Sean P. Harvey on the Standoff at Malheur in Historical Perspective.


By Sean P. Harvey

The last of the armed protesters left the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near Burns, Oregon, on Thursday, February 11, 2016, after more than a month-long occupation. Throughout the standoff, commentators debated the occupiers’ motives, tactics, and endgame. Too few sought to understand the incident in light of the long sweep of U.S. history. As a couple of graduate students pointed out to me, in some respects the events in southeastern Oregon resemble the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which engulfed southwestern Pennsylvania and bordering counties in Virginia.

The galvanizing issue that set off the occupation in early January was the ruling of a federal judge that two Oregon ranchers had to report to prison to serve sentences stemming from being convicted of arson on federal land, allegedly to cover-up poaching (they claimed, it was to control invasive species and wildfires). But as the best journalism about the Malheur occupation reported, there were deeper, longstanding grievances about federal control over more than 600 million acres of land (or, roughly, half of eleven states) in the trans-Mississippi West. Two of the leading protestors at Malheur, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, are the sons of Cliven Bundy, a wealthy rancher who illegally grazed his cattle on federal land for decades and then provoked a confrontation with federal authorities when the Bureau of Land Management tried to confiscate the livestock in 2014. In explaining why several militia groups occupied Malheur, Ammon Bundy framed the issue as government abuse and impoverishment of the people, who had rights to land and resources. The wildlife refuge was a tool of “tyranny.” We’ll return to the issue of federal lands in a moment.

A sense of a legacy betrayed pervaded the actions of the westerners in 1794. When remembered at all, the Whiskey Rebellion is usually cast as rural, somewhat comic, opposition to a tax on whiskey, but the rebels opposed a broader set of policies that benefited the wealthiest in the country at the expense of ordinary farmers. As the historian Terry Bouton has argued, these “rebels” should be viewed as “regulators,” heirs to a long tradition in Anglo-American political culture of ordinary people acting out of doors, violently, to curb particular uses of governmental authority at odds with popular views of justice and legitimacy. The target in 1794 was the federal financial program. To pay the public debt accumulated during the War for Independence, George Washington’s administration, executing policies designed by Alexander Hamilton, taxed distilled spirits. Whiskey, however, given the poor state of roads and Spanish control of New Orleans, was one of the few commodities that westerners could profitably transport to market. Those taxes, in turn, were going into the pockets of those who had “speculated” (today many would say “invested,” but in the eighteenth century it carried a connotation shading toward “gambled”) in the public debt when desperate farmers in the preceding years had to sell then-worthless debt certificates for a fraction of their face value merely to gain some specie and stave off foreclosure. Well-connected speculators also amassed huge tracts of western land, often for little down and enjoying exemption from taxation. The experience of the war and the decade after the peace of 1783—years of hardship, personal debt, high taxes, increasing foreclosures, and rising tenancy rates for many ordinary westerners, even as a set of “monied men” with political connections amassed (precarious) paper fortunes—made a mockery of widespread expectations that independence would bring prosperity and republican government a rough equality among citizens.

Significantly, racial fears and hatreds may have played some role in the channeling of public anger in 1794. When some 7,000 men assembled on Braddock’s Field in August of that year, their initial plan had been to seize a cache of federal arms at nearby Fort Pitt. The regulators/rebels changed their minds, however, reasoning that those arms might be necessary for the federal army’s campaign against Ohio Valley Indians. Peace with Britain did not end the fighting for Americans on what was then the western fringe of settlement, as a confederacy of Miamis, Shawnees, and other Native peoples resisted white settlement of land west and north of the Ohio River. Besides defeating U.S. armies in 1790 and 1791, Indian raids on “the frontier” struck fear into settlers. The failure of the state or the new federal governments to create the conditions for peace by pursuing war to gain more land and drive Indians farther from expanding white settlements, in turn, was another bone of contention between westerners and government.

While it is easy to see a certain resonance between the events in 1794 and 2016 with respect to rural anger at the federal government and eastern elites, and even in appeals to revolutionary inheritance, “frontier” issues of “Indian war” and dispossession undoubtedly seem far removed to many of us today. But echoes resound. Among the more disturbing reports to emerge from Malheur during the occupation was that some of the protestors bulldozed an archaeological site containing Paiute artifacts and remains, and picked through other artifacts being stored on site. A leader of Malheur militants, LaVoy Finicum—the sole man killed when federal authorities arrested the leaders of the occupation—invited Paiutes to claim what was theirs and expressed a desire to preserve Indian heritage; but Paiutes, though they were outraged with the desecration, declined. They had established a working relationship with the wildlife refuge. Paiutes continue to consider the land theirs, belonging neither to the federal government nor groups of armed whites. Perhaps we should not be surprised if long-simmering opposition to federal control of public lands (from states’ rights and more localist and individualist perspectives) and more recent popular rage against a non-white president culminated in cultural violence against those whom Americans dispossessed to claim the lands in question.

According to historian Patrick Griffin, the chaos and violence of revolutionary-era conflict (among whites and between whites and Indians) did not subside until the Washington Administration defeated western Indians (at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in autumn 1794); militarily pacified western Pennsylvania; and in 1795 and 1796 negotiated treaties that resulted in Indians ceding much of present-day Ohio, Britain evacuating forts along the Great Lakes, and Spain opening New Orleans to U.S. commerce. From then on, the federal government pursued orderly dispossession that would provide the conditions for Americans to pursue prosperity through access to land and markets. The price for this economic bargain was federal control over the lands that the armies, militias, and treaties wrested from Indians.

The ultimate disposition of the public lands was a divisive political issue in the decades before the Civil War, but laws like the Homestead Act (1862) and its less well-known predecessor the Oregon Donation Land Act (1850), settled the issue of whether public lands would be used for revenue or to provide a base for land-holding independence for poorer whites. Migration to Oregon surged and after a period of what the historian Gray Whaley has described as “genocidal culture” the region’s indigenous population was confined to reservations. The new home for the Paiutes was the Malheur Indian Reservation, which President Ulysses S. Grant created in 1872, but which the federal government dissolved after the Bannock War of 1878, re-confining Paiutes to the Burns Paiute Reservation, a small portion of the original. The breakup of the Malheur Indian Reservation was both punishment and a means to open more land useful for livestock grazing and for hunting rare birds with valuable plumage. President Theodore Roosevelt created the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protect those birds in 1908.

The issue of federal control over such designated areas and over undisposed land surfaced repeatedly in the twentieth century—in the 1920s, around midcentury, and periodically since the late 1970s. Anger over tighter regulation of the public domain, particularly stemming from environmentalist legislation, fueled the rise of the New Right in portions of the West and animated the policies of the Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations. The actions and rhetoric of the men and women at Malheur, however, prod us to consider broader issues that have germinated in the past decades, since the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s action against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, and especially since the election of Barack Obama in 2008: right-wing militias and racially-inspired fears that armed white Americans, need to “take back” their country. Convinced that the land belongs to “the people,” not the federal government, they give little thought to the history of dispossession that gave U.S. citizens—either directly or through their government—any claim to the land in the first place.

“Malheur” is a French term, usually translated as “misfortune.” It references an incident, centuries ago, when French fur traders found that their traps had been emptied by local Indians. It indicates the region’s long, intercultural, enterprising, and often contentious past. The same might be said for other regions. In Oregon, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, U.S. history has frequently been a struggle, sometimes violent, among white Americans seeking opportunity, asserting liberty, and enforcing it with guns; Native people willing to exchange words and things, but not their autonomy; and a federal government with shifting interests in imposing order on both groups.

For the fullest narrative of the Whiskey Rebellion, see Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. Briefer, more focused examinations of that event through the lenses of popular egalitarianism and race-based demands for peace and dispossession, respectively, can be found in Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy: The People, the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution; and Patrick Griffin, American Leviathan: Empires, Nations, and Frontiers in Revolutionary America. On dispossession in Oregon, see Gray H. Whaley, Oregon and the Collapse of Illahee: U.S. Empire and the Transformation of an Indigenous World, 1792-1859. On the relationship between conservation and Native confinement, see Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. On the significance of, and controversies surrounding, the public lands in recent U.S. history, see Karen R. Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meaning: Ranchers, the Government, and the Property between Them; James Morton Turner, The Promise of the Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964. For an environmental history of the Malheur Basin, see Nancy Langston, Where Land and Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed.
For commentary on Malheur and disputes over public lands, see Quoctrung Bui and Margot Sanger-Katz, “Why the Government Owns So Much Land in the West,” New York Times (Jan. 5, 2016), at; Andrew McGill, “The Massive, Empty Federal Lands of the American West,” The Atlantic (Jan. 5, 2016), at; Char Miller, “Malheur Occupation in Oregon: Whose Land is it Really?,” The Conversation (Jan. 6, 2016), at On Paiutes and Malheur, see Steve Russell, “Bundy Militia Musters Again on Paiute Land,” Indian Country Today (Jan. 3, 2016), at; Peter d’Errico, “Malheur: Armed Invasion of Indian Lands,” Indian Country Today (Jan. 8, 2016), at; Jen Hayden, “Militants Bulldoze through Native American Archaeological Site, Share Video Rifling through Artifacts,” Daily Kos (Jan. 21, 2016), at; Sam Levin, “Fresh Outrage after Militia Seen Rifling through Tribal Artifacts at Oregon Refuge,” The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2016), at

SEAN P. HARVEY is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Seton Hall University. He is the author of Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation (Harvard University Press, 2015). He’d like to thank Erich Huhn and Joan Sheridan, M.A. students in history at Seton Hall University, for sharing their thoughts on the Whiskey Rebellion and the standoff at Malheur.

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