Danford Balch Homesite and "Witches Castle"

Danford Balch Homesite and “Witches Castle”

In Northwest Portland just Northwest of where the Lewis and Clark Exposition was held is Danford Balch’s Homesite (or as the sign in the park says “Lower Macleay Park.”) This area has had been the source of some major news items over the years.

Danford Balch Homesite Sign

As this history sign notes, this piece of land was owned by Danford Balch was hanged for the murder of his (against his wishes,) son-in-law and neighbor, Mortimer Stump on October 17, 1859. Danford, his wife Mary Jane, and their nine children emigrated from Ohio, then Iowa in 1847. Legally the Balch’s took out a claim in 1850, but as Oregon was not technically a State yet and the land claim process was in somewhat of a mess, they most likely had already filed a claim in 1847 or 1848 for this same piece of land in the Territorial Government’s records.

This same uncertainty over who had the power to grant and enforce land claims led to Oregon’s first murder by Nimrod O’Kelly.

The Balch’s lived here with only some minor feuding between themselves and the nearby Stump family until 1857 or 1858. It’s recorded that Danford was a bit of a drunk and this most likely led to the feud. The Stump’s oldest son Mortimer fell in love with the Balch’s oldest daughter Anna. Another version of the story says that the Stumps had a homestead in Vancouver Washington and Mortimer was a hired hand. My guess is that Mortimer himself owned the land in Vancouver, while his parents owned the land adjacent to the Balchs. What is known for sure is that Anna eloped with Mortimer on November 4th, 1858 and moved with him to Vancouver.

On November 18th, 1858 at the Stark Street Ferry, Danford chanced upon members of the Stump family including Mortimer. His drinking had increased and in a fit of rage he “accidentally” shot and killed Mortimer by simultaneously discharging both barrels of his shot gun. He was disarmed and jailed to be held until the spring for trial.

In that day, Judges were actually nomadic. They would spend a few days in each city dealing with issues as needed. This allowed those who would be witnesses in cases to continue living at home and being able to work on their farms. On a more practical note for the Territorial Government and later the State and Federal Governments, it saved money as the Judges would call upon prominent locals to house them while they were in the neighborhood. They were frequently reimbursed for this service but for many years it was cheaper and better for everyone involved then to have a central justice system. During this time there were also some issues with Judges resigning and the position being unfilled for months at a time. This led to long periods between trials and in some cases even the start and finish of the trial.

As Danford’s trial date and the Judge drew nearer, he managed to escape the jail he was in. Being built of wood, coupled with Oregon’s especially rainy weather during the winter of 1858-1859, the wood had rotted enough for him to easily break out. Instead of fleeing the State he hid out on his own land until he was recaptured on July 23, 1859. He was no doubt housed in the new prison that the City of Portland had recently completed.

At this point another interesting Portland character comes into the story, James Lappeus, who was arguably Portland’s first Chief of Police, but also a cooked saloon owner himself. Rumors abound that Lappeus offered to leave the door to Balch’s cell unlocked, in exchange for $1000. While the rumor was never substantiated, several people note that Balch’s wife did start trying to raise money really quickly. Unfortunately she was not able to raise the money in time, and Balch was hung on October 17, 1859 in front of a crowd of 500 people. This marked the first legal public execution in the Oregon Territory.

on to part two

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