Lies and the Lying Land Grabbers Who Tell Them

October 3, 2003

By Peyton Knight

Ralph and Julie Shelton own 91 acres of land in Malheur County, Oregon. In Malheur, 74% of the land is owned by the federal government. The Sheltons’ property is situated on the Owyhee River near the Idaho border. It was bequeathed to them by Ralph’s grandfather. At the time Grandpa Shelton purchased the property, it was a useless mess of overgrown sagebrush and scrub. He, along with the help of his wife and daughter, cleared the land with nothing but horses and crude implements. He constructed a small farmhouse and barn, and even a waterwheel with which to irrigate the land. Through his family’s sweat and toil, he created a beautiful piece of property, one that he would eventually pass down to his grandson’s family. This quaint family farm is now in the crosshairs of land grabbers.

In the spring of 2002, Ralph and Julie Shelton were contacted by Jim McGill and Tom Gray. The two strangers presented themselves as interested members of a benign historical group who were merely intrigued by the historical aspects of the Shelton’s property. McGill and Gray informed the Sheltons that several immigrants back in 1860 had come under attack by hostile

Indians on this particular plot of land. The settlers were stranded, and they eventually starved to death while awaiting rescue from the U.S. Army. Trusting that the two were simply interested historians who meant them no harm, the Shelton’s granted their request to return with several colleagues to visit and explore their property.

The men returned with a cadre of researchers, and proceeded to study the Sheltons’ land. Mr. McGill took pictures and even recorded Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) data. After their survey was completed, Mr. McGill informed the Sheltons that he and his group wanted to erect a monument to the dead immigrants on the portion of the Shelton’s property where it is was believed that they had perished. Not only that, but they wanted to erect a reader board on the north end of the property, near railroad tracks, along with markers depicting where an ancient, no longer visible, “alternate route” of the Oregon Trail supposedly once existed. And finally, they asked the Sheltons to donate a portion of their land to their organization. Ralph and Julie, overwhelmed by the requests, told them they would not donate any of their property, nor would they grant them any easement on their land.

Not about to give up, Mr. McGill took Ralph Shelton on a walk around the his property. They eventually made their way to the railroad tracks that cut through the Sheltons’ land. It was here that Ralph Shelton realized how determined these folks were to acquire his property. Mr. McGill pointed excitedly and proclaimed to Ralph that he could see a small rut or swale running parallel to the tracks. He claimed that this barely visible “trail” was in fact a remnant of the South Alternate Oregon Trail. Ralph could barely contain his laughter. That “trail” was actually put there by Ralph’s grandfather to keep irrigation water from eroding the bank of the railroad tracks. Yet Mr. McGill persisted, claiming that this meager swale was actually a historic trail, and that the proof was in an ancient, 19th century “immigrant trails map.” By now, the Sheltons’ patience was growing thin. They told Mr. McGill that they were uninterested in any of his dealings and that they did not want folks traipsing about their property for any reason. But the harassment didn’t stop there.

Undeterred, Mr. McGill sent an E-mail to the Sheltons informing them that he had contacted Union Pacific Railroad at their Nebraska headquarters and received permission to use the land surrounding the railroad tracks as a “walking path” into the Sheltons’ property. Skeptical, the Skeltons phoned Union Pacific to verify Mr. McGill’s claim. They were informed that Union Pacific would never grant someone such access for obvious reasons having to do with safety. The Sheltons, now out of patience with Mr. McGill and his underhanded tactics, told him that there was nothing to see on their property but an old family farm and that he should “cease and desist.”

Julie Shelton also decided to do a little research on Jim McGill and Tom Gray. As it turns out, they are not simply curious members of some benign historical society. They only pretend to be. Jim McGill is president of the Idaho chapter of OCTA (Oregon California Trails Association). Tom Gray is president of the Malheur County Historical Society. Together, they’re teaming up to take the Shelton’s land.

OCTA is a non-profit organization dedicated to locating, identifying, marking and protecting segments of the Oregon trail—apparently even those segments that are invisible, non-existent, and that are located on private property. OCTA’s statement of purpose makes no bones about how heavy-handed and indifferent they are towards the property rights of others. They state their intention is “to implement these purposes by acquiring either alone or through or jointly with others—federal, state, local or private—title to the land or lands on which any of the same is located or a preservation or other easements with regard to the same—by purchase, gift or otherwise—and by cooperating with or initiating, coordinating and assisting the efforts of such others to do so.” In other words, they will lie, cheat, steal and partner with land-grabbing agencies of government to get their hands on the property of others. They are among the foot soldiers of the National Park Service and their National Trails System.

The Sheltons’ fight against the land grabbers of OCTA is not over. Jim McGill and Tom Gray have devised a new strategy. Earlier this spring, Julie and Ralph Shelton awoke to the commotion of a construction crew on adjacent land opposite their driveway. They asked their local district roads supervisor, Bob Hany, what was being built. He told them that he was erecting a reader board explaining the historical significance of the Sheltons’ property on the property of the Sheltons’ neighbor, Keith Elliot. Mr. Hany explained that Jim McGill and Tom Gray had received permission from Mr. Elliot to have the reader board built.

Irate, Julie immediately called her neighbor and explained what was happening. Mr. Elliot expressed complete shock, as he had never so much as heard of Jim McGill or Tom Gray. Julie put Mr. Hany on the phone with Keith Elliot and the construction was halted immediately. Angry that he had been lied to, Mr. Hany ordered Mr. McGill and Mr. Gray them to stay clear of the road in front of the Sheltons’ property.

Despite all of their setbacks, OCTA remain relentless in their quest to grab the Sheltons’ land. They have been successful in erecting several reader boards on other properties surrounding the Sheltons—as if they are arranging soldiers on a map. Their goal is to persist and wear the Sheltons down to the point that they surrender. In reference to the new locations of the reader boards surrounding the Sheltons’ property, Mr. McGill gloats on OCTA’s website: “The story of this site change for the sign is long, tedious, and a bit aggravating, but we will win this one too!”

Obviously the OCTA has no regard for the long, tedious and aggravating time the Sheltons have been forced to spend simply trying to protect their property from these vultures.

Tom DeWeese
[email protected]

Tom DeWeese is President of the American Policy Center and National Grassroots Coordinator for CFACT (Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow) working to help local activists organize into Freedom Pods ( He is also the author of three books, including Now Tell Me I Was Wrong, ERASE, and Sustainable: the WAR on Free Enterprise, Private Property, and Individuals.