Introduction: James Burns cae from British Isles and settled in Michigan with his parents. Eventually he came down with “gold fever” and headed to California. Souring on that experience he headed for the northwest, settling on the Yelm prairie. He lived alone in the Bald Hills and developed a reputation of being a wee bit anti-social. The followingaccount is one of incidents that contributed to this image.
James Burns and the Case of the Wounded Cow
In 1859 the Yelm Prairie contained only a dozen or so families, the Indian troubles having concluded only a few years earlier. It was a time before fences defined property and hogs, sheep, horses, and cattle roamed at will through the forests and prairies of the area. On Smith Prairie, two and a half miles southeast of Yelm, forty plus acres of two foot tall bunchgrass beckoned herdsmen as they moved their animals looking for more promising grazing. Often they stopped on unclaimed land. This saved their own from the wear and tear of their hoofed beasts.
R. B. D. Shelton, Levi’s brother, owned a place on the eastern edge of Yelm Prairie, but with a herd of over 60 head he liked to take them to Smith Prairie to graze. Living close to Smith Prairie was James Burns. Unmarried, he kept to himself. Some thought he was a squatter, but he constantly reiterated that he had a pre-emption claim. In early November 1859, Shelton had his herd up on Smith Prairie, paying a fellow to keep an eye on them. Shelton saw Burns at that time, but they did not speak. A few days later Burns rode to Shelton’s farm and told him, in no uncertain terms, to get his cows away from his land. Shelton did not act on the request. Shortly after this meeting Shelton returned to Smith Prairie to check on his animals. It was then he noticed one cow and one steer bleeding. They had been shot. Burns, he thought, as he rode to George Brail’s place. He wanted Brail, who people respected as an expert on animals, to take a look at the bullet wounds. It had to be Burns.
Before the week was over Shelton had circulated through the neighborhood to solicit the testimony of his neighbors regarding his suspect. With his ducks in order Shelton rode into Olympia, where he filed a formal complaint against James Burns for shooting his cows. The court took his word for it and issued a warrant for James Burns. He was arrested at his place and taken to town where he was charged with “Maliciously injuring two head of cattle.” Bail was set at $200. At the same time, subpoenas were issued for James Longmire, Henry Kandle, Louis Leblanc, George Bray [Brail], David Shelton, and Charles Wheeler, they were to provide testimony to help adjudicate the matter. Burns, for his part, hired B. F. Kendell to represent him, but his counsel called no witnesses.
The trial was delayed a day because the Yelm contingent was slow in getting to town, but once the trial began, the circumstantial evidence against Burns accumulated. Shelton told about how he had driven his cattle to Smith’s Prairie and his confrontation with Burns. He maintained that he, Shelton, his hired man, and Burns were the only ones on the prairie on the day of the shooting. George Brail added that the wounds in the cattle came from a small bore piece, like a pistol, and what appeared to be a rifle shot. Louis LeBlanc swore he had seen Burns with a revolver and gun before the incident. Another witness, David Shelton maintained that he knew that Burns owned a United States Rifle and a Navy Revolver. That would explain the different size gunshot wounds. In addition, he heard Burns claim, “He intended to shoot them [the cattle] down.” Kandle corroborated Shelton’s description of the value of the cattle, $80. It was now up to the jury. Burns didn’t have chance. He was ordered to pay court costs and restitution.
By Ed Bergh