On January 2, 2016, a group of well-armed men—fancying themselves a militia—slipped away from a protest in Burns, Oregon, and broke into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The offices at Malheur are a relatively remote outpost, roughly thirty miles from Burns. It was a Saturday, so no federal employees were present at the facility to encounter its new occupiers.
Led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy—sons of Cliven Bundy, whom we’ll return to anon—the group first linked their presence to the legal troubles of Dwight and Steven Hammond. The Hammonds had already served time in prison for starting brushfires that spread to federal land—but a judge deemed that their sentences had been shorter than allowed by law and remanded them back into custody. Eventually, the men now known to reporters as the “Bundy Militia” broadened their field of grievances to include federal accumulation of western lands, federal oppression of western ranchers, and a general lack of “freedom” in the West.
If these don’t seem like new ideas, it’s because they aren’t. As we’ll soon explore, issues of freedom, land rights, and white perceptions of western violence have been simmering in the region since the closing moments of the Civil War.
So the group took over the Malheur Refuge and claimed they would stay for as long as it took—years, even—for the federal government to give the land back to “the people.” The plan appeared far-fetched to outsiders, certainly, but many of the militiamen had watched Cliven Bundy prevail through force in a separate land dispute with the feds. Previously, in a scene more reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven than the happenings of a modern Republic, Bundy and several dozen heavily armed ranchers forced a group of marshals to back down lest they trigger a full-on shootout. The near-disaster was the result of a lengthy dispute over land rights and federal grazing fees. (Bundy refused to pay for his cattle to graze on government property and when authorities arrived to confiscate the stock in question, his supporters were waiting with guns at the ready.)
While some of the Malheur militiamen sport camo fatigues, the more striking ones are the bearded men—Ammon Bundy among them—clad in Stetson-style hats, flannel coats, and western boots. They tote a variety of rifles, ranging from lever-action saddle guns to AR-15s, and keep pistols nestled in hip and shoulder holsters. On the surface, they would appear to be quintessential Wild Westerners—throwbacks to the rugged assemblage of settlers, trackers, cowboys, scouts, and Indian fighters who, at least in popular culture, “tamed the frontier” and cleared the way for American civilization to span from sea to shining sea. Better still, their cause seems ripped from the pages of a Louis L’Amour novel: oppressed local ranchers putting their lives on the line to secure land, ready to sling lead for “freedom” in the Far West.
Despite this veneer, the American public has largely refused to grant the Oregon occupiers any such cultural accreditation. (And with the occupation effectively broken—one man killed in a gunfight with the FBI and the Bundy brothers in federal custody—this lack of accreditation appears final.) In fact, rather than perceiving Bundy’s men as the twenty-first century scions of an “individualistic western tradition,” many Americans have been strangely uninterested in the entire story since it was revealed there wouldn’t be a Waco-esque storming of the compound. Some of this indifference has to do with the fact that the Bundy men aren’t local—their leadership hails from Idaho. Nor do they represent the small, independent landowners in the area—the Hammond family and others have repeatedly denounced the takeover at Malheur and requested that Bundy and company go home. Historically speaking, the roots of this apathy run much deeper into the past—down to when Civil War legacy-building transformed another group of intruders in the Far West into celebrated titans of American popular lore.
Most contemporary Americans imagine the Civil War as a sequence of orchestrated battles in the Eastern Theater. These memories are populated by men, clad in blue or gray, slaying one another with ghastly efficiency. The Rebel Yell echoes; cannons drown out the death groans of mangled men; smoke envelopes the dead. Larger-than-life commanders direct and observe the Napoleonic carnage from hilltops and brush lines at places like Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. This standardized version of the conflict concludes honorably at Appomattox, where the signatures of an ever-stoic Robert E. Lee and a cigar-chomping Ulysses S. Grant signify an end to supposedly “civilized” hostilities and guaranteed the demise of southern slavery.
But imaginary montages of the Civil War in the West, specifically in the Missouri-Kansas borderlands, can’t look like those based in Virginia, Maryland, or Pennsylvania. This westerly conflict had been a guerrilla war—a vast sequence of home invasions and personal traumas. Lonely, moonlit trails, rural hamlets, houses, barns, and muddy cornfields replaced standard battlefields. Men, women, and children, regardless of age, ethnicity, or ideological persuasion stood in for regular armies. In turn, all manner of violent encounters—from backshooting, plunder, arson, and ambush to rape, torture, and massacre—took the place of pitched battles and West Point stratagems. Family fought against family, neighbor struggled against neighbor, and the Civil War took on hyper-local, hyper-personal qualities as the likes of Jesse and Frank James, Cole Younger, William Clarke Quantrill, and William “Bloody Bill” Anderson rose to prominence.
When the war finally did end, many easterners—both northern and southern, Unionist and ex-Confederate—took to crafting a legacy for the conflict that would help expedite the process of sectional reconciliation. These narratives downplayed slavery as the main cause of the war, instead emphasizing the chivalry, honor, and mutual valor displayed by men from both sides. To accomplish this end required that certain “undesirable” elements of the conflict be written out of its story. Rather than completely denying the existence of guerrillas like Jesse James and Cole Younger, though, a transformation was enacted. Through popular books—such as The Border Outlaws: An Authentic and Thrilling History of the Most Noted Bandits of Ancient or Modern Times, The Younger Brothers, Jesse and Frank James—and dime novels—with titles like Jesse James and The Desperate Stand at Cutthroat Ranch—easterners gradually remade Confederate irregulars into six-gun cowboy heroes, exporting them to the cultural realm of the Wild West. This is precisely why so many Americans imagine the Jameses and the Youngers as western legends in the model of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, or John Wesley Hardin, as opposed to dedicated Confederate insurgents and legitimate Civil War veterans.
As post-Civil War legislation made the western half of the United States more available for free white settlement, the re-purposing of borderland guerrillas came to serve a double purpose. Not only did westernizing them allow meta-narratives of the war to remain pure and chivalric, but the skill set that had made irregulars seem so “ugly” now made them perfect vanguards in the fight to push white civilization westward. This latter struggle required men who could deal with unruly Native Americans and Mexicans on their own terms. In other words, new circumstances—read: non-white opponents in a frontier landscape—now meant that ambuscade, lightning assaults, arson, scalping, and terror campaigns against women and children weren’t just acceptable, they were esteemed tools for throwing open the region to American imperial interests.
Fast forward to the present and we can begin to understand the hesitancy of many Americans to engage directly with the Oregon Occupation.
On one hand, the majority of the population seems historically “programmed” to see the conflict between the Bundy Militia and federal authorities as unnatural. Now this isn’t to say America lacks a deep connection to guerrilla combat or insurgency tactics. European colonists first learned the practice of La Petite Guerre from Native Americans in seventeenth century conflicts such as King Philip’s War (1675-1678)—tactics the white settlers eventually turned on their indigenous teachers during the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) between England, France, Spain, and their respective Native allies. With the American Revolution came the rise of men like Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion and Daniel Morgan, commanders well-known for irregular tactics. But even their stories are greatly minimized within the context of the struggle for colonial independence because full-on guerrilla warfare was never really intended by white Anglo-Europeans to be used against other white Anglo-Europeans.
On the other hand, truly placing the Oregon Occupation in historical context pings something in the American psyche; it forces Americans to confront the less-than-savory moments from our own past—moments also made by irregular violence in the Far West—that weren’t written out of the popular narrative. It calls to mind the times when Americans were in the business of not only following, but of celebrating men who donned western hats and boots, who toted rifles and made violent stands for “freedom” in the West; times when Native burial grounds were trampled without the slightest disapproval; and times when the public was all too happy to ignore who’d originally inhabited western lands being re-won for free and profitable use by “the people.”
Some of these attitudes have changed since the 1870s, others haven’t. Regardless, in this case, as with many others developing recently, many Americans seem more content to selectively ignore the past than to acknowledge how coming to terms with it might shape—and even benefit—our interpretations of the present.