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There were several other ways the state and federal governments could be hustled out of prime lands, too. The state wasn’t fully surveyed yet. The policy of the state and federal governments was to honor the claims of legitimate homesteaders even if their claims turned out to be in places that were set aside for other things — like local schools, land-grant universities, or government buildings. The government would give those homesteaders their pick of government-owned lands — “lieu lands” — in exchange. So people like Stephen Puter would hurry out to remote mountainous sections that were about to be surveyed, stake virtually worthless claims, and exchange them for valuable timberlands after the survey.
But probably the most common scam, and the one that Puter was especially adept at, was the “dummy entryman” swindle. In this, after a new timber-country township was surveyed, Puter would hire random sailors and North End layabouts to go down to the land office and file land claims in it, with Puter paying their filing fees. These “dummies” would go to the land office, perjure themselves by swearing that they had inspected their claims and intended to “prove them up,” and then basically sign them over to Puter. Puter would bribe a land-office clerk to allow the transaction. He would then lump enough of the claims together to make a decent sized timber patch, and sell them to an out-of-state timber baron.
This kind of thing went on for decades.
So, how did it all end? Well, first of all, the state’s prime real estate started getting more and more scarce. At the same time, railroads and other organizations that had been given federal land grants were having trouble redeeming them because people like Puter were snapping them up fraudulently.
But it would take a long time for popular opinions about the land fraudsters to change.
For the most part, the people participating in this swindle didn’t really think of it as a big deal. Scarcity wasn't an issue; there was a seemingly endless supply of land. Everybody was making money, and everyone in the fraudulent marketplace was happy playing their part. The timber barons were getting prime timberlands for cheap, the land-office clerks were getting a nice sideline income, the timber brokers like Puter were greasing the wheels of commerce and getting well paid for it, and the land they were stealing was unsuitable for homesteaders anyway. So what if there were some weird, unreasonable requirements about residency and improvements and big operators not being allowed to buy land in bulk? Those requirements were for farmland, not timber. Who, they would have asked, were they hurting?
And in the early years at least, most Oregonians agreed with that. But by the turn of the century that had changed.
Happily ensconced in their little bubble of like-minded businessmen and politicians, the land thieves had gotten to be a bit out of touch with how their activities were playing with the public. As the new century dawned, the old “greed is good” ethos of the Gilded Age was wearing very thin. Members of the public, watching fat cats from out of state (or even out of country) take advantage of the situation to build vast absentee empires, were starting to notice, and resent.
That was the biggest change that led to the end of the land fraud era — a change in the attitude of regular Americans. The beginning of the end for the land fraudsters came in about 1902, when a random citizen — a Catholic priest, actually — wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ethan Hitchcock, alerting him to a series of land frauds in the Tillamook area.
Complaints like this may have come in before; if they did, they were promptly shoved under a rug. But the Roosevelt administration was far more serious about things like land fraud than previous ones had been. Hitchcock took the report very seriously, and sent Secret Service investigators — including the legendary William J. Burns — to investigate.
The result was, some very highly placed heads started rolling at the General Land Office. Puter and his associates soon found familiar faces at the land office had disappeared, and their replacements were turning out to be a lot harder to bribe.
AFTER INVESTIGATOR HENEY flipped Puter, things moved fairly quickly. Puter’s $2,000 bribe to Sen. Mitchell had been in cash, so it was untraceable; but another land agent, Frederick Kribs, paid his bribes with checks, which Mitchell had been imprudent enough to accept and deposit.
Heney then went after Congressman John Williamson, who had apparently worked the system from within to acquire several thousands of acres of grazing land for his sheep ranch near Prineville, and Congressman Binger Hermann, the former commissioner of the General Land Office.
Dozens of other operators — land agents like Puter as well as several of their wealthy out-of-state customers — were also tried, and many were convicted. Mitchell and Williamson were among them, but both appealed immediately. Williamson’s conviction was overturned on appeal and Mitchell’s was dropped after he died from a dental abcess before his case could be heard. Hermann’s trial ended with a hung jury.
So, no real high-profile characters spent significant jail time for the land-fraud scandals. But the government had made its point, and after those trials the age of easy land grabbing was over in Oregon.
Unfortunately, by that point most of the good land had been scooped up anyway.