From Express Rider to the Superior Bench

Settled after rich gold discoveries in 1862, Canyon City, Oregon was one of eastern Oregon’s earliest settlements. The town was located in the center of a vast wilderness, and troubles with Indians and outlaws on the stage roads were common.

The following article from the February 17, 1907 edition of the Sacramento Union details some of the dramatic events one Canyon City pioneer lived through while traveling the region in the 1860s.

Canyon City Oregon
Early photo of Canyon City, Oregon

FROM EXPRESS RIDER TO THE SUPERIOR BENCH

From express rider in the sagebrush and bunch-grass country of Northwestern Oregon, then infested by road agents and bloodhungry Indians, to the superior court bench of Walla Walla county, Washington, south of Spokane, is the rise of Thomas E. Brentz.

He left the East shortly before the outbreak of the civil war, arriving at what is now Canyon City, Ore., in the fall of 1861, and assisted in the building of the first cabin in the settlement. He was the first to discover gold in the district, locating a rich placer claim, which was afterward abandoned because of the lack of water.

He established the Brentz & Nelson express line, carrying letters and parcels between Canyon City and The Dalles, 225 miles, and holds the record by covering the distance in twenty-eight hours by frequent changes of horses.

During the first winter the line was in operation many horses were spirited away by Indians, and later the road agents became troublesome. They stole horses, plundered stages and did murder when they suspected the victim had money or valuables.

Once he was caught in a blizzard and it required more than three weeks to do the trip. He encountered snow fields ten feet deep and was forced to walk at the head of his horse nearly all the way. On his arrival at Canyon City there was a demonstration. Huge bonfires were built and the hills echoed with gun-shots and powder-blasts to celebrate the return of the express rider.

Judge Brentz talked of the early days at & gathering of pioneers in Spokane a short time ago, and in conversation with the writer he told some of his experiences as a stage driver, Cow-puncher and express rider.

He was paid 50 cents for carrying a letter, and sold California newspapers, including the Sacramento Union, at 50 cents a copy, express parcels netting him from $1 to $10, according to weight. He also carried gold dust from the mining districts to the depositaries.

“The express line had been established about a year when the road agents became a menace,” Judge Brentz said, “and many persons were murdered for their money. One of the most notorious bad men was Berry May, an escaped convict from San Quentin, who came to Oregon in 1862, and for a time kept a band of horses, and, being located on the line of my route, I frequently made changes of horses at his place and thus became casually acquainted with the noted outlaw. Later he took to the road and was up to his old tricks of robbery, arson and murder.

“Once on my way to The Dalles from Canyon City I encountered his band as they were going into camp for the night, and as my horse was heavily laden and nearly exhausted, there was nothing left but to turn in with them, although it was with feelings of the gravest apprehension as to the outcome. I had made up my mind to make the best of the situation and the most of my opportunities if occasion demanded, for I was aware of the character of the people of whom I was to be a companion for the night, and I had my canteens well filled with gold dust, which would have made a profitable haul for those days.

“I came upon the party, consisting of Berry May, his wife and Jim Partin, at the foot of Rocky canyon, Berry asked me if I hadn’t better stop with them for the night, and I accepted the invitation. Taking off my saddle with the gold dust I threw it carelessly on the grass, exhibiting as little concern about my valuable burden as possible, and thus at once disarmed the desperado’s suspicions, which probably saved my life.

“He asked me if I did not carry considerable gold dust on my trips from the mining regions. I replied: “Yes, sometimes, but on this trip I am carrying chains for a pack train and am not taking any gold dust.’ Knowing me as he did, he believed I was telling the truth; but I slept with my head on my saddle, with one eye upon the robbers and my gun ready for quick action.

“I passed a sleepless night, but my horses were rested and the next morning I resumed my journey. I had got a short distance when I met the sheriff and his posse from Pendleton, who asked me if I had seen anything of Berry May and his party. I replied: “Yes; I stayed with them last night.”

“”The hell you did!’ came the quick reply. We are after them for murder, They shot and killed a man named Gallagher as he lay sleeping, and we found the trail where they dragged the body and the place where they washed the bloody blankets under which the man was sleeping.

“Berry and his party were captured before reaching Canyon City and were confined in an old shack of a jail, from which he made his escape and went to Boise, where he was afterward captured and brought back to Canyon City and again locked up. The jail was soon surrounded by a self-constituted vigilance committee, which took him from the jail and hanged him from the limb of a tree on the hill. Partin was never heard of again.”

Judge Brentz had several thrilling escapes. One of these was a massacre in which a party of ten white men were murdered by the Indians while in camp during the night, and their bodies were laid out in rows, after having been scalped. He gave the alarm when he reached the scene and an armed posse was soon on the trail of the Indians and they were pursued for some distance, but were never captured.

On another occasion he escaped by a ruse from the clutches of Jim Romaine, a noted outlaw who had murdered seyeral men at Oregon City. Brentz was told by a resident of a settlement on his route that Jim Romaine and Howard had been there a short time before his arrival and had made inquiry for the express rider, and were evidently watching for him. He went on, however, and after going ten or fifteen miles, descended as it was getting dusk into a hollow, when he heard the sound of horses’ hoofs in the distance.

Looking back, he saw the figures of two men coming on a gallop over the brow of the hill, and he was not long in fixing in his mind the identity of his or pursuers and their purpose. As he came to a spring, surrounded by a thick undergrowth, near the bottom of the hill, he reined his horse to one side, and quickly dismounting, commenced to jerk his horse by the bits to prevent it from whinnying as the outlaws approached and dashed by him at full speed and were soon lost to view in the distance. Later he saw their campfire and took a circuitous route and went on, arriving at The Dalles several hours ahead of them.

Romaine went from there to Lewiston, where he got in with McGruder, who was taking a pack train to Butte, Mont. As they neared the end of their journey Romaine and his party dropped out and awaited the return of McGruder, who had sold his cargo, from which he realized about $15,000.

When McGruder and his two assistants came along they were waylaid and murdered. The outlaws then came back to Portland, where they took a steamer for San Francisco.

A short time afterward Hill Beachy, agent for the Wells Fargo Express Company, volunteered to pursue and capture them, which he did. They were brought back and hanged at Lewiston, Idaho.