Murders

“WAS IT MURDER?”, SHE WROTE

“There was a killing in the hill country of Columbia county over near Vernonia during the 1880s. A man named Backus was blamed for killing a man named Stoddard. It was said to be the first murder in the Nehalem Valley. What do you know about it? Is there an explanation in your cache of historical documents?” — from EMAIL

Ethel Blackburn reported the killing in her book “Nehalem Valley Bits O’ History” [story repeated herein]:

“Two pioneers came to the Nehalem Valley and had adjoining homesteads on Rock Creek, about six miles up the creek. Their names were Backus and Stoddard. They got into a violent argument over a line fence. Backus had a violent temper and ugly disposition, so waylaid Mr. Stoddard, who was out on a trail, and killed him in cold blood. Israel Spencer was the Justice of the Peace and ex officio coroner at the time. A coroner’s jury was organized. The jury found this to be a case of wilful and premeditated murder by Backus. Two local men were sworn in as deputies to take Backus, dead or alive. They watched for him to come to his house for several days. He finally appeared and when they caught him trying to escape they ordered him to hault, which he refused to do and therefore was shot and killed by one of the deputies.
My family lived up Rock Creek in later years and when I was growing up at home, my father, mother and I used to hike up to what was called the Backus drift, which was a bunch of logs caught and piled up during high water at Mr. Backus’ place. The trout seemed to like to hide under these logs, so we fished for trout in between the logs and caught some beautiful big trout. There was nothing left of the Backus home by then but a few scraps of boards and logs rotting away. I am sure that if Mr. Backus had been alive then, as ugly and mean as he was, he certainly would never of let us fish there.”

What do you think? Was it murder? she wrote. And if it was murder, who was murdered? — from EMAIL

Murder: the unlawful and malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another; also, any killing done while committing some other felony, as rape or robbery: to kill unlawfully and with malice. — DICTIONARY DEFINITION

‘Murder’ is such an ugly word, loaded with emotion, accusations, and opinion. The story sticks in my mind as being one sided with several inconsistencies. I can imagine that the family of Backus could put entirely a different spin on this story. — from EMAIL

Different spin indeed! The Backus version of the story is much softer. Levi stayed home to care for his family. If someone yelled “Hault” it was after shots were fired. It is said that one of the deputies was related to Stoddard. — from EMAIL

Was the killing of Backus a case of frontier justice or did someone behind a badge get away with murder? — from EMAIL

WHAT IF THERE WAS A TRIAL?

It would be interesting to have a “trial” for this killing. Maybe we can shed some light on what happened so long ago. Perhaps you, the reader, can help us answer some of the questions surrounding this story — if so, E-mail your comments (be sure to include your return address!)

SOME OF THE QUESTIONS

Who was there first? — The Levi Backus family can be found on the 1880 census for Vernonia. The Stoddard family evidently had not arrived in the area yet or were missed by the census taker.

Did fences exist in those days? — I believe the territory was open range; if there was a fence it was around the garden and was meant to keep livestock out not in. — from EMAIL

What was the relationship between these two men?

Did they know each other from another place?

Did Stoddard have property adjoining Backus? — SEE MAP — Land homesteaded by Backus is the SW 1/4 of Section 25; land homesteaded by Stoddard is the S 1/2 of the NE 1/4 of Section 26; so the two properties in question did not have a common boundary but did have a common corner. I checked with the county court house in St. Helens and reviewed the property records. We located the deeds but couldn’t find the homestead records. Even with the help of the County Clerk and the Assessor’s Office the records could not be found. Finally TICOR , a title company, the branch office in Gresham over in Multnomah county, came up with the homestead patents. They donated their research time in the interest of determining the facts of the case. — from EMAIL

There may have been other motives for the killing of Stoddard.

Was Stoddard a nuisance to the wife or daughters of Backus?

Was Stoddard a thief?

Did Stoddard threaten Backus?

Was any ultimatum issued?

Were both men armed?

When did Backus kill Stoddard? — I checked with the Multnomah library information desk. They researched their Oregonian index without success. Thinking that perhaps the Vancouver newspaper might have something I looked there also.
– Source: Vancouver Independent (newspaper) June 22, 1887 – Fort Vancouver Library -

G. D. Stoddard was killed ten days ago by Levi Backus, his neighbor, over in the Nehalem valley. A constable tried to arrest Backus three days after, and shot the man dead. The feud is settled, but there are two widows made. — from EMAIL

Was the killing of Stoddard in self defense [shoot out]?

Was the killing from ambush [pre-emptive]?

Is there any doubt that Backus killed Stoddard [protecting someone]?

Were there any witnesses [how was the killing discovered]?

Did the killing take place on the property of Backus?

Why didn’t Backus turn himself in to the authorities?

Did Backus not fear arrest?

Who was on the Coronor’s jury?

Who were the deputies?

Did Backus stay put in order to care for his family in anticipation of jail?

Did Backus believe he would be found not guilty?

Why didn’t Backus run?

Was he hiding from the law [trying to escape]?

Did the deputies give a warning or shoot first?

Were the deputies related to Stoddard?

Was killing Backus a revenge killing — frontier justice?

What became of the Stoddard family? — There is a tombstone for G. D. Stoddard in the Vernonia Pioneer Cemetery. There is no date inscribed but it is a Civil War Veteran’s marker. He was a Corpl in Co. K 19 NY Cav. According to county records there are no other burials for the Stoddard surname.– from EMAIL

What became of the Backus family? — We looked for burial records under the Backus surname; none were found in the Columbia county records. — from EMAIL

SOME OF THE ANSWERS

— BACKUS

” I am a descendant of the Hardman and Ritter families who migrated to Oregon in 1853. Mary Ann Hardman (b. 1 Apr 1823 d. 5 Mar 1868) was the wife of Gideon W. Backus (m. 24 Sep 1840, St. Joseph Co., IN), and they were the parents of 12 children, the oldest being Levi Backus who later died in Columbia County.

” Levi was born in 1843 in St. Joseph Co., IN. He migrated with his family to Linn county, Oregon, in either 1851 or 1853, and the family settled in Lebanon. On 4 Jun 1863, Levi married Polly J. Ritter in Linn County.

” The 1870 Linn county census lists Levi as a wagon-maker living with his father in Lebanon. His wife Polly had died in 1868 leaving him with three children, Emaline, John and Albert. Levi married Ardelia McDermott on 13 Jul 1873 in Albany. It is unknown when they left Linn county for Columbia county.
– from EMAIL

Israel Spencer of Vernonia, in his report of pioneer efforts at road building in Feb-May of 1880, lists an L. L. Backus as volunteering five days of work to the cause. I have included excerpts from his report for several reasons. One: to establish background on the severity of the storm and a consequence to the Backus family; and Two: to entertain the idea that Spencer is practicing selective memory recall. He was the JP and coronor when Backus was killed and would have issued the coronor’s report. It is odd that he didn’t recall doing so. — Larry

” On January 9, 1880, there was one of the most violent and disastrous wind storms that ever visited this section of the county, accompanied by a hard rain and snow. The ground was saturated with water; the trees, swayed back and forth, soon loosened the roots and they had to go over, with the result that there was more timber blown down in this vicinity than ever had been before, judging by the timber already on the ground. The wind came from the northwest, sweeping down Rock creek.

” …During the storm of January 9, 1880, mentioned above, Joe Van Blaricom, or Uncle Joe, as we called him, had been out over at Mountain Dale and had started for home. It had been snowing the most of the time and it got so deep he could hardly get through. When the wind began to blow a regular hurricane with night coming on, the timber falling in all directions he had to camp out with no matches, no grub to eat, and it looked to him that he was taking desperate chances. He was within eight miles of home and compelled to keep some kind of action to keep alive. He managed in the afternoon of the next day to get to Adams’, he does not know how, and they put him on a sled and took him to his father’s home. His legs were so badly frostbitten that they were black to his knees, but he finally got well.

” …The road up Pebble creek and over the Green mountain was blockaded with fallen timber. It was estimated that there were 400 fallen trees across it, and it was decided not to try to open it up but to cut a new road by the way of Beaver creek divide, over the hills and connect with the road on the West Dairy creek in Washington county.

” Some time in February, 1880, exact date not known, a crew of men whose names will be mentioned later on [included L. L. Backus] took their blankets and axes and started for the field of occupation 14 miles away. There was two feet of snow in some places to Christ’s at the foot of the mountain on West Dairy creek. From this time until the road was finished some time in May someone was camped and working on the line. If any of this generation thinks there was any fun about this job they are welcome to try one of the same kind.

” …In grading around Cape Horn the snow was from 4 to 6 feet deep and it had to be gotten out of the way before any dirt could be moved and anything done towards putting in the bank logs to hold the dirt of any blasting. Bill Mellinger and Dock Beeghly had charge of the powder work.

” …Provisions were not very plentiful at the homes of most of these men, and the only way to get a supply was to pack it in on one’s back, the snow being too deep for horses to get through. No one suffered for the want of food, but at the same time there was none to throw away. Flour was the scarcest article, and I suppose a good many meals were eaten without bread on the table. ”

From “The Albany Democrat,” Friday, 20 Feb 1880 the following:

Starved to Death

The Evening Telegram reports, upon the authority of Mr. A. G. Guild, formerly publisher of the Hillsboro Independent, that a little daughter of Mr. Levi Backus of Nehalem valley died recently from starvation. The statements are that the family were illy supplied with provisions at the time of the recent storm; [because of the storm] communication with the Beaver creek settlement was made impossible; that the father was compelled to work his way slowly by great hardship to St. Helens to procure food and that during his absence his little girl Mabel died from starvation in her mother’s arms. Levi Backus formerly resided in this city [Albany, OR].
– from EMAIL

The Levi Backus family was enumerated on the 1880 Federal census for Columbia county, OR. Levi Backus was listed as age 37, from Indiana, occupation – a wagon maker; wife, Ordelia, age 29, from Illinois; Albert, age 13, from Oregon; Lillie, age 7, from Oregon; and Zeora, age 5, from Oregon. The Stoddard surname was not located on the census.

According to a Vancouver newspaper dated June 22, 1887, Levi Backus killed G. D. Stoddard June 12, 1887 and three days later a constable killed Levi Backus. G. D. Stoddard was buried at the Vernonia Pioneer Cemetery but no burial was found for Levi Backus. It may be that Levi’s body was returned somewhere outside the county to a family plot or it is possible that he was buried in an unmarked grave.

NICKERSON’S STORY

Found an article in the June 15, 1928 Rainier Review — a reprint of a Fred Lockley interview with E. E. Nickerson, Nehalem Pioneer, and it states the following: “Two farmers, Stoddard and Backus, who lived on Rock Creek, had a dispute over their boundary line, I doubt if the ground in dispute was worth over a few hundred dollars. Stoddard ambushed and killed him. Deputy Sheriff Charley Millinger and “Doc” Beakley followed Stoddard, and when he resisted arrest, killed him. — Oregon Journal”

If Nickerson’s memory can be trusted you now have the name of the man who killed Backus — [Mellinger or Beeghly] — wouldn’t it be interesting if one of these two men was related to Stoddard?
– from EMAIL

OMAR SPENCER’S STORY

From the papers of Omar Spencer, son of Israel Spencer:

“At about 10:00 o’clock in the morning of the day in question a young man, whom we will call Art Baker, who also lived up Rock Creek, came to our place breathless as though he had been running. He was not too bright, generally stood around with his mouth open, and all you could get out of him was “yes” or “no.” Father was busy in the woodshed, while I tried to play with Art even though he was 18 and I was only 8 years old. Art seemed to be worried about something. At noon came dinner time (as we called it) and Art was asked to partake of a meal and he did so, with gusto. After dinner father resumed his work in the woodshed. I still wanted to play but Art just stood around with his mouth open and said nothing. Finally, as the afternoon wore along and Art apparently realized that it was now or never, he mustered up courage and suddenly exclaimed “Stoddard’s shot!” Father was stunned and shouted “What?” Then by a process of cross examination, father got the story from Art and immediately took over and began to organize a coroner’s jury.

“The jury found this to be a case of willful and premeditated murder by Backus. Two local men were sworn in by the sheriff of the county as special deputies to take Backus dead or alive. They kept watch over his home for several days, knowing he would appear for food. He did appear and while trying to escape was ordered to halt, which he refused to do, and was there upon shot and killed by one of the deputies.

“We never knew which deputy killed him and the deputies never told.
– Omar Spencer

THE POSSE GROWS

You might be interested in the following extract from Lockley’s book “From the Dalles to the Sea” V3 –p458: about Charles Mellinger.
– from EMAIL

” …two years as constable. During this time the historic Stoddard murder occurred, in which Mr. Stoddard was shot and killed by his neighbor Bacchus. They were two neighbors who had trouble over a fence and cattle damage. Bacchus, who was known to be a dangerous man, shot and killed Stoddard. It fell to Mr. Mellinger as constable to arrest the murderer, who was known to be a very hot tempered person and a dead shot and who would not be taken alive. Mr. Mellinger thereupon deputized three of his neighbors, Bill Wood, Uriah S. Beeghey, and Everett Nickerson. In the process of making the arrest, Bacchus was shot and died from the effects of the wound within two days, the shot entering the mouth and breaking his jaw…”

The posse grows larger. It is odd that E. Nickerson (interview printed above) didn’t own up to being in on the attempted arrest of Backus — also it is difficult to shoot a man in the face if he is running away…
Larry

PACIFIST

“Are you aware of Levi’s religious background? He was born into a family of staunch German Baptist Brethren, his parents having been wed by the famous Reverend Jacob Miller. This sect was an offshoot of the Anabaptist movement which spawned the Amish, Mennonite and Brethren faiths. Brethren members traveled together, were devout, and married only within their faith. They kept to themselves, took no oaths, and were pacifists.

“Levi’s father was very active in his faith, and Levi’s first wife, Polly, was the daughter of a church elder. It was very near Levi’s home where, in 1856, the first church of the Brethren west of the Mississippi was built.
– From EMAIL

{Picture of Levi and daughter}

{Picture of Levi}

SPECULATION

Next door neighbors to the Backus family was the Adams family. They would have as good an opportunity as any to know the Backus family. In “This Side of Oregon” by Ralph Friedman, it says: “… but Spencer and Adams (Thomas L. Adams) early on had a dispute, the nature of which was never disclosed. After that, to their last days, neither spoke to or of the other. Feuds on the frontier could be as powerful as anywhere else, but life on the frontier compelled some cooperation …observed the formalties that permited both to co-exist in the same situation.”

Perhaps the “dispute” was over the way the Backus affair was handled.
– From EMAIL

LOOK AT OTHERS

The investigation should not be limited to the Backus and Stoddard families. Because of the accusation that Backus was killed by a relative of Stoddard the families of all those involved should be looked at for connections to Stoddard. Israel Spencer for instance: This gentleman was born in DeRuyter, Madison county, NY in June of 1844. At the age of ten years he moved with his parents to Oakland county, NY. He enlisted in the 136th Regiment of the New York Volunteer Infantry and served faithfully until the end of the war. He lived in Lexington and Genesee counties in Michigan from 1868 to 1876 before coming to Oregon where he settled in the Nehalem valley.
– From EMAIL

MOVED AWAY

Columbia county deed records show that Mrs. Ardelia P. Backus sold the SW 1/4 of S25 T5N R5W — 160 acres, to a S. J. Brown for $1,000 on 24 July 1889. She was identified as “unmarried” by the county clerk.

Deed: from the United States of America: Homestead Certificate No. 2593, Application 6091; to Ardelia P. Backus, widow of Levi L. Backus deceased — the SW 1/4 of S25 T5N R5W — 160 acres; signed by Benjamin Harrison — President; dated April 2, 1890; filed for record December 19, 1907 — title found by TICOR [notice the inconsistencies of the dates -- title companies must love this confusion.]

Ardelia (McDermott) Backus married (2) John M. Lyon, on July 9, 1890, at the house of W. E. Smith, Washington County. The family can be found on the 1900 Federal Census for Washington county, OR, Dairy precinct, Greenville census, married to a John Lyon. The youngest Backus child is Forest E. Backus, age 14 (1900), born July 1885.

— STODDARD

PROBATE RECORDS

The gist of about 40 pages of probate records for George D. Stoddard reports that Susie H. Stoddard, widow of George D. Stoddard, was duly appointed administratrix for the estate on June 29, 1887. The heirs were the widow and three sons: Sheridan, Don R. and Dayton W. Stoddard.

An inventory of appraisment was present and signed July 2, 1887.

On July 9, 1887 Susie H. Stoddard petitioned the court… “that it became necessary for her to remove from said premises in order to enable her to obtain work for the support of her self and family…that she still resides in the State of Oregon…

And again April 3, 1889 Susie H. Stoddard told the court: That the family of George D. Stoddard deceased consists of: Sheridan Stoddard [G. S. Stoddard], aged 22 ; D. R. Stoddard [Don R. Stoddard], aged 15; and D. W. Stoddard [Dayton W. Stoddard], aged 11 years, sons… That she has no money with which to support and care for said minors and support the family and educate the children above named. That it is necessary that she sell all the personal property set forth…

Various expenditures, incomes from the sale of personal property, and income from the rental of real estate were accounted for until January 1, 1890.

From county land records Susie H. Stoddard (widow); D. W. Stoddard [Dayton] (unmarried); S. G. Stoddard [Sheridan] and Alta Stoddard (husband and wife) sold to Don R. Stoddard for $1 the S 1/2 of the NW 1/4 S 26 T5 R5 dated 25 November 1901 — [Apparently the NW reference was a "typo" and should have read NE ]

[I am guessing that Sheridan G. Stoddard and George S. Stoddard are one and the same person - no doubt when George D. Stoddard was alive there would have been some confusion over having two names of George in the same house - so probably they called young George by his middle name of Sheridan.]

Deed: from the United States of America, Certificate No. 2551; To George D. Stoddard of Columbia County Oregon; the S1/2 of the NE 1/4 of S26 in T5N of R5W, 80 acres — signed by Benjamin Harrison, President; dated September 5, 1890; filed for record March 1, 1902 — title located by TICOR — [this was a purchase of federal land as opposed to a homestead; again, notice the inconsistencies of the dates.]

FAMILY RECORDS

From Dan W. Stoddard, who maintains a Stoddard family database:
Our records show that George Dayton Stoddard was born in NY about 1841. He was the youngest of four children. I am including the names of his brothers and sister and their children:

1) Dewitt Clinton Stoddard
born Dec 1833 in NewYork,
married Dora G. Mosse;

children:
Verner Clinton Stoddard

2) Helen Stoddard,
born 1836/37 in New York;

3) Wickam Stoddard,
born 1838/39 in New York,
married Sarah J. ___.

children:
Frances B. Stoddard
m Robert M. Thurmond

Blanche Stoddard

Charles W. Stoddard
married Blanche Harding

4) George Dayton Stoddard
born 1841 NY
married Susannah H. ___.

children:
George Sheridan Stoddard
b 1867 MN
spouse: Alta S. ___.

Don R. Stoddard
b Sep 1874 MN
spouse Christina ____.

Dayton W. Stoddard
b May 1878
spouse Esther L. ___.

We have considerable interest in this family because in all of our activities involved in the collection of records of over 140,000 Stoddard’s and allied individuals we have not seen more of this family. If you have any additions to update our records on this family we would be pleased to get the information. — Dan W. Stoddard

FAMILY TREE DATA

Did a little searching on the Family Tree CDs and found:
…… George D. Stoddard
b 29 Oct 1841
d 10 Jun 1887 (no locations)
m Susie Helen Willey 11 Sept 1866
…… b 25 Mar 1845
…… d 14 Mar 1914 (no locations)
Children
1) G. S. Stoddard – no info
2) Dayton Willey Stoddard
……………….. b 16 Mar 1878 Hutchinson, Minnesota
……………….. d 22 Nov 1933 Anchorage, Alaska
……………….. m 20 Nov 1913 Vancouver, WA
……………….. Esther Louise Graham
……………………….. Children
……………………….. 1) Vivian Corrine Stoddard
……………………… m Robt Bruce Laurie
……………………….. 2) Fay Mildred Stoddard
…………………….. m Eskil Eskilson
……………………….. 3) Dorothy June Stoddard
…………………….. m Robert Walling
……………………….. 4) Beth Marie Stoddard
…………………….. m Delbert Lee Allen
– From EMAIL

A member of the Stoddard family saved newspaper articles collected from the time of the killing. A great-grandson has sent copies to us. We have reproduced them. Read through them and see what you think.

The Nehalem Tragedy

Justice Brouse, accompanied by Constable Mellinger and Deputy Constable Beeghley, came into St. Helens on Monday last with the proceedings of the inquests held over the bodies of Geo. D. Stoddard and Levi L. Backus. From a thorough examination of the testimony we can form no other opinion than that the killing of Stoddard was a most atrocious and premeditated murder, without any serious provocation. Backus was not in the habit of carrying a revolver and he had no need of one for self protection, as Stoddard never went armed. Therefore he carried the weapon on this occasion for a criminal purpose and he put it into execution without delay. His death at the hands of the constables is a blessing to the community and we hope it will teach the few hard characters that reside in that neighborhood that the good citizens mean business and are not afraid to uphold the law, even if they are required to take human life in doing so.

The following is the verdict of the coroner’s jury in the Stoddard case:

“We, the undersigned, members of the coroner’s jury, called and duly sworn, do find from the evidence that the body is that of George D. Stoddard and that he came to his death by a pistol shot wound inflicted by the hands of Levi L. Backus, on the 30th day of June, 1887, in the county of Columbia and State of Oregon.”

The jury further finds “that James M. Adams and Edward Webster have merited public censure by being in company of Levi L. Backus, knowing that Backus confessed to the killing of George D. Stoddard and made no attempt to prevent his escape.”

At the inquest held over the body of Backus, Chas. W. Mellinger testified as follows:

“I had, on the 11th day of June, 1887, a lawful warrant for the arrest of Levi L. Backus, charged with the murder of George D. Stoddard on the 10th day of June, 1887. Said warrant was issued by Peter Brous, the Justice of the Peace in and for Auburn precinct. This is the body of said Levi L. Backus. On the 12th day of June I was, in company with Uriah M. Beeghley, a deputy constable, watching in the bush for Backus. About 1:00 o’clock PM of that day, at a place in the bush about twenty rods southwest of the house of Backus, creeping through the bush going in a westerly direction. He was moving in an easy gait. He was about twenty steps from where I was sitting. He then passed out of my sight, still going westward. In about five minutes afterward he showed himself again, about seventy five yards further to the west. I stepped out of the brush, so that there was no brush between Backus and myself and said in a loud voice, “Halt, Backus!” He at that started into a run, whereupon I and my deputy both fired upon him apparently without effect. Backus continuing his flight we both fired again, and apparently both at once. Of this discharge one of the balls took effect and Backus fell to the ground. On his coming in to sight the second time I saw him from head to foot. On his back he was carrying a packing sack, and a rifle on his shoulder. On his falling I went up to him and arrested him. I found him wounded by a ball having passed through the lower jaw from the right side and out at the left side. The rifle he had was a Winchester, and belonged, as far as I know, to James M. Adams.”

The family of Backus at the time of his death was in destitute circumstances and measures have been taken to provide for the immediate wants. (end of copy)

Sheridan Stoddard,son of Geo. D. Stoddard, made us a short call on Wednesday last. He deeply feels his father’s tragic death, and is evidently determined to be all that a son can be to his widowed mother. It appears that she will not be entitled to her husband’s pension, as Stoddard did not die from the effect of injuries received in service. This may be the law, but it seems to us rather unjust, for if she needed the pension when her husband was alive she certainly needs it all the more now that his support is taken from her.

 

A DOUBLE TRAGEDY

The Murder of G. D. Stoddard and Subsequent Killing of His Murderer.

G. D. Stoddard, a well-known resident of Pittsburg, was murdered on Sunday last by L. L. Backus. Stoddard was the road supervisor of his precinct and as such had objected to Bacchus building a fence across the county road. This and other matters had caused bad feeling between them, and, as the sequel shows, it took but very little provocation to cause Backus to commit the murder. It appears that on Friday afternoon Stoddard heard his cow bells coming from the direction of Backus’s place and on going to see what was after them met Backus driving the cattle before him. They quarreled and Backus killed Stoddard, the weapon used being a Colt’s navy revolver. Stoddard was unarmed. After the killing Backus took to the woods. Justice Brouse, upon being informed of the facts, summoned a jury and held an inquest over the body of Mr. Stoddard. The jury was composed of Messrs. John Campbell, Wm. Mellinger, John W. Cornelius, Thomas M. Tucker and Israel M. Spencer, and their verdict was in accordance with the above facts. Constable Mellinger and a posse were then sent after the murderer. The examination by Dr. Ray showed that the ball entered the abdomen three and one-half inches to the left of the median line and one-half inch above the navel, and lodged under the skin two and one-half inches to the right of the spinal column. Stoddard was buried Sunday and just before the body was lowered into the grave the constable and a deputy arrived bringing with them the gun of Backus, who they said they had shot. They saw him in the woods back of his house and ordered him to surrender. He started to run and they fired, shooting him through the neck and jaws. He lived until about 9 o’clock the next day. The action of the constable and his deputy is commended by all good citizens. Stoddard was an old soldier and had recently been granted a pension. He was a good citizen and had frequently befriended his murderer.

 

THE COLUMBIA COUNTY TRAGEDY

DETAILS OF THE FATAL QUARREL BETWEEN BACKUS AND STODDARD — THE FORMER’S DEATH

Additional particulars of the murder of G. D. Stoddard near Vernonia, Columbia county, Or., by L. L. Backus, and of the killling of the latter by the officers, have been received.

The fatal altercation, says the Hillsboro Independent, between Stoddard and Backus occurred last Friday afternoon, about 4 o’clock. The tragedy occurred near the property line between the two men and about five miles up Rock Creek from Vernonia postoffice. Fence and stock troubles were the cause. A revolver was used by Backus in committing the deed. The shot took effect in the left breast, near the heart, and lodged in the back, from whence Dr. Gray removed it next morning. Backus met a boy on the road and said that he had shot Stoddard, and that he any breathed twice after being shot. Backus then stole out a neighbor’s Winchester and took to the brush. Being an old settler and well acquainted with the woods in that section, it was impossible for the officers to find him.

About three o’clock Sunday afternoon as the corpse was being viewed at the grave, word came that constable Chas. Mellinger and deputy Doc. Beeghley had captured Backus. When they sighted him, he ran and they ordered him to halt three times. As he did not surrender, and they held a warrant for him “dead or alive,” they opened fire with their Winchesters and he fell, a ball having entered just under the right jaw,and came out through the left, shattering it badly. He was captured near home, and the men sent from the funeral carried him in and Dr. Ray pressed his face as near into shape as he could, without administering chloroform. Backus lingered until Monday and died.

Stoddard served in the Union army during the rebellion and was in the battle of Gettysburg. Not long since he sent his application for membership to the J. B. Matthews Post, G. A. R., at Forest Grove. He was a pensioner and had just received quite a sum as back pay a short time since.

It appears that Backus was driving Stoddard’s cattle back from pasturing over the line of their unfenced land. Stoddard, who was, with his wife, working in their garden near by, heard the noise and went down to the road. At about the time for him to get there, Mrs. Stoddard heard the shot, but heard no words pass. Backus, after being shot, stated that Stoddard was advancing upon him and he told him to stop, and then on his refusal fired; but this is not borne out by the tracks in the road, which show that the two men did not get close together. When shot Stoddard had taken some steps out of the road, probably to get behind a tree.

Both men leave families living on their homesteads. Stoddard leaves four children who are pretty well gown up. Backus leaves a wife and five small children in destitute circumstances.

Backus went to a house on Sunday, when he said that he would not surrender to the local officers, but as soon as he could get word to his brother and father in Polk county he would go to St. Helens and give himself up. He was trying to visit his family when the officers fell in with him with the above results.

 

Comments:

Some of the names of participants changed over time. Some of the details were different. Perhaps these changes are natural consequences considering the communication difficulties of the time and the fact that newspaper reporting is not an exact science and reporters at times embellish the story for readership purposes. Some of the details later supplied were recalled after many years had passed – perhaps memories were fading and the details modified to make a better story. There can be little doubt that Backus killed Stoddard but the accusation of murder might be a little strong. We can imagine some frustrations for Backus… the county road ran through his land… perhaps he blamed his neighbor for some of his problems. He may have feared a confrontation with Stoddard. There are some hints that there may have been “other” reasons for his animousity toward Stoddard. The fact that Backus had some support in the Rock Creek community may be telling. There was the claim that Backus did not want to surrender to the local authorities but planned to put things in order and surrender at St. Helens. It might have been interesting if that scenario was allowed to play out. We can also imagine a community in outrage and a posse a little quick on the trigger. Perhaps Backus was the victim of community frustration with general lawlessness. In the end it was a sad conclusion for two families.

We have met with the great-grandson of G. D. Stoddard and find him a likeable fellow. We traveled to Vernonia and went to the Stoddard homestead. He walked on the very road where his great-grandfather was killed and surveyed the territory where his ancestors lived so many years ago. We met with Ralph Keasey who now owns the land where this story developed. Ralph’s memories of stories heard in childhood about the killing match these newspaper articles perfectly.

 

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