Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2002

Oregon Legal Heritage
INTO THE SUNSHINE: The controversial Binger Hermann
By Vi Lewis

This is the story of a man who is a controversial figure in Douglas County's 150-year history. In his own words in a letter to his children, he described his life as '75 years in sunshine and in shadow.'

One cannot write about Binger Hermann without first telling about the sunshine. Hermann was an honorable man who served his county, state and country in many different capacities. He first came to Douglas County as a school teacher at Yoncalla in 1862 and later he taught in Canyonville in 1864.

Just before the close of the Civil War, Hermann recruited a company of volunteers under President Lincoln's last call for troops. The war ended before his company of volunteers was called.

He was admitted to the Oregon State Bar in 1866 and entered law practice in Roseburg.

He was elected to the state legislature representing Douglas County, and two years later, he was elected state senator for Douglas, Coos and Curry counties. He also served as deputy collector of internal revenue for the state of Oregon.

In 1884, he was elected to the United States Congress as the first representative in Congress for the entire state of Oregon. In that capacity, Hermann was instrumental in many river and harbor appropriations for Oregon and for the establishment of lighthouses along the Oregon coast.

He was the author of the Indian Depredation law, which provided payment for property damage committed by hostile Indians during the Indian Wars. All of the foregoing accomplishments were during his 'sunshine years.'

His shadow years began when he was appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office of the United States in 1897.

The Donation Land Act of 1850 granted 320 acres to all white American citizens settling in Oregon territory before Dec. 1, 1850, and an additional 320 acres to the wife of a claimant.

When Vice President Theodore Roosevelt assumed the office of president on the death of President William McKinley, he appointed Ethan Allan Hitchcock to the office of Secretary of the Interior. Hitchcock and Hermann immediately butted heads over policy. Roosevelt supported Hermann.

Hitchcock was furious and vowed vengeance. He found it in one J.H. Schneider of Tucson, Ariz., who claimed that information on land fraud in Oregon had been sent to Hermann and had been ignored.

Hermann was touring Europe when another letter from Schneider arrived and Hermann's assistant ordered an investigation. According to records, Hermann intercepted the agent and stopped the investigation.

Hitchcock was notified and demanded the report on the incident be delivered to him by Hermann personally. He subsequently requested Hermann's resignation, but allowed him to remain in office until February 1904. During that final month, Hitchcock accused Hermann of removing and destroying several files and letters from the General Land Office concerning certain fraud investigations.

Hermann stated that the documents removed were personal and had nothing to do with Hitchcock's investigation. It was the wedge, however, Hitchcock needed, so on Feb. 18, 1905, Hermann was indicted by a Washington, D.C. grand jury on a charge that he had conspired to defraud the government of its public lands in connection with the 'Blue Mountain forest reserve.' His trial began five years later on Jan. 6, 1910. The trial ended in a hung jury and the case was dismissed Feb. 14, 1910.

Later, an investigation implicated the U.S. prosecutor in a jury tampering charge involving the Hermann case. The controversy swirled around Hermann for nearly a decade after the case was dismissed. In 1918, a letter to his children entitled 'A Review of 75 years in Sunshine and in Shadow,' Binger Hermann detailed his life and joys, including those shadow years.

After his death, in 1932 Harold Ickes, Secretary of Interior under the Franklin Roosevelt administration, exonerated Hermann of any wrongdoing and restored the sunshine to Hermann's name.

Vi Lewis retired in 1998 after 12 years as an employee of the Douglas County Museum of History & Natural History in Roseburg. This article originally appeared May 2, 2002 in the Roseburg News-Review.

© 2002 Vi Lewis

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