By: Ronald Lansing (Washington State University Press, Pullman, 2005.
Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 318 pages. $21.95 paper.

In 1845, at the age of sixty-five, Nimrod O’Kelly migrated to Oregon from Missouri over the Oregon Trail. One of the initial residents of the fertile Willamette Valley, he ultimately filed claim on 640 acres of relatively unsurveyed Oregon land. As Ronald Lansing (a law professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland) relates, O’Kelly became like “a jackstraw caught up in the winds of the law and the land” over most of the following twenty years (p. xi). After killing a man over a boundary dispute, Nimrod doggedly attempted to clear his name — barely escaping the noose on several occasions — while negotiating the labyrinth of political and legal machinations surrounding his original land claim.1
      As Lansing painstakingly tells the story, settlement in Oregon Territory increased substantially during the late 1840s. Settlers filed claims on lands adjacent to O’Kelly’s original claim, and friction eventually ensued over nebulous and ever-shifting boundary lines. In 1850, Congress complicated the Oregon land issue by passing the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act, which attempted to regulate both past and future land distribution in Oregon Territory by, in part, considering prior Indian land rights and compressing earlier land claims. The result was a mess of overlapping boundaries, squatters, and aggrieved individuals (such as Nimrod O’Kelly) who felt their property rights were under attack. Ultimately, because it was believed that Nimrod was not married at the time of his original claim (although, in reality, he was), he lost half of his original 640 acres in 1850. His boundary disputes increased until, in May 1852, O’Kelly — an increasingly irascible man — shot and killed Jeremiah Mahoney, a neighbor who he believed was squatting on his land. From the outset, it was unclear if the shooting was accidental, committed in self-defense, or premeditated first-degree murder. After a three-day trial in late June and early July 1852, a jury found O’Kelly guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge sentenced him to death by hanging.2
      In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, petitions asking the governor to pardon O’Kelly circulated among several local Oregon frontier communities. These were met with counter petitions requesting that the governor uphold the verdict. Ultimately, after two years of partisan and legal wrangling, O’Kelly’s case made it to the Oregon Territorial Supreme Court, where the original verdict was upheld. In 1854, Oregon’s territorial governor, John Wesley Davis, commuted O’Kelly’s sentence and instead required him to serve two years in the Oregon territorial penitentiary in Portland; another governor subsequently shortened that sentence. Eventually, O’Kelly returned to his abandoned land claim, remained angry at the loss he experienced, and decided to seek relief in Washington, D.C., where he might turn his original land donation into a new land patent (based, in part, on his service during the War of 1812). Lansing could not corroborate the story, but it was rumored that O’Kelly, at age seventy-six, walked nearly the entire distance across the continent. O’Kelly died in 1864, leaving his heirs to struggle with state and federal government agencies over the boundaries and exact amount of land to which they were entitled.3
      Lansing writes in an engaging, readable prose, yet many readers may become frustrated with the abundance of intricacies and exhaustive details, particularly concerning the complexities of Oregon and United States land law. Those details dominate the first half of the book and set the stage for O’Kelly’s subsequent, tumultuous legal difficulties, which comprise the second half. Lansing is a tenacious and thorough researcher — nearly matching his historical subject in tenacity — as he has undoubtedly unearthed every scrap of paper even remotely related to the Nimrod O’Kelly case and the competing land claims that spawned it. For those with patience and interest in the early history of settling the land and the litigiousness surrounding those settlements — with a little murder and intrigue on the far western frontier thrown in for good measure — this book will not disappoint.4
KEITH EDGERTONMontana State University-Billings

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