Harney County Sunset

Photo Courtesy of Debbie Raney

Harney County History

The history of Harney County is truly an extraordinary story and one that helps to mold the thinking and pride that is a part of those who live in this area.  Like most western areas the “conquering of the land” was hard and unyielding.  Thus, the people that were successful are worthy of remembrance and even honor.

Harney County covers 10,180 square miles, but only about seven thousand people live within its boundaries. One can travel along a main highway for miles without seeing a house or fence, just an occasional road that leads seemingly nowhere. While communities such as Blitzen and Ragtown faded, Burns managed to endure and became “the biggest town in the biggest county in Oregon.” With the exception of the later community of Hines to the south, Burns today stands alone, the only town within a seventy-five mile radius.

The discovery of gold in eastern Oregon in the early 1860s brought thousands of prospectors through the area, and their presence soon led to violent skirmishes with the Northwest Indians. To restore peace, the federal government established several military camps in the present-day Harney County before negotiating a treaty in 1869. Cattle ranchers, attracted by the vast amount of bunchgrass and the railroad available at Winnemucca, soon began moving their herds into the region. While small, family-owned farms grew on the northern sections of the county, several vast cattle ranches, financed by out-of-state owners, developed on the southern end. For the next several decades, an uneasiness that sometimes erupted in violence brewed between the settlers and the cattle barons as each jockeyed for land ownership and water rights.

Burns consisted of a hotel, a saloon, and a barber-shop in the early 1880s. George McGowan, a merchant from a rival settlement, soon moved to the town and started a general store with Peter Stenger. When establishing a post office, Stenger wanted to name the community after himself, but George Francis Brimlow in Harney County, Oregon, and Its Range Land wrote that McGowan discouraged this, observing that too many might call it “the Stenger town where they got stung.” Instead, McGowan suggested the name of Burns, after Robert Burns, his favorite Scottish poet.

The Burns townsite was part of a land grant given the builders of the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Wagon Road, which extended from Albany to the Washoe Ferry on the Snake River. Although the quality of the road in some locations was poor, the federal government awarded the land grants, the promised incentive. Subsequent owners of the military road land grant recorded a twenty-four-block plat called the “Town of Burns” in 1883.

For more on Harney County history, visit the Western History Room at the Harney County Library and explore all that it offers.

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