To pioneer Idaho farmers, nothing was more precious than water to irrigate their fields. Without it, nothing would grow in southern Idaho's desert lands. To defend his right to his fair share of the water, many a man armed himself and was prepared to fight for it. His livelihood and that of his family was at stake.
Disputes over water sometimes led to violence, and occasionally even to murder. On Squaw Creek in May 1884, wealthy rancher Fred Huffman was shot and killed by A.G. Mason in a quarrel over water from a ditch the two shared. Following the shooting, Mason went to Idaho City, the county seat, to surrender and to plead self-defense.
In Shoshone in 1889 two ranchers also had an altercation over water rights. Jack Campbell, county sheriff, arrested both men, thinking this would cool things down, and put them in a jail cell. When he returned a short time later he found that one of them had killed the other—a tragedy that certainly could have been prevented had he put them in separate cells.
In November 1931, in the same Shoshone neighborhood, two bachelor farmers also fought over irrigation water. N.O. Neilson, 60, blasted his 65-year-old neighbor George Loden with a shotgun. Neilson then hung himself outside his barn where a horrified passing deliveryman discovered the body dangling from a scaffold. He notified authorities who found Neilson's suicide note and Loden's bloody body in the snow nearby.
Still another battle between farmers took place on Fish Creek in the Wood River country in October 1894, when Willis Jones attacked John T. Fallon with a sickle. The two had quarreled over the division of property when they dissolved their partnership. During the struggle, Fallon was able to reach his rifle and shoot Jones dead. He then turned himself in and claimed self-defense. Without witnessed in such cases, and often there were none, the survivor's story was usually believed by a coroner's jury.
The earliest fatality in an agricultural dispute that I have run across came in August 1865. Again, as was the case in the celebrated 1908 murder of W.G. Whitney in Payette that I wrote about in my last column, the disagreement was over hay. The proprietor of the Junction House in lower Boise Valley, a man named Cox, shot a Dry Creek farmer named Davis.
In September 1870, yet another Boise Valley fatality occurred when Tom Wethered killed William Richards, this time in a dispute over some grain they were dividing. This, and the other cases described above, remind us that hardworking farmers on the frontier would kill to defend their property rights, or might themselves become the victims