Idaho History: Rube Robbins: Lawman, farmer, lawmaker

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANMay 11, 2014 

When Rube Robbins retired briefly from his job as deputy United States marshal in February 1869, he no doubt looked forward to the relative peace and slower pace of life on his ranch north of Boise City. Farm life was part of his heritage, since he was born and raised on a farm near Phillips, Maine.

That all did not go as planned was revealed in this item from the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman published on July 3, 1869: "Rube Robbins, who had a fine field of corn out north of the race track, had just finished plowing it the last time on Thursday when an immense flight of grasshoppers alighted on it. He returned to the spot after putting his team away and found the corn literally alive with the ravaging insects, ruthlessly destroying the summer's work. The field where once stood the waving corn is by this time but a piece of bare ground."

Robbins had once told his friend James Reynolds, the Statesman editor, that breaking wild horses was "jolly sport." Later that summer of '69, while out looking for his stray horses along Cottonwood Creek, he found the body of a man who had been camping there. Since no further details were given in the Statesman's story, we can assume the man died a natural death. Otherwise, Rube would have had yet another criminal case to investigate - as he had so often over the years.

We get a glimpse of Robbins in action from Thomas Donaldson's classic memoir "Idaho of Yesterday."

"I recall a bit of philosophy expounded under aggravating circumstance by my good friend Orlando ('Rube') Robbins one morning in 1870, while Rube was Boise's city marshal. ... He was an entire success with lawbreakers for he had a very persuasive way with him. I was riding past May's brick yard when ahead of me I saw a knot of men scuffling in the road. Although not looking for trouble, I went nearer and saw Robbins in altercation with Indians. A group of Umatillas, en route from the game country east of the divide, had overindulged in firewater. Two or three were making hostile advances. Robbins was deeply interested in a hostile buck; when the buck resisted, I saw Robbins knock him down. The buck staggered to his feet, grasping at a murderous knife, and Robbins promptly 'swatted' him again. He staggered to his feet and went down again, covered with blood, and badly mauled. I called from my wagon, 'Let him alone, Robbins, if you crack his skull and he dies, there will be music here!'

"Rube yelled energetically, 'Talk's cheap! Get out of that cart and hold him till I handcuff him. If I let him up he'll knife me, and you bet I'm worth more to myself than he is to me!'

"With an alacrity far from cheerful, I alighted and assisted. The buck's companions gathered about him and advised him to surrender, and then Robbins lugged him off to Boise's jail. Mr. Indian was fined with costs, for getting drunk on whisky sold to him under United States license, the tax on which helped pay Congressmen and others in reputable positions!"

Indicative of his wide popularity, Rube was elected to the Idaho Legislature in 1874. Effective as he was as a lawman, Rube Robbins' legendary place in the history of the Old West comes from his exploits in the Indian wars of the later 1870s. He was chief scout for the army in campaigns against the Nez Perce in 1877, the Bannocks in 1878 and the Sheepeaters in 1879.

Next week: Rube Robbins, Indian fighter.

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

IDAHO HISTORY

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