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TOP O THE MORN: Cattle rustlers ran wild in the late 1800s

Cattle rustling was rife on North Whidbey in the 1870s. This was only 20 years after Taftzon, Sumner and Freund, Oak Harbor’s first three settlers arrived by Indian canoe to take up Donation Claims along the bay where Oak Harbor now stands.

The cattle rustling situation developed after Henry L. Maryott, a disappointed California gold miner, came north in search of further adventure or land to make up in some degree the fortune in gold that passed him by.

He first rented the Haller farm on the Chenoweth claim in Cresent Harbor. The Navy game preserve is part of this location.

Maryott also took up a homestead west of Dugualla Bay, then bought part of the government peat bog adjoining his land, making about 300 acres in all. Soon afterward he also bought 800 acres of woods and rich bottom land southeast of Deception Pass.

Maryott’s land possibly included most of the cranberry bog southwest of Cranberry Lake, which he may have named. Maryott built himself a log cabin and began to ditch and clear his extensive homestead. He also went into the cattle business.

It is said by early historians that Maryott would have “made it big” in the cattle business if he had had more time to fence in his land to contain his cattle. Another factor which hindered him was the mild winters experienced on North Whidbey. They foraged all year ’round.

As soon as the cattle were two-years-old they would wander away to the swales and marshes which lined West Beach clear to Deception Pass. During the summer and fall they would get fat and forget about “home,” wandering in herds. It was said all the settlers from Ebey’s Prairie north lost cattle, and in 1874 there was estimated to be as many as 100 head in one large, wild herd.

No settler was expected to go hungry for beef if he got a chance at one of the big herds, and while Maryott claimed the majority of the cattle, still the minority was too large to be ignored.

Martin Taftzon’s work oxen also left to join the wild herd, and he never could coax them back after they got a taste of the “wild life.” This big wandering herd of beef was too much to be ignored, and “rustlers” appeared on the scene, not to kill for their own use, but for the market.

When the wild herd ran short, the rustlers began on the settlers’ tame cattle. None were safe.

Ben Ure, an early settler in the area told Jerome Ely that all the cattle he had were killed, and that he suspected they were shipped to La Conner. He said that two rustlers would work together, they would shoot an ox in the woods, and one would begin dressing it while the other would go to the cabin and talk with Ure until it was finished. All attempts to stop the rustling proved fruitless.

It was said that when the oxen were at home, Taftzon could drive them singly or together, in or out of yoke, but a short time in the wild made them a part of it.

Maryott made some attempts to halt it, but could prove nothing. He had one of his neighbors arrested for shooting a black bull that he claimed. He could prove he killed the bull, but could not prove the bull belonged to him. He swore that the sire was a Durham and the dam a Devon, but failed to show the court how it could be possible for a red and white sire and a pure deep red dam to produce a black calf.

The calf was the last effort to punish the killing of the wild cattle ... and was the finish of the West Beach herd.

As years went on, settlers built barns and fences, and kept a closer watch over their stock, thus the “rustling” of cattle died out too.

A sidelight on the life of Henry L. Maryott: When he came west to the 1849 gold fields of California, he left a wife and two children in northeast Pennsylvania, on a little farm he owned. He expected, as did all the “forty-niners” to soon return home with a small fortune.

On Whidbey Island he saved money, and sent enough home to his wife to pay all the indebtedness against the farm so his family would be safe from want until he returned. But the money was lost or stolen in transit and the wife and children made homeless.

Mrs. Maryott died thinking she had been deserted by her husband.

He later returned East and married another woman and brought her, along with his aged father and mother, sister and her husband and a niece and husband with their families, to Whidbey Island to become permanent settlers.

During the 1800s, Maryott rented his marsh farm to J.M. Hoffman for 10 years, and built himself a house in the woods on land he bought from the government near Deception Pass.

There he died in 1889.

Dorothy Neil has recorded local history for 50 years. Her books chronicle Whidbey Island life and times.

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