Buck Osborne in the far west

Born in 1866, Charlie Osborne was the kid brother of Oscar and John Osborne. Several years younger; when Oscar and John left home to seek their fortunes in the wild west it set Charlie’s imagination into overdrive. He imagined scenes of Cowboys and Indians, riding the range a free man, with his trusty six shooter at his side. He dreamed the life of a cowboy in the far west. The Osborne family owned a plantation in Tennessee when the civil war broke out; it did not end well for their plantation. The west had mostly been settled by this time; ships and trains now carried people from coast to coast. On the coasts huge cities had sprung up leaving less and less frontier to be claimed under Abe Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862 or the other various land acts available to the hardworking adventurous types. There were a few frontiers open in the Oregon Territory and that is where the older Osborne Brothers headed, while Charlie stayed at home growing up dreaming of the wild adventures his brothers were having in what could have been the last frontier of the far west.

From few correspondences, Charlie knew about where his brothers Oscar and John had a squat, just a few miles northeast of Steamboat Rock where the Okanogan Trail turns west to go up into Barker Canyon. In the spring of 1884 Charlie stepped off the transcontinental train in Spokane Washington. His plan was to walk and hitchhike his way from Spokane to the Grand Coulee, unfortunately that would make his approach from the opposite side of the coulee as the Okanogan Trail. From the start his luck was good, as he got a ride as far as Davenport on the back of a buckboard, but from there the road became trails and he knew he would most likely have to hike through unknown wilderness. A couple days later Charlie was at the top of the Point Trail headed down into the Grand Coulee via Northrup Canyon. The Point Trail lead down to several other trails on the north side of Steamboat Rock by Devils Lake, but all that was hidden behind the Granite Hills and natural pitch of the rolling ground. By the time Charlie had reached the bottom of the trail he was tired, and it was getting late. He looked around the land he had never been to before, so alien from Tennessee and completely barren of people. He felt lost and decided to head back up the trail and try something else when he saw a rider approaching. He couldn’t believe his eyes to see that it was his brother John, who just happened by chance to be riding by at that moment. Charlie Osborne had arrived in the Grand Coulee.

With less than 40 dollars between the two of them, the Osborne Brothers were at the bottom of their luck. Oscar had a squat on some property at the mouth of the Grand Coulee several miles from the Columbia River and in sight of Steamboat Rock. A simple log shack with a thatch roof and door that was little more than hinged branches. It sat in a field of sagebrush and luxurious bunch grass that would be good for livestock. Oscar had a few claims he was waiting to hear back on; there were several land grants in the days of opening the frontiers and Oscar had applied for a couple different ones in a bid to grab up land. They started by selling the grass hay that was on the land. Slowly, the brothers added livestock to their collection. As they started to make money, they also started to buy up neighboring land from failed settlers, creating an even bigger land holding; 3,000 acres located about where Osborne Bay sits now, stretching from one coulee wall to the other. Their neighbors were Hans and Matilda Lange who had a cattle ranch south of the Osborne Brothers.

The Osborne Brothers had great success with raising cattle, their herds became plump on the native coulee bunch grass. But when it came time to sell there was a problem finding a market. At first the Osborne Brothers were selling their cattle up the Columbia River at Fort Spokane and the Idaho mines, but then according to Charlie, the beef market in Spokane had been flooded with inexpensive rustled cattle by dishonest men, so they sought out a new market in Ellensburg, over 130 miles away. Without back-up, Charlie started off on horseback with a pack horse for the three day trek that would take him across the Columbia River by Moses Coulee and over the Colockum Pass into Ellensburg. When he arrived, he met and worked out a deal with a local businessman, but only under one condition; the cattle be brought back to Ellensburg in five days time. Hearing this, Charlie started out at once and rode long days making the trip from Ellensburg to Grand Coulee in two days. When he arrived back at the Osborne Ranch he gathered up some men and a small herd of 80 cattle and started back out for Ellensburg. When they got to the Columbia River the only way across was a hand operated ferry, basically a wooden barge and a couple long oars. The typical way to move cattle across the Columbia was to load some and the remainder would swim, always hazardous, and worse was the ferry being hard to control and wanting to slip away with the current, leading a trail of confused cattle to drown in the river or be washed downstream themselves. The days were so long they would begin as soon as the sun started coming up and end only when it was too dark to carry on. At night Charlie would lay back on his horse and nod off, and as soon as the herd started moving with the first rays of the sun his horse would move waking up Charlie and a new day would begin. The small herd was then driven up the Colockum Pass into Ellensburg, and much to everyone’s surprise, right on time. It was the first of many trips Charlie would take over the Colockum Pass moving much larger herds into Ellensburg to be shipped out and sold in Seattle. When the railroad came to Coulee City in 1891 most of the Osborne’s fattened cattle went to Coulee City, a much shorter trek.

Soon Charlie was known as Buck, and a well-respected drover in the coulee. He would drive cattle with his neighbor Hans Lange, and the two formed a strong friendship. Being a cattle drover meant days of being in the saddle unprotected against the elements. Drinking water from springs, creeks and sometimes lakes. Sleeping with a rifle tucked close under a blanket of stars in a night filled with both known and unknown dangers. Waking up to strong coffee, a kettle of beans and miles to ride, and Buck always had a six-shooter strapped on his belt. The pistol was mostly for target practice and having fun. Buck knew several of the sub-chiefs of the various tribes on the Colville Reservation and there were never any hostilities. Like his brother, Buck was an excellent shot, and they would take out rattlesnakes and coyotes just to see who was the better shot. In the Winter the brothers and whoever was around would chase down coyotes in the deep snow and lasso them. The coyotes would have to leap and bound through the snow and made challenging targets. It was a rough life with no excuses. From early spring to late fall Buck would be out on the range for weeks or longer at a time with only the sky as a ceiling and God as his witness. Sometimes he would be in the company of other hired drovers on those long nights. Buck was notoriously bad at poker, and the hired help also seemed to know that. The wiser ones put two and two together and it was more than once that Buck’s older brother Oscar had to come out on the range and bail out Buck, who would often get in over his head with the other drovers and a loose deck of cards.

Buck was an ambitious reader and would read anything he could get his hands on, he also liked to listen to and tell stories while around a campfire on the open range. One well known story that circulated took place around the Grand Coulee years before. A group of men were moving a large herd of cattle from around Wilbur up into the Okanogan country when a storm suddenly moved in. The clouds grew dark, and lighting flashed in the distance. The sudden darkness surrounded the men and the cattle became uneasy. Not wanting to be trapped out in the open when the storm struck the men pushed on with the cattle, but the thick accumulating clouds cut off the setting sun completely and soon the men found themselves trudging on through complete darkness with no visibility at all. The decision was made to set up camp and wait for morning. A dry wind blew through the cattle and the storm moved in closer. Suddenly over head in the dark clouds lightning flashed, illuminating the herd and drovers in a sudden strobe light effect. The cattle looked spooked as the thunder boomed nearby in deafening explosions, only to be followed by complete darkness. Then for an instant St Elmo’s fire lit the horns of the cattle, and there was a flash of lightning and a boom loud and echoing down the coulee, in the darkness men’s voices could be heard calling out. Another flash of lightning revealed the panicked stampeding herd, and drovers on horseback racing with the cattle into the night, driven even harder by the storm’s raging fury and shouts of the men. Trying to get at the front of the stampede to head it off, the drovers spurred their steeds blindly into the darkness. Suddenly everything lit up in a bright white flash, and with horror the men could see a waterfall of cattle cascading off the edge of the Grand Coulee, too late to stop, the horsemen followed them into the dark abyss. The next morning at the bottom of the coulee wall the remaining drovers found a pile of mangled cattle, under which they suspected were the brave souls at the head of the stampede, now buried in their final resting spot.

“Just because you said it, doesn’t make it true” Oscar would often interject at the end of Buck’s stories and explanations.

It was true though that Buck Osborne was a professional and respected drover. Charley Osborne was living the dream, he had become the person he wanted to be, he had truly become Buck Osborne, wild west cowboy, just like his heroes. The Grand Coulee and plains above were his home, and in his job he rode hundreds of miles from the mines in Idaho to supply cattle to the small mining towns, down to Fort Spokane when it was housed with military soldiers to deliver live cattle, he drove cattle into Spokane with regret at the low prices, and on into Ellensburg in record time. Buck crossed rivers holding onto the tail of his horse, as well as on ferries that looked like little more than barn doors. he knew Wild Goose Bill and spent time hunting and drinking with the reputable man and remembers when he was killed in a showdown over the love of a woman. After his death some people in the community were surprised to learn “Wild Goose” wasn’t Bill Condon’s real name. Buck slept out under the stars, often just his horse, a few hundred cattle and a small fire for company. As much as he liked to roam and spend time on the Reservation with the tribes, he also had a lot of responsibility representing the Osborne Ranch on the range and with other ranches and markets. Buck would often head out over hundreds of miles of open land with only his supplies and pack horse just to meet a prospective client. Out in this element, Charlie Osborne was living his dream, he was Buck Osborne, a real cowboy.

Another thing Buck soon learned was the subtle nuances of cattle. He would point out trivia like, a cow can go three months without eating in the severity of winter. One thing that happened was cattlemen in the coulee would often leave their cattle on the range over winter unattended and as the cold months continued the cattle would slowly start to migrate down towards Pasco. Along the way other cattle would merge with the herd creating a huge conglomerate of various tangled up herds. In the spring the local cattle barons would have a huge round-up to sort out the cattle and return them to their respective ranches. Buck rode on many of these with his neighbor Han’s Lange. The cattlemen would meet with their chuck wagons and hired help and push the meandering cattle up over the sand dunes of Moses Lake and up beyond the Horn where the cattle would be corralled and sorted. Cattle were sorted by the brandings, and then a huge fire was made, and the un-marked calves were branded with the same marking as the mother. The whole event took several days and was filled with men from all over working and drinking together. Long days filled with sweaty men and spring mud, followed by short nights hundreds of miles from home. The early 1900s there wasn’t much in the way of law enforcement in the Grand Coulee other than a person’s own moral compass or the occasional mob justice.

Once when he was working with some of Hans Lange’s men breaking horses Buck met Bill Mathews. Bill was a big, strong man that worked as a seasonal hired hand, but was not from the area. He got a job breaking horses for Hans Lange, and that brought him into contact with Buck. He could tell right away something was wrong with Bill, because of the way he cruelly mistreated the horses. Buck told his old friend Hans Lange of his suspicions and Bill Mathews was fired. Back in Coulee City and without a job Bill decided to rob the safe at McDonalds trading store, but when the dynamite went off it created such a loud commotion that Bill Mathews took off in a hurry empty handed. Bill continued his crime spree by robbing trains and making his way back east where he was captured in Nebraska.

The turn of the 20th century also saw a change of settler type. At first the area around Steamboat Rock was sparsely populated with pioneers. The Osborne Brothers in their southern style two story houses where at the top of their game, their brand recognized as a standard in quality. As Buck grew older and passed middle age, he started to dabble in wheat, older, wiser, settling down and spending more time on the ranch, he once more started to become known more as Charley. He felt that with all the new homesteaders it was surely just a matter of time before the fences went up again like they had in so many other areas of the west marking the end of the open range. It was the open range that had for so long been a driving force behind the Osborne’s stock quality, and the dream fulfilment of Buck Osborne. The brothers decided in 1919 to sell the ranch and even had a buyer with a bank loan, but unfortunately that was the same year a record-breaking drought struck the coulee. The drought lasted several years and was so bad it drove off homesteaders who lost everything.

By 1921 the Osborne Brothers had once more reluctantly resumed ownership of the Osborne Ranch. They had the land, but the lifestyle that was a part of their youth didn’t return so gloriously. Oscar’s vision was failing, and he lost complete sight in one eye. In 1927 Miss Hattie Osborne, Buck’s sister, passed away in Oscar’s southern style two story house surrounded by family. Charlie also had health issues and Oscars’ now grown son Thomas helped his “Uncle Buck” through surgery and recovery. Charlie moved down by the river into a small one room shack that sat where a peach orchard once grew. He had a good life there living with the landscape he had grown old with; a wise man with years of experience finally settling down on the Columbia river beside Seaton’s landing. Here he could watch time and tide slowly pass by in retirement. Oscar’s son Thomas, now fully grown married a young lady named Gladys in 1933 and took over the old Osborne Ranch.

Charlie never did marry, claiming that when he came to the coulee all the women were already married and by the time the single ladies showed up the notion to marry had passed him by. Once a good and perhaps sympathetic friend of his that was a sub-chief on the Colville Reservation offered to arrange a marriage with one of his daughters for a dowry of 27 horses, but that not a one of the horses met the sub-chief’s standards so the arrangement never came into fruition and Charlie remained a bachelor.

It was also in 1933 when Charlie first heard from the US Government. They wanted to build a dam and had use for the land he now lived on down by the river. They moved in and set up camp, later grading the whole area and turning it into Administration City also known as Government Town. Change had drifted in from Washington DC, slow at first with men in suits scrambling around in the sagebrush taking measurements and later in the diamond tip drilling of core samples. It all became even bigger when the trucks showed up with dynamite and jackhammers. Soon there was a major road leading right past Charlie’s small wooden shack. Suddenly, the wild west looked outdated, and forgotten, like pages from an old story book. And imagine what Charlie saw. He would stand and watch the dam construction with amazement, literally all he had to do was look out his window and he could see his world changing daily. Of course, people could see Charlie too, up there in the construction site inside a pioneer log cabin, while huge trucks loaded with tons of boulders raced by on roads that look like raw dirt speckled with rocks. Dust was everywhere, but Charlie didn’t seem to mind, he always took it with a grain of salt and a healthy dash of humor. When he was discovered by the first reporter Charlie “Buck” Osborne became a Coulee Dam celebrity overnight. Reporters loved to talk to Charlie and these are some of the stories he told.

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