Idaho History: Rube Robbins was truly a legend in his own time

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANMay 4, 2014 

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Orlando “Rube” Robbins was a powerful and imposing figure.

PROVIDED BY ARTHUR HART

What makes a person "a legend in his own time"? Many are famous in their own time and some are infamous, but what makes a legend? In the case of Idaho history, I suggest that only a few qualify through actions and accomplishments during their lifetimes, and that their contemporaries recognized it.

Such a person was Orlando "Rube" Robbins, mentioned last week as a leader in the temperance movement, founder of an 1873 lodge for men who had renounced alcohol, and even a Sunday school president. Robbins had already been in Idaho for a decade and had a solid reputation as a lawman. Typical of the items praising Robbins' performance that appeared in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman is this from March 17, 1868, after he had arrested and brought in three men suspected of murder:

"In this connection we wish to mention that the pursuit and capture of these prisoners reflects great credit on Deputy Marshal Robbins. He was most untiring in his efforts to capture them. He rode day and night, we know not how many hundred miles, until he had arrested three of the men and learned positively the whereabouts of the fourth. Being completely exhausted now, he picked his man and hired him to go after the (fourth) prisoner and fetch him home. There is something refreshing in conduct like this in an officer. Mr. Robbins has held the office of deputy sheriff and deputy marshal ever since he came into the territory and has brought in his prisoners every time a warrant was put in his hands."

In May 1868, the paper said of Robbins' work, "The time has passed when a lawbreaker could manufacture music to suit his dance, and the requirement now is to dance to the music."

The Statesman no doubt knew when this was written that Robbins was going to be a candidate for Ada County sheriff on the Republican ticket in July, but no amount of buildup could alter the fact that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a wide margin in the Idaho Territory. The Idaho World of Idaho City commented on Robbins' candidacy, "O. Robbins, alias Reub. Robbins, the Vigilante chief, is running for Sheriff of Ada County, on the Republican Vigilante ticket." The World regularly called Statesman Editor James Reynolds "a strangler" for his support of vigilante law ... a course of action dictated by the conviction that the sheriffs elected by the Democratic majority were not enforcing the laws, and that someone had to.

The Statesman countered the World's comments on Robbins with lengthy praise of his record as a lawman, concluding with "HE NEVER RETURNED A WARRANT WITHOUT HIS MAN! The question before the house is - whether he or his opponent, who never had such experience, will make the better officer."

The election was close but Henry Branstetter, the Democratic candidate, won. The Statesman fumed at length that some so-called Republicans had abandoned their principles and withdrawn their votes for Robbins. It did concede, however, that "Branstetter will make a fair officer."

In September 1868, the Portland Oregonian reported that U.S. Marshal Alvord and Deputies Robbins and Maddox had arrived safely with three stage robbers. In February 1869, Rube Robbins resigned his position as U.S. deputy marshal. The Statesman commented, "Mr. Robbins has made an active and attentive officer during his term, and his many friends will regret to hear that he retires to private life." Farming and ranching proved to be an adventure, as we shall see when we continue the story of an Idahoan who became "a legend in his own time."

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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