich, unclaimed, unsurveyed and unfenced grazing land in southeastern Oregon with growing interest. In 1872 he directed his 23 year old foreman, Peter French, to lead a drive of approximately 1,200 cattle into land neither had ever seen and that he himself never would. By 1906 the ranching enterprise that Glenn and French founded (both principles having been shot in business disputes) had gained control of approximately 140,000 acres of land along the Blitzen River and in adjacent valleys. The land had been acquired by means both legal and extralegal. French manipulated the federal homestead laws and the Oregon Swamp Act and intimidated individual homesteaders into selling. With ownership of land surrounding the area's principle sources of water came control of thousands of additional acres and a near monopoly of grazing land on Steens Mountain.1

Glenn's original knowledge of the area was based largely on reports like that from Major Enock Steens 1860 expedition across the central and south central parts of the state. The expedition's objective was to establish a route for a military road across central Oregon to Boise. The report was written primarily by Joseph Dixon, a lieutenant with the topographical corp. The excerpts that follow detail experiences along the Blitzen River and Dixon's impressions of the landscape; impressions that eventually led men like Glenn and French to bring cattle into the valley a decade later.

New River [the Blitzen] flows nearly due north, through a valley from four to six miles wide. The exact nature of the current, as well as the width and depth of this stream, we could not well determine, as its banks were bordered by low marshy meadows and extensive tulare lakes. As we approached the northern base of Snow Mountains, the valley of New River gradually became narrower and narrower, until it changed into a formidable canyon, the sides of which rise nearly perpendicular from the water's edge, and are so extremely rocky and rugged that there is scarcely to be found a point of ingress or outlet even for a man on foot. There extends along the eastern bank of New River a high and rugged mountain, the summit of which reaches nearly to the region of perpetual snow. This mountain appears to be isolated from all other mountain ranges in the country. To the north it gradually loses itself in the high tablelands that border the valley of the lakes [Harney and Malheur] on the east, and in a southern direction it soon breaks up into smaller ranges, which generally decrease in magnitude until they are lost in the general level of the surrounding country.As we were undoubtedly the first party of white men that ever crossed this mountain, I named it in honor of our energetic commander, Major E. Steen, United States army. The summit of this mountain is about 9,640 feet above the level of the sea, and was on the 11th of August covered with fields of snow.

1Edward Gray,, Life and Death of Oregon "Cattle King" Peter French 1849 - 1897, (Salem, Oregon: Your Town Press, Inc. 1995)

Last modified in August, 2019 by Rick Thomas