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Way To Go, Nimrod! 1/11/22

This is a story about Oregon’s oldest recorded murder case. It wasn’t the first murder; there had been a few others. But for technical reasons that I won’t bore you with, this was Oregon’s first recorded murder and it happened just down the road in Benton County in 1852. Before Billy the Kid or Butch Cassidy were even born, when Jesse James was still a little boy, before Wild Bill Hickock’s gunfighting career had even started and more than a quarter century before the Earps and Doc Holliday shot it out with The Cowboys at the OK Corral, Nimrod O’Kelly blasted a hole in the chest of Jeremiah Mahoney not far from Jennyopolis, Oregon.

Before we really get into this I’d first like to address the fat, smelly, grey, peanut-eating thing with a big nose that’s in the room right now. No, I’m not talking about myself. I’m talking about the name, Nimrod. The fact that this guy was named Nimrod is funny to me, for some reason. I don’t even know why, but I equate that word with moron, or idiot, or dumbass. But it was this guy’s actual name so I was curious. It turns out Nimrod goes all the way back to the Bible. Nimrod was a hunter, and a pretty good one, apparently. In the mid-1800's Cornelius Vanderbilt had a steamboat that he named Nimrod because it was stronger and faster than the other boats on the river. In the early 1900's Ernest Shackleton made his famous Nimrod Expedition to Antarctica aboard a boat called the Nimrod. The name represented the biblical Nimrod: Strong and reliable. So what happened?

The original Nimrod

Given what we know about the biblical Nimrod, this next part made perfect sense to me: If you go looking on the internet to find out why Nimrod is synonymous with blockhead, you will learn that it’s because Bugs Bunny used to sarcastically call Elmer Fudd a nimrod. Elmer was not a great hunter and the irony was hilarious. Except that, when I then went looking for examples of this I couldn’t find a single one. I take this job very seriously so I had to watch probably 10 hours of Looney Tunes before I gave up, and I hope you all appreciate the lengths I go to to get to the bottom of these important issues. It’s hard to believe people on the internet would just make stuff up, but I think that’s exactly what happened. I don’t think Bugs ever used that word, but I did find an instance of Daffy Duck using it once in 1948. I still don’t think that one occasion would have been enough to completely doom the name Nimrod, so I’m considering other possible explanations.

It has crossed my mind that it all started with our murderer Nimrod O’Kelly. Is it possible that his enemies did such a good job of disgracing him that the name Nimrod was tarnished forever? Was the decline and fall of the name Nimrod instigated right here, within spitting distance of where I now sit? Or maybe it goes back much further and people have long seen the name Nimrod as another word for nitwit or imbecile. Maybe his whole life people had been snickering in Nimrod’s face every time they said his name. No wonder he turned homicidal. But I don’t know, and the mystery is still alive, so if any of you have a better theory as to how the name Nimrod came to mean doofus I’d like to hear it. And if your name is Nimrod and you’re tired of everyone assuming you're a doofus I’d love to hear from you. Of course it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that if your name is Nimrod you also really are a doofus, in which case I’d still like to hear from you, you nimrod.

Interestingly, Nimrods don’t seem to have the same reputation everywhere. Until about ten years ago one of the most successful and popular airplanes in the British military was called the Nimrod. I would have thought that would have been part of our NATO contract with them: We’ll help protect you as long as your airplanes don’t have silly names. Tax payers in this country would never support the Pentagon using their money to build a plane called the Nimrod, but though pilots in our Air Force may prefer to fly an F-16 Fighting Falcon, or a Thunderbolt, or a C-130 Ghostrider, pilots in the UK didn’t seem to mind flying the Nimrod and the citizens didn’t seem to mind paying them to do so. Those people are funny over there.

OK. Now on with our story. A former resident of Missouri who had been born in Tennessee, Nimrod O’Kelly was already something of an oddity in that he came over the Oregon Trail by himself in the migration of 1845 when he was already 65 years old. But he wasn’t really alone because along the way he fell in with a wagon train consisting of several other families. Among those in his group were J.C. Avery, William Dixon, and Greenberry Smith. There were no Ednolds in his group, but the captain of the company was John Stewart, who was traveling with his wife Mary, and the group was known as the Stewart Party.

Leaders of the Stewart Party in Crystal Lake Cemetery

Nimrod spent his first winter in communities farther north, but by the autumn of 1846, in his search for the perfect place to settle, he had made his way south to Marysville, which Joe Avery had named for his friend Mary Stewart. Here he reunited with the Averys, Dixons and Stewarts who had founded the city later known as Corvallis at the confluence of the Willamette and Marys Rivers, and who would all become prominent citizens in the early years of that small but growing community. For his part, Greenberry Smith first claimed land farther south in Benton County before later moving several miles north of Marysville. Nimrod found his dream spot a few miles south of Smith’s original homestead, about 12 miles south of Marysville, where he had his pick of the wide open space. With each successive annual migration available unclaimed land became harder to find, but by getting there when he did Nimrod got first pick in that neighborhood. By December 8, 1846, he had measured and staked his square mile of land and was back in Oregon City to officially file his claim with the Secretary of the Provisional Government.

The land that Nimrod chose was an entire square mile - 640 acres, which was the amount of free land being given to married couples settling in the area at that time. He actually claimed that he was due another 160 acres as compensation for fighting in the War of 1812, but he didn’t push the issue since he had no proof of that service. Located just east of Muddy Creek, about a mile north of the Long Tom River and slightly more than that from the Willamette, the acreage he chose probably wouldn’t have been the first choice of any farmer who knew what they were looking for. The land was near several sloughs that would often overflow their banks, and Nimrod’s claim was full of swales that would flood during heavy rains. And if Nimrod had known where the name Long Tom came from it may have served as an omen of what was to come: It’s an anglicization of a native phrase meaning “spank-his-ass”. Or maybe Nimrod did know and that’s exactly the reason he chose that spot. Who knows?

The approximate area of Nimrod's claim (in red)

By the time he was building a cabin for himself on his land in 1847, more recent immigrants had already begun to fill in the empty space around Nimrod’s claim. At first, they were mostly further south in the Bellfountain and Starr’s Point (today’s Monroe) areas. But soon the Richardson family had moved in just to his south and the Winkle family had taken the land on his north side. Soon the Winkle’s had other neighbors to their west, the Irwins, who built a store and post office on their land and called the little place Jennyopolis. Nobody knows for sure who Jenny was, since the record shows no Jennys living in that area at the time, but the best guess I was able to uncover is that it was named for the Irwins’ first daughter who was born in June of 1851 and whose middle initial was J. That middle name may have been Jazzlyn, or Jordynn, or Jalayla, but it might have been Jenny and since her dad was the postmaster, perhaps Richard Irwin named the post office after her. But, as I said, nobody will ever know for sure, and it's better than Jalaylaopolis.

The process of all of these people settling and claiming land was complicated by the fact that, in 1848, Oregon became a territory of the United States and all of the land claims made up to that point were basically void. The natives, who the land was all stolen from in the first place, must have gotten a kick out of that. Claims were in a state of limbo until the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 spelled out the new rules: All claims would have to be measured and marked by a government surveyor before they would be officially recognized. Until then, everyone had to rely on the goodwill of their neighbors to respect their boundaries. The new Act also confirmed that a single adult only had rights to 320 acres. For years Nimrod had been telling everyone that his wife and children would be joining him on his claim and that he was entitled to the full 640 acres. But nobody had ever seen proof of any wife and no matter how often Nimrod wrote to his family and asked them to hurry up there was no response, and the wife never appeared.

For the patriarch to arrive ahead of the rest of his family and stake a claim was a fairly common practice, but as the years went by without this wife ever showing up people became suspicious that Nimrod had claimed twice as much land as he was entitled to. The facts that Nimrod was the only Catholic in an otherwise protestant county and that he didn’t seem to spend much time or effort improving his land didn’t help his relations with his neighbors. As the years went by and good claims became harder and harder to find in that part of the valley, those around him were even more convinced that they had more right to that land than the old man did.

Survey Map from 1859

Eventually, one of Isaac Winkle’s sons, Wiley, claimed some of the land between his father’s and Nimrod’s land. Then guys named Grimsley, Stark, Criss, Barclay and Mahoney moved right up to the edge of his land, and beyond. By the spring of 1852 more than half of his claim was also being claimed by others. The respect that Nimrod was counting on from his neighbors to acknowledge his land claim wasn’t forthcoming for the apparently single old man who didn’t seem to know what to do with the land anyway. As the encroachments continued, Nimrod warned them many times to stay off his land and keep their distance, but to no avail. Despite his warnings to back off, Nimrod’s neighbors refused to recognize his claim as legitimate.

On Friday, May 21, 1852, Jeremiah Mahoney walked onto Nimrod’s land, approached him and, looking at the shotgun that Nimrod had, asked him why he always carried his gun with him. Nimrod told him it was none of his business. Mahoney replied that if Nimrod wasn’t careful someone would take the gun from him and beat him over the head with it. Jeremiah Mahoney, I think I can say with some certitude, was not one of the intellectual giants of the Oregon Territory, or any other territory you care to name, on this planet or any other. The exact circumstances will never be known, since we have to take Nimrod’s word for it, but we do know that shortly thereafter Mahoney lay dead. That guy who had never been very holy was now quite holey, having been shot with Nimrod’s gun.

Nimrod’s immediate response to just having killed a man was to walk to Marysville, turn himself in and confess to the killing. As would absolutely have happened if we were talking about my own life, the very next day a letter arrived at the Marysville post office from his family, saying they had been delayed but were on their way. It was a letter that may have satisfied everyone as to the legitimacy of his claim if it had arrived a few days earlier, but it hadn’t, and now Mahoney was dead and Nimrod was a killer.

Jennyopolis area claims in 1861

Nimrod was tried and sentenced by a justice system that was imperfect, to put it kindly. It wasn’t exactly mob rule, but the trial was only a formality and he was railroaded by a shambolic system that was as incompetent and unfair as you might expect of a new territorial government. The resulting penalty of death by hanging surprised no one. The sentence was set to be carried out on August 24, and a gallows was erected in downtown Marysville waiting to be put to use. Following his conviction Nimrod wrote to the territorial legislature asking them to intervene on his behalf, and petitions were circulated among friends and supporters asking the Governor to do the same. Governor John Gaines eventually did postpone the execution for one month to give Nimrod a chance to plead his case with the judicial branch.

Now Nimrod’s task was to convince one of the Circuit Court Judges that his trial had been unfair. There were three circuit judges in Oregon Territory and one of them, Orville Pratt, had presided at Nimrod’s trial. Someone would need to convince one of the other two that Nimrod had legitimate grounds for appeal before his time ran out. He appealed first to Chief Justice Thomas Nelson, who took until September 18 to decide that there was no reason to overturn the conviction or retry the case. The third justice, William Strong, was responsible for parts of present-day Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and all of Washington, so it was no easy task for Nimrod’s allies to track him down as the clock ticked toward the date of execution. They did find him somewhere along the Columbia River near Astoria, and he did decide that Nimrod deserved a new trial. But getting that message back to Marysville before the noose was around Nimrod’s neck would be no mean feat.

On the appointed day, Nimrod was standing atop the scaffolding that had been erected for his hanging when word reached town that the execution had been postponed once again. I would imagine he was quite relieved. Since there was no jail in Benton County at the time, Nimrod had spent time with Mary Stewart and a few others in town, basically on his own recognizance while waiting to meet his maker. As a seventy-year-old, nobody was afraid that he was really a danger to society or a flight risk. They would make sure he was in his bed each night, and they were obligated to provide his meals, but otherwise he was free to come and go as he pleased. This arrangement continued after the stay of execution, and Nimrod was working as an unpaid hand on the claim of one Thomas Adams when his family finally arrived and reunited with him that autumn. It had been seven years since he’d seen them.

Along with Nimrod’s wife, Sarah, his daughter, also Sarah, and three of his sons had made it all the way to Marysville over the Oregon Trail along with two other people Nimrod had never met: His granddaughter Sarah and her mother, Nimrod’s daughter-in-law who, for some strange reason, was named Matilda and not Sarah. Nimrod and Sally’s (his wife Sarah was known as Sally for reasons which are probably obvious) youngest, John, had died somewhere along the way but there is no record of exactly where or how. At least three other of Nimrod’s children, presumably grown, had stayed back east.

Nimrod’s legal reprieve was only a temporary stay of execution. As soon as all three district court judges could meet and review the case they would issue a decision which, since the judges voted along political lines and two of them were Whigs, would likely be confirmation of the guilty verdict. But under the circumstances they were unable to meet until after Franklin Pierce won the presidency, which meant a change in the judges. All of this left Nimrod in a prolonged state of limbo. He wasn’t a free man and was still officially in jail, though in reality he wasn’t. He was still a convicted murderer with a death sentence hanging over his head, so to speak, and the territorial surveyor had still not gotten as far south as Marysville to confirm his claim.

Finally, on March 18, 1853, the surveyors had completed the job and on March 30 Nimrod was the first from the Jennyopolis section to file a new land claim notification. Such was the leniency of his jail “guards” that he was able to travel to Oregon City by himself to complete this paperwork. But just being first didn’t prove anything, as his neighbors soon filed their own conflicting claims that included parts of his land. The wait to find out who the land legally belonged to would continue.

Nimrod’s purgatory continued until sometime in early January 1854 when, just days after Marysville had officially become Corvallis, the judges finally issued the results of their review of Nimrod’s case. The original verdict had again been upheld and yet another execution date of June 9 was ordered. Once again letters were written by Nimrod and his allies and petitions were signed asking those in power to intervene. But with his fate apparently sealed, the rest of his family found land further south just across the Willamette River from Harrisburg in Lane County. Even Sally eventually went to live with them.

Things were not looking good for Nimrod, who had now been sentenced to death for a third time. But Oregon had a new governor now and nobody knew what he would make of the pleas for clemency made on Nimrod's behalf. John Davis had been appointed in May of 1853 and only lasted a little over a year. He wasn’t popular with Oregonians and he didn’t care much for them either, but miraculously Davis commuted Nimrod’s sentence to two years of hard labor in the State Penitentiary. The thought of a 74 year-old man doing two years of hard labor may seem equivalent to a death sentence, but at least Nimrod wouldn’t ever have to climb those gallows steps again. After standing in the middle of town for almost two years the gallows were dismantled and Corvallis was able to use that wood for more constructive purposes.

Nimrod’s journey to the State Pen in Portland turned into a farce. The Benton County Sheriff and his assistant were in charge of transporting him to Portland. Of the three travelers, Nimrod was apparently the only one who saw any reason to make the trip in a state of sobriety. Just beyond Oregon City their wagon broke down and they had to stop and have it fixed. Impatient to begin serving his sentence, Nimrod told his keepers he would walk on ahead alone and meet them at the penitentiary. Of course, the Benton County Sheriff just let him go. Several hours later Nimrod got to the place and tried to check himself in, but they wouldn’t take him! What kind of old nutjob turns himself in at the State Pen? So Nimrod waited and eventually the Sheriff did show up to vouch for him: "Yes, this old man really is a convicted murderer". So, Nimrod had a new home in the still-under-constuction brand-new penitentiary. His sentence began two years to the day after he had killed Jeremiah Mahoney. But the Sheriff forgot to get a receipt for him or anything else to prove he had delivered Nimrod as promised, so he didn’t get paid by the county for making the nine-day round trip or any of the expenses involved. What a nimrod!

After serving 22 months of his two year sentence Nimrod was released for good behavior and went back to his land near Jennyopolis, and I suppose this would still be a pretty good story if I told you that he quietly lived out his final years in his little cabin, but we’re just getting to the good part. This is Nimrod O’Kelly we’re talking about, and that’s not what happened at all. Though the legitimacy of his original claim still hadn’t officially been settled, he still felt he was owed that additional 160 acres for his service during wartime.

Maybe he could have just written a letter to his congressman and asked for help, but that wasn’t the Nimrod way. So, what did he do? HE WALKED BACK TO WASHINGTON D.C.!! Or at least to the Mississippi River, beyond which he may have caught the train to Washington. Even when he had trod the Oregon Trail the first time as a 65-year-old, Nimrod was a rarity. Old people, especially men, just didn’t make that trip, certainly not alone. And if they did they didn’t survive it. The West was a place for the young. Now Nimrod was 77 years old at a time when seeing a 60-year-old man in Oregon Territory was like seeing Bigfoot. Seeing a 70-year-old was akin to seeing the Loch Ness Monster. Seeing a 77-year-old walking from sea to shining sea was like seeing Bigfoot in Loch Ness, doing a synchronized swimming routine with the Monster; it just didn’t happen. But Nimrod did it.

I’m not even Bigfoot age yet, and I don’t like sleeping on the ground for more than a night or two. I like to get my steps in, but walking 20 miles a day up and down mountains in whatever kind of footwear Nimrod had, for months at a time? No, thank you. Even when I drive a few hundred miles I have a cell phone with me, and my AAA card in case something goes wrong. I have the peace of mind that comes with knowing there are hospitals and police and emergency services, rest areas, 7-11s and Taco Bell drive-throughs wherever I go. In those days there was not a single Taco Bell between here and Washington D.C. But Nimrod still did it.

Apparently relying upon the kindness of strangers he met along the trail since he had very few resources of his own, Nimrod made it all the way back to Washington. He somehow connected with the right people there and with the particular help of none other than future president Andrew Johnson, was able to prove that in 1814 he took a little trip, along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip'. He’d been a member of Andrew Jackson’s forces at the Battle of New Orleans, just as he had always claimed. He had risked his life to win that final battle in a war that had already ended a few weeks earlier. Over two thousand people died there for no reason as word of the Treaty of Ghent was making its way across the Atlantic. But Nimrod had lived through it and now, over 40 years later, had certified his veteran status and his entitlement to that extra 160 acres of land that went with it.

Unfortunately, before he even made it back west of Virginia he realized that his certificate had been either lost or stolen. Back he went to Washington, where the red tape involved in trying to get recertified proved to be too much. This time he would be making the return trip empty-handed, which maybe was just as well. Now 79, he probably didn’t need the added weight to carry. Nimrod amazingly walked the Oregon Trail for a third time and made it all the way back to Benton County. Though he had failed in his effort to receive that extra acreage, I hope Nimrod felt the trip was still worthwhile. He probably got to experience riding on a train for the first time in his life. He got to see all of the telegraph lines that were going up everywhere back east. And Washington would have been a bustling city the likes of which he had never seen.

It would be nice if I could say that Nimrod arrived home to find that his neighbors had seen the light while he was away and pitched in to improve his land for him while the old man was walking across the Rocky Mountains. But they didn’t. He came home to an overgrown land claim that still had not been certified as legally his. He moved south to live with his wife and children in northern Lane County and pretty much lost interest in his land near Jennyopolis. But he still had another five years to live before he died in 1864, and I’d like to think he got to enjoy his twilight years. One thing that gives me hope that Nimrod died happy is that he just may have been friends with my favorite great-great-grandfather, Washy.

Looking northeast across Nimrod's claim. That's Winkle Butte on the far left.

Washy Powell was from Missouri too, and though he was a lot younger than Nimrod, he’d crammed a lot of bad luck into his short life. I’ve always liked him because he had his eyeball plucked out by a chicken when he was a boy and I like to think of him as an adult in Linn County, Oregon wearing an eye patch and talking like a pirate. There is no evidence of that, but also no evidence that he didn’t, so until someone shows me a picture of him without the eyepatch, I will always picture him as a pirate. His son was born in Lebanon in 1861, but his wife and second son died during childbirth. Of course, with his eye patch he was irresistable, so he soon remarried and his daughter was born in Harrisburg in the 1860s, right across the river from where the O’Kellys had settled. Washy was about 60 years younger than Nimrod and was a founding member of the 27 Club within months of his daughter’s birth, but there weren’t that many people in that area at the time and it’s hard to imagine that a murderer and a pirate wouldn’t have crossed paths and been besties during Nimrod’s final years.

Eventually Nimrod gave half of his claim to the Catholic church and other family members sold off the rest of it. And if it feels like the cogs of government turn slowly these days, consider the fact that a patent for Nimrod’s original claim finally entered the Benton County books in June of 1881, 35 years after he had made that first trip to Oregon City to have it registered. He and Sally were both gone by that time and all of it had passed out of the hands of the O’Kelly family. There’s no record of how Nimrod died or where he was buried, but Sally lived on until 1875 and was buried in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Corvallis, so maybe Nimrod’s there somewhere as well. It seems like they owed him that much. We went looking for Sally in the small, inconspicuous cemetery which was probably way out of town when Sally was one of the first to be buried there, but she doesn’t have a headstone so we just had to guess at which of the open spaces might be hers.

In the mid-1800s the main north-south trail in Benton County ran through the western part of Nimrod’s land, and it still does. I’ve driven through Nimrod’s land a hundred times, at least. That same dirt trail that the 49ers used to go to and from California is now called Highway 99W, but it’s in the same place. The railroad that basically parallels the highway just to the west would have been the approximate western boundary of Nimrod’s claim. There’s a store/gas station at the southwest corner of Nimrod’s claim, and you can stop, as Mrs. Ednold and I did, and look out over the land and try to guess which of the low spots was the place where Nimrod pulled the trigger and put himself in the history books. Much of the land has been dedicated to hazelnut trees, which probably weren't a common crop during Nimrod’s time. Who eats all those things, anyway? And where, exactly, was that spot where Jeremiah Mahoney fatally underestimated the old man? Nobody knows, but it’s fun to guess.

A few miles north is the village of Greenberry, named for Greenberry Smith, whose original claim was in that area. It consists of the Willamette Community and Grange Hall, currently undergoing renovations, and the Greenberry Market and Tavern. Of course, our research would not have been complete without a trip to the Tavern and we spent a perfectly enjoyable evening there. When I opened that door I was expecting a room full of grangers in their overalls picking straw out of their hair. What we got was a six-piece jazz/funk/rap combo jamming for us and a dozen other customers. They were incredible. Life really is like a box of chocolates. Sometimes that one at the bottom that looks like a dog turd is the tastiest one of all. If Nimrod and his foes could have spent a few hours listening to that music over a beer together it’s hard to imagine them not working things out. But the village of Greenberry didn’t exist in Nimrod’s time, not to mention jazz and funk and rap, and midway between where it is today and Nimrod’s place, near the base of the butte, was the store/post office called Jennyopolis. There’s nothing left of it now and, in fact, the post office was only in operation until 1857. And no two people seem to agree on exactly where it was, but it must have been close to the current entrance to Finley Wildlife Refuge. So you can kind of imagine the Irwins and Winkles and their buddies loitering there, conspiring to bully Nimrod and get their grubby mitts on his land. They had no idea who they were messing with. Bullies rarely do.

This whole story, I would suggest, demands a rethinking of the name Nimrod. Our Nimrod O’Kelly could have been content to live out his life in Missouri, but at the age of 65 he decided to start over in Oregon. He likely did the world a favor when he killed a fool who was trying to jump his claim and take his land. Even Mahoney’s wife didn’t miss him much; she remarried before that summer of 1852 was even over. Nimrod was sentenced to hang three times, but he served his sentence of hard labor and still lived to be 84. He was our own local Shotgun-Shootin' Rasputin. He walked to Washington D.C. and back when he was almost 80 years old, for heaven’s sake. For that alone, the Nimrods of the world deserve better, and I, for one, am now committed to bringing the name Nimrod back to respectability. If The Bucket ever dies I’m going to call my new car The Nimrod, and if I don’t have a grandson named Nimrod someday it won’t be because I didn’t beg and plead for one. Don’t tell me “Nimrod Ednold” doesn’t have a special ring to it. And the next time someone tells me “Way to go, Nimrod!” I’ll just smile and say “Thank you. Thank you very much. Now step off, Mahoney.”

There's tons of stuff about all of this on the internet if you're interested. For a longer read, Ron Lansing has written a whole book about Nimrod that's really good. He's the one responsible for the diagrams of the claims above, which means he'll be the one suing me for copyright infringement someday. Get in line, Ron.

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