Skovlins sign 'outlaw' books during visit to home

Authors Jon and Donna Skovlin, who both grew up in Wallowa County, were in Enterprise and Joseph recently signing their books about outlaws Tom McCarty and Hank Vaughan. Photo by Kim Lamb

Jon and Donna Skovlin of Cove, both former residents of Wallowa County who still have close ties, returned to the county Friday, Nov. 29, to sign copies of their books; the latest "In Pursuit of the McCartys" about a famous outlaw band led by a man named Tom McCarty. Their previous collaborative effort was "Hank Vaughan (1849-1893): A Hell-Raising Horse Trader of the Bunchgrass Territory."

Residents brought books or bought new books Friday and "visited, swapped stories and talked about outlaws," according to Mary Swanson, owner of the Bookloft in Enterprise. The Skovlins also signed books at the Joseph Bookshop in Joseph.

Jon Skovlin graduated from Enterprise High School in 1948 and his future wife, Donna McDaniel, is a 1949 graduate of Wallowa High School. They met at Oregon State University, where Jon obtained degrees in in range, wildlife and forestry sciences and Donna in English and journalism.

Jon Skovlin, now retired, said he started reading about Hank Vaughn, the subject of their first outlaw book, while researching the grazing history of the Blue Mountains when he worked for the research branch of the U.S. Forest Service. "Hank's name kept appearing in old newspaper accounts," said Skovlin. He began collecting stories and eventually there was enough material for a book, which was finally published in 1996.

The Skovlins remember that when the late Gwen Coffin, former publisher of the Wallowa County Chieftain and a friend of theirs, read their first manuscript, he couldn't unerstand why anyone would want to read about an outlaw.

The couple said that the book about the McCartys evolved because Lois McCarty married Hank Vaughan. Jon connected her brother, Tom McCarty, to Wallowa County through his robbery of the Enterprise bank in 1891, land titles at the courthouse, newspaper accounts, and geographic names around the county.

In their "In Pursuit of the McCartys" the Skovlins followed the McCarty family through Montana, Utah, and Nevada before they set up headquarters out of Haines and robbed several Northeast Oregon banks. Tom McCarty, called The Napoleon of Outlawry by the "New York Times" and at one time the subject of a quarter of a million dollars reward offered for his arrest, retired from banditry to Wallowa County in 1901. He spent nearly two decades here in the early 1900's.

Their McCarty book, published in 2001, has been the recipient of two awards: third place in the 2001 Best Book competition sponsored by Westerners International and third place in the Outstanding Books category at the first Internation Congress on Outlaw-Lawman History held in Sacramento, Calif., this July. The organizations foster interest in the history of the American West and/or the history of outlaws and lawmen of the Old West.

The latest book had at least one result that the authors never expected.

"It seems that because of our research into the activities of the McCarty Gang, one family whose relative went to prison for a crime the McCartys committed, now knows their family member was innocent," said Donna Skovlin.

This spring the couple was contacted by Phil Harris, who had just bought the Skovlin book, which described how the McCartys and Matt Warner had robbed the Sparta store in 1892. The book also reported that five innocent local men, including Harris' grandfather, had been charged, tried, convicted and sent to prison for the crime.

Harris was pleased to learn that his grandfather was not guilty of the robbery, but he lamented that his father had carried the shame of what he thought was his own father's guilt to the grave. The family suffered terribly from this event, according to Harris.

The Skovlins said that Harris has gone through court records of the times and finds gross misconduct in the way the trial of his grandfather (whom he admits was not a pillar of the community) and the others was conducted, especially in the fact the witnesses/victims never actually appeared in court. They were convicted entirely on a disposition written by the district attorney, and Harris believes the law enforcement officers of the day just used this trial to rid their jurisdiction of some suspicious characters.

The Skovlins continue their long-time interest in the history of the area, and are members of the Friends of the Wallowa County Museum. While they live in Cove, they have many relatives living here including their son and his wife, Kirk and Laura Skovlin, and their children, Landra and Lars.

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