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The Reckless Outlaw Henry Vaughn

Updated on August 8, 2015

It was said Henry Clay “Hank” Vaughn was the most reckless desperado that ever lived in Umatilla County, Oregon. He was born in the Willamette Valley of Missouri April 27, 1849. One of seven children, Hank spent more time doing farm chores than going to school. As a result he never learned to write.

At the age of 12 the family moved to Oregon, eventually settling in Canyon City for a while. From the start the youth displayed an uncanny tendency for getting into trouble. The fact he was deadly fast with a gun and had a proclivity to drink heavily only made him more dangerous.

Hank first got into trouble at the age of 15 when a man named William Headspot refused to pay for a horse he had bought. Hank shot him. He made bail and promptly went after another man who had filed a complaint for his actions against the deadbeat and shot him also. Hank was quickly arrested again and taken to the Dulles, Oregon jail to await trail.

His family begged the presiding judge to allow the young lad to enlist in the Army instead of putting him in prison. The judge relented and allowed him to do so. However, apparently military life didn’t agree with Hank…he was dishonorably discharged a little over a month later.

Pendleton, Oregon

In 1865 at the age of 18, Hank met Dan Burns, a horse trader and they decided to do some prospecting in the gold fields of Idaho. The two hadn’t gotten out of Umatilla County before they stole a herd of horses. County Sheriff Frank Maddock and Deputy O.J. Hart tracked Vaughn and Burns to a camp on Burnt River during the middle of the night. Approaching the camp quietly the lawmen snatched the blankets off the two sleeping outlaws.

Burns and Vaughn came up with guns blazing. In the end, Burns and Hart lay dead and Vaughn had been wounded. Maddock had sustained a gunshot wound to his head. Hank escaped on horseback. However, he was captured several days later and taken to the jail in Auburn, Oregon, to stand trial. He was sentenced to eight years in the Oregon State Penitentiary. Some accounts say he got a life sentence at Salem, Oregon but received a pardon in 1870. In either case the time in prison did nothing to rehabilitate Hank. In fact, it only served to make him a more callous, vicious and hardened individual.

To look at Vaughn, no one would consider him as dangerous. He was a small man who never weighed over 130 pounds and dressed in fashionable black attire and gentlemen’s jewelry. He resembled more a preacher than a vicious desperado. This was demonstrated while he was traveling on a Northern Pacific train when it was held up by two men.

Hank was catching 40 winks when the bandits entered the car and ordered the passengers to throw up their hands. The disturbance awoke him and he asked another passenger what was going on. When he learned they were being robbed Hank casually stood up, drew his gun and began shooting, wounding one of them. Surprised at this unexpected resistance from the little man with a big gun, the robbers ran for their lives and jumped off the train.

In May 1875, Hank was working with livestock around Toano, Nevada when he met and married Lois McCarty, a sister of the notorious McCarty brothers. The marriage produced two sons, Alexander and Albert. His “business” was doing well and he was well liked around town. Playing the part of a refined gentleman he made many important business contacts.

Although Hank may have been a good businessman, he wasn’t a good husband. He didn’t like staying home in the evenings. Instead he preferred drinking, gambling and carousing around town. Saloon keepers and other store owners feared seeing him town and with good reason. Vaughn frequently rode his horse into saloons, wildly shooting off his gun breaking lights and glasses. He wasn’t very good for their business as patrons quickly fled to other establishments. His wife soon left, taking both sons with her.

Wherever Vaughan went trouble seemed to follow. When he drifted into Arizona for a spell he got involved in a gunfight and was grazed in the head. Deciding he didn’t care much for Arizona he headed back to the Northwest and settled at Pendleton, Oregon.

In August 1878 he married again to a woman named Louisa Jane Ditty and resumed operations selling horses and cattle to area ranchers. Little did they know where he was getting the livestock they were buying. He had made friends with a few Indians at the Umatilla Reservation who helped him round up strays from cattle drivers in the Blue Mountains. However his illegitimate actions soon became suspect, though no one was able to catch him in the act.

As more and more suspicion was cast in his direction he began operating around Spokane, Washington. But, before long his reputation became soiled there as well and he returned to Oregon. Shortly after, Louisa also left him.

By this time local ranchers were getting fed up with cattle rustlers and decided to set up a vigilante committee with operations being conducted out of Prineville, Oregon. This was disturbing news to Vaughn since it would seriously put a damper on his livelihood. To gather more information on this new tactic by the ranchers, he casually sauntered into Graham’s Saloon in town looking for a man named Charlie Long who worked for the leader of the vigilante committee.

He interjected himself into a game of poker Long was participating in and nonchalantly tried to pump him for information about the committee. However, tensions began forming between the players and things got a little rowdy at which time the saloon owner broke up the game.

Later, Long and Vaughn met in another saloon. Vaughn bought a round of drinks for the house, but Long refused to drink with him. To Hank that was an insult and the situation quickly erupted into a gunfight. Long, also handy with a gun, fired first, grazing Vaughn’s head. Vaughn immediately returned fire hitting Long four times before taking another bullet in the chest. Long collapsed on the floor, but surprisingly both survived the encounter. Hank was not charged in the matter since witnesses testified Long had fired first. Some say the two actually became friends later on.

When Hank had recovered from his injuries he moved to Wood River, Idaho, selling horses to men working on a new railroad. Not long afterwards he married a wealthy widow named Martha Robie who owned land on the Umatilla Indian Reservation even though he wasn’t legally divorced from his previous marriage. Martha and Hank took to traveling frequently by train. Hank was instrumental in spoiling several train robbery attempts and grateful railroad rewarded him for his heroic actions by presenting him with a lifelong pass.

In the meantime Hank had become more prosperous by expanding his operations. He was now rustling around Walla Walla and Spokane, Washington. But now, he hired men to do it for him. As a front, Hank setup a farm between Walla Walla and Pendleton, Oregon, all the while still stealing cattle, gambling and drinking in saloons.

In 1886 Vaughn was again getting plastered at a saloon when a stranger named Bill Falwell came in. Vaughn, deciding to have some sport with the newcomer, aimed his gun at the man’s boots and ordered him to dance. At first Falwell refused, but when Vaughn began putting bullets through the floor around his feet, he put on a good show.

The following day Falwell was still smarting over the public humiliation. When the two ran into each other, Falwell shot Vaughn in the right arm. Now, that his gun hand was useless, Hank had to learn to shoot left handed.

Shortly after, the Vaughn’s sold their farm and moved to Centerville, Washington. But, the change in scenery didn’t do anything to change Vaughn’s disorderly conduct. He carried on his former practice of shooting up the town.

On June 2, 1893, Vaughn returned to Pendleton on personal business and while there revisited a few of his old watering holes. After getting a snoot full he rode his horse up and down Main Street hollering, waving his arms and generally making a spectacle out of himself.

The town of Pendleton, keeping up with the times, had upgraded their dirt streets and they were now paved. Unused to riding on a paved surface Hank’s horse slipped and stumbled, throwing him against a telephone pole which fractured his skull. He next found himself being crushed under his mount.

Hank lay semi-conscious for the next two weeks. He died on June 15, 1893 and was interred in an unmarked grave at the Olney Cemetery in Pendleton.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank you so much Eiddwen

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 6 years ago from Wales

      I have this new found interest in the history of Native Americans and this hub is indeed brilliantly written and so interesting. I am bookmarking to re read a little at the end.

      Thanks for sharing.

      Take Care And Enjoy your Day.