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Famous Oregon Cases: the Willamette Meteorite

The Story

The Meteorite Arrives

Scientists believe the Willamette meteorite crash landed on Earth about 12,000-15,000 years ago. It landed in Canada or Montana and then drifted on a piece of glacial ice into Oregon. It ended up near present-day West Linn, Oregon. The meteorite's composition is over 91% iron. It is the largest meteorite ever found in North America. The Supreme Court of Oregon described the meteorite in its 1905 opinion:

In physical appearance it is in the shape of a huge mushroom or an inverted bell, in dimensions 7 feet by 10 across the top, and 4 1/2 feet thick, and when found was resting with its smaller end upon the surface of the earth, not embedded in it ... In its top, as it rested in place, are numerous cavities, or "potholes" as they are termed...

The Clackamas and the Meteorite

The local Clackamas tribe called the meteorite Tomanowos and treated it as a sacred object. They believed it was a representative of the Sky People, and the Clackamas dipped their arrows in the rain water that collected in the meteorite's potholes. They believed it had special powers. (See the American Museum of Natural History's exhibition text.) The Clackamas tribe were relocated to the Grand Ronde reservation in the 1850s.

Mr. Hughes finds the meteorite

In 1902, a man named Ellis Hughes was out collecting wood when he noticed the meteorite. He knew it was a meteorite because it was metallic. The meteorite was located on land belonging to the Oregon Iron and Steel Company. Some have reported that Hughes tried to buy the land from Oregon Iron but they refused. At any rate, Hughes decided that he could make money off of the meteorite and decided to move it to his land with a horse, his fifteen-year-old son, a specially-built cart, and a capstan. He cleared a road to his land and a diversionary road in the other direction in an attempt to cover up what he was doing. The meteorite was moved over the course of a few months.

Once Hughes got the meteorite to his land, he built a shed over the meteorite and charged a 25 cents admission fee for people to come and view it. More and more people came -- including a lawyer representing Oregon Iron & Steel Company. The lawyer tried to get the meteorite back. Some report the lawyer offered money. Hughes refused to return the meteorite and the Oregon Iron & Steel Company sued.

The Lawsuits

Oregon Iron & Steel Co. v Ellis Hughes, Circuit Court of Clackamas County

April 28, 1904: Judge Thomas A. McBride

The Oregon Iron & Steel Company sued Hughes to get the meteorite returned. At trial, Hughes argued that the meteorite was an abandoned Indian relic. Two Native Americans testified that it had been used many years before by the Clackamas but they were now gone. But the judge refused Hughes' requests for jury instructions on the abandoned property theory. (This became an issue on appeal.) Judge McBride instructed the jury that the ownership of the land where the meteorite was found was the only relevant question: "If Hughes went and took it from the Oregon Iron & Steel Company's land, then under your oaths, you have got to give it back to them; see that they get it back. It does not matter whether it fell from the heavens or rode in there on the back of a glacier, or how it got there. The question is on whose property was it found..." The jury returned a verdict awarding the meteorite to Oregon Iron & Steel Co.

Rudolph Koerner and Fred Meyer v. Oregon Iron & Steel Co. and Ellis Hughes, Circuit Court of Clackamas County 

January 17-18, 1905 (trial) Judge Thomas A. McBride

Two neighbors, Rudolph Koerner and Fred Meyer, claimed the meteorite had actually been located on their property. The plaintiffs were represented by Latourette, Ellis Hughes' attorney from the first case. In his answer, Hughes agreed that the meteorite had been on plaintiffs' land but asserted his ownership as a finder of abandoned property.

Plaintiffs based their ownership claim partly on the existence of a crater on their property. However, neighbors reported there that "they had heard a great deal of blasting being done on the property only the week before." (Preston, Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History) The jury returned a verdict for the Oregon Iron & Steel Co. 

Oregon Iron & Steel Co. v. Hughes, Supreme Court of Oregon

Decision: July 17, 1905; 47 Or. 313

Summary of Opinion

Justice Wolverton (portrait)

The Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court. The Court relied on an 1892 meteorite case from Iowa regarding the nature of a meteorite: "Before alluding to the evidence upon which defendant's theory is based, we may state the law relative to the nature of a meteorite or aerolite--whether realty, being a part of the soil upon which it is discovered, or personalty, belonging to the finder. The question has been resolved by a case from Iowa (Goodard v. Winchell 86 Iowa 71...) favorably to the view that it is realty." The Court then compared the worship of the meteorite to the worship of Mt. Hood and stated that Hughes had not produced sufficient evidence that the Clackamas had severed and appropriated the meteorite. As it had never been converted into personal property, it could not be abandoned and found.

Oregon Loses the Meteorite

After the lawsuit was over, the meteorite was transported by barge to Portland to be displayed at the Lewis and Clark Exposition. While it was at the exposition, it was seen by a wealthy New York woman, Mrs. William Dodge II, who bought the meteorite for $26,000 from the Oregon Iron Co. She donated it to the American Museum of Natural History in New York where it has remained to this day. 

Efforts to bring the meteorite back to Oregon

There have been several unsuccessful efforts to return the meteorite back to Oregon.

In 1991, there was a campaign by Oregon third graders to bring the meteorite back home. 

In 1999, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde filed a claim for repatriation of the meteorite. See the Willamette Meteorite Agreement page to learn more.

In 2007, after another campaign by Oregon schoolchildren, a House Joint Resolution (HJR 30) requesting the return of the meteorite was introduced in the Oregon State Legislature. (To find a bill or joint resolution, you can use the find a bill feature at the Oregon Legislature's website.)

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