Ben Snipes

Benjamin Elam Snipes 1835-1906
Benjamin Elam Snipes 1835-1906

Benjamin Elam Snipes (1835-1906) was born in North Carolina in 1835. He was the son of Elam and Asenath Rawson Snipes. [2] He was born near Raleigh, N.C. The family moved to Iowa in 1850 [1]. He left Iowa for Oregon in the spring of 1853 as a driver in the George Humphrey wagon train. He was in Salem that fall where he worked in the potato harvest for a time. He then hired out as a packer of a mule string and headed for California. He worked and filed on a claim, then sold it for $500. He then worked for the new owner who took more than $75,000 from the claim. He worked as a butcher’s helper for a while, then had his own shop until the mines began to run out. He traded what was left of his business for an Native American pony and traveled again to Oregon. He rode over the hills of Oregon and Washington Territory trying to find locations that had the grass and water to support a large heard of cattle. He visited his brother, George, at Rowena in January 1855. (The snow was 5 feet deep that winter. [1]) He started in the cattle business with a small herd. In the summer of 1859 he moved his cattle into the Yakima Valley near Sunnyside where he established a headquarters on Snipes Mountain. Several severe winters took a heavy toll on his cattle. He married Mary Parrot in 1864. Mary continued her education at Willamette University for two years. [2]

The couple then returned to The Dalles in 1866, and built their first home (Drake, 1994: 7&8). Ben was a partner in the Snipes & Kinnersly Drug Store at 316 East 2nd Street. He was also an early The Dalles banker and called the “Cattle King” of Klickitat County, Washington. [2]

Ben had one son with his wife, Mary. The son, Bennie, died during the Alaskan 1898 gold rush (McNeal, 1975:104). Ben was listed in the 1865 General Directory and Business Guide as a drover residing on 4th Street (Owens 1865). In 1861 Ben Snipes and his cattle partner, Murphy, rounded up 50 head of cattle at Assoyas Lake to drive to the Carribb mines. The mosquitoes were so thick at the junction of the Sanilkanian and Okanagan Rivers and along the lake shores that the cattle were unable to drink or eat day or night. Many fell exhausted and were trampled to death. Word was sent to Ben at The Dalles at 5 a.m. He left The Dalles riding a bald-faced roan and rode the width of the Washington territory 280 miles, in 62 hours and on one horse. He supervised driving the cattle to the mines of Canada where a shortage of meat made the price best (McNeal, 1953:90). In 1880, Ben was 43 and his wife, A. Mary Snipes, was 33. [2]


As a young boy, Ben dreamed of moving to California, where rumors told of gold lining the streambeds, there for the taking by anyone who would scoop it up. Ben was just shy of his 17th birthday when he heard that a neighbor was preparing an emmigrant train for Oregon. He was hired on with free passage in return for his help on the long journey. The covered-wagon train left Iowa in the spring of 1852, with Snipes acting as the “right-hand-man” of the train. Snipes’ skill with the livestock resulted in their arrival in Oregon in good condition with little or no loss which was not the fate of many other trains. The train arrived in the Willamette valley in late fall, settling near the present site of Salem.

Snipes began planning a trip to the California gold fields. He took a job with a mule pack-train and was put in charge of the lead mule, giving him charge of the train. Upon reaching the gold fields, he bought a pick, shovel, and miner’s pan, and set out to prospect for gold. On his third day he sold his prospect for $500 in gold dust. He went to work for the purchaser of his prospect, but when the claim ran out, he took a job with a butcher who was doing a booming business buying meat at a low price and selling it for high. Snipes soon opened a shop of his own, but the business failed after Snipes, in good faith, extended credit to people who left the country when their claims ran out without paying him back.

Looking for new possibilities, Snipes had news of a big gold strike on the Fraser River, in British Columbia. Snipes bought a Cayuse pony and headed north, but by the time he arrived he was too late to stake a claim; prospectors numbered in the thousands. Food was scarce, especially beef, with none available in the area. Instead of prospecting for gold, Snipes turned his efforts toward supplying the miners with beef.

Arriving back in Oregon, Snipes took a job with a cattleman who proposed a drive across country to the Fraser. Driving north with the herd from the Columbia River, he looked down into the Yakima country and found himself gazing down upon what appeared like a cattleman’s paradise. The country appeared waiting for him to exploit and thereby realize upon his recently experienced dream of becoming the cattle king of an empire. Crossing the “Horse Heaven” country on his return from the drive he wondered if anyone could ever conceive of there being enough cattle and horses to eat all the grass on the wide expanse of hill and plains which at the time lay before him. Ben Snipes is credited with giving the name of “Horse Heaven” to the area. [4]

Snipes struck an agreement with his former employer who had financed the Fraser drive to buy his own herd.He would do all the work as well as yield one-half interest in the results of the venture. Ben now had his initial herd and with Indian boys as helpers he and they were soon headed for the Yakima valley. By the spring of 1856, his herd saw 102 head ready for market. Snipes started north for the Fraser country with the help of an Indian boy. Dropping down from the Okanogan lake country into the Kamloops and Thompson River country, Ben sold his cattle at the rate of $125 per head, the herd netting him about $12,000 with half going to his financial backer. After settling his debt, he moved to the Yakima Valley at the foot of what became known as Snipes mountain. He built a log cabin, the first white man’s home in the valley about 1859.

Snipes continued to buy and sell livestock. By the fall of 1861, he had become known throughout the Northwest as the Cattle King. Estimates of his cattle holdings varied from 25,000 to 40,000 head, with some even going higher. Snipes was hit hard by the hard winter of 1861. Rain followed by snow and ice, followed by bitter cold February winds decimated his heard, leaving only about 10 percent alive. The carcases of dead cattle were stacked in gullies where they had huddled together seeking each other’s warmth. When the weather finally broke, Snipes, who had been marooned by the weather in The Dalles, was relieved to head north and find his riders in good health. Snipes’ stock had been reduced to between 2,500 and 3,000 cattle.

Snipes went to Portland where he was able to borrow $50,000. With this loan he bought at a fraction of the value all the animals he could find in the valley from ranchers who were set upon leaving at all costs. Snipes soon repayed most of his loan, but a second severe winter again took its toll on his stock. By now the population was on the rise, bringing with it competitor cattle boats and the advent of the Northern Pacific Railway criss-crossing it’s way through the Pacific Northwest. The era of big Northwest cattle drives was coming to a close.

Snipes began branching out with other ventures. He bought over a hundred acres of land in what is today’s busiest section in the city of Seattle building a large home there. He began financing other ventures, and in The Dalles he built a flouring mill to process the wheat grown in the area. Snipes noted that Ellensburg had no bank, so he erected a three-story structure of stone, and the bank moved in on February 22, 1889. A few months later, on July 4, 1889, a fire started at one end of town, which soon became a holocaust. The street on which the bank stood was leveled, including Snipes’ building. The bank re-opened in temporary quarters and a new building was immediately constructed to house it. This building yet stands in Ellensburg. He opened a second branch in Roslyn. [4]


Capt. W.P. Grey tells of the remarkable ride made by Ben Snipes, Dalles banker, druggist and Cattle King of Klickitat county, Wash., from The Dalles to the Canadian boundary, 280 miles in 62 hours, by saddle horse.

The Captain wrote: I think this ride deserves a place in early survival endurances for this part of the Wild and Wooly West. In 1861 Ben Snipes and his cattle partner Murphy, rounded up 500 head of cattle at Assoyas Lake to drive to the Carribb mines. The mosquitoes were so thick at the Junction of the Sanilkanian and Okanogan rivers and along the lake shores that stock stopping for a drink would be covered with mosquitoes instantly! A hand, placed on a horse, while drinking, would be covered with blood. The cattle cut trails belly deep while roaring and bawling up and down the valley, unable to drink or eat day or night! Many fell exhausted and were trampled to death.

Word was sent to Ben at The Dalles at 5 A.M. He left The Dalles riding a bald faced roan half breed. He rode over the Klickitat mountain, through Klickitat Valley, over Simcoe mountain, through the Yakima Indian reservation, over the divide, through Kittitas valley, over Wenatchee mountains, swam the Columbia river at Moses Lake, across the Big Bend country, swam the Columbia river again at Fort Okanogan, up the Akan to Assogas Lake to where I lived.

He had arrived at 7 P.M. on the 3rd day after 62 hours in the saddle on one horse! He had rode full width of the territory of Washington, 260 miles. He supervised the driving of the cattle across the Canadian boundary to the mines of Canada where there was a shortage of meat and prices at their best.

Ben Snipes, the cattle king, it is said, “lost so many cattle during the hard winter of 1862 that you could walk up the side of Klickitat mountain on their carcasses without touching the ground.” This appears to be an exaggeration, but Snipes did own lots of cattle. It appears also from this story by Capt. Gray that Ben Snipes came west shortly after George did and before Elam. [1]


In 1958 Benjamin Snipes, Cattleman and Pioneer, was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s Hall of Great Westerners. [3]

The historic Ben Snipes House

The Ben Snipes House

The Ben Snipes House is located in the Trevitt Addition Historic District, at 218 W. Fourth Street, The Dalles Oregon.
Year Built: c. 1867/c. 1895
Architect: Unknown
Style: Colonial Revival
Alterations: Minor
Rank: Primary/Contributing
Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places: Yes

Description of Building: The one and one-half story building is T-shaped in plan and has an intersecting gable roof. There is a lower rear extension. The roof is covered with conposition asphalt shingles. A corbelled brick chimney caps the building. A gable dormer projects from the front of the house. The dormer has eave returns and a Palladian-type window. The house is sheathed with lap siding finished with cornerboards. The front porch extends across the front elevation and is supported by Tuscan porch posts. The entrance door is flanked by sidelights and a multi-pane transom. The windows are a combination of one over one and six over six double-hung wood sash windows. Bay windows are on the east and west elevations. There is stained glass in the front picture window. The building is constructed on a stone foundation. Alterations include some window modifications. The house is sited above street level and the lot is densely planted with shrubs and trees. Two birch trees flank the front stairs. In excellent condition, the building has minor alterations. [2]

Historical data: The earliest deed recorded for this property was on October 3, 1862, when Thomas H. Bulger sold the property to J.B. Riley for $300 (BookC:79). On October 12, 1864, Joseph B. and Sinzella Riley sold the property to B.E. Snipes for $2,500 (Book C:501). [2] The house was built c. 1867 (and remodeled in c. 1895) during the ownership of Snipes. The tax records for B.E. Snipes as owner of Lot 6 in Block 3 of the Trevitt’s Addition list the value at $1,800 in 1867 and at $2,000 in 1878. Title research did not establish clear line of title after B.E. Snipes. John Lundell, former mayor of The Dalles, author and historian, later owned the property. [2] It is currently owned by Bev and Alan Eagy, who also own the historic Trevitt House that was relocated next door. The Trevitt House is currently an Air B&B.

[1] History of Wasco County, Oregon by Wm. H. McNeal
[2} Trevitt’s Addition Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Nomination prepared by Sally Donovan, Donovan & Associates, July 1994
[3] National Cowboy Hall of Fame
[4] The Pacific Northwesterner, Roscoe Sheller, Fall 1959 issue, excerpt from a talk given by .Roscoe Sheller, author of Ben Snipes: Northwest Cattle King, March 15, 2005, Essay 7265