Justice on the Beach

Based on an account by Edsel Colvin’s father Frank Colvin

Dennis Cunniff, Sr., was born in Ireland on March 7th, 1828. He arrived in San Francisco in 1850 and mined at the Feather and Yuba rivers and then on to the Klamath in 1852.

Four years later, in 1856, he married Margaret McAffery Graham. She was born in Ireland on October 27, 1819. She had a daughter named Lizzie Graham by her first marriage.

In 1857 they arrived in Gold Beach (then called Ellensburg) and homesteaded in the area south of Riley Creek. This included the property that is now the Curry County Fairgrounds. They built a log house and Margaret kept books for some of the miners.

Their marriage did not last long. On August 17th, 1860, they signed an agreement to live apart.

“This indenture made this 17th day of August, 1860 between Dennis Cunniff of Ellensburg Curry County Oregon of the first part and Margaret Cunniff of the second part WITNESS WHEREAS divers unhappy disputes and differences have arisen between the said party of the first part and his said wife, for which reason they have consented and agreed to live separate and apart during their natural lives.”

The document went on to describe other details of the agreement. He agreed not to claim or demand any of her money, jewels, plates, clothing, goods or furniture. He also agreed to divide the property they owned equally and to pay support for his child, Dennis Cunniff, Jr., in the amount of one hundred and twenty dollars per year.

They got back together later but tragedy struck the family. Lizzie, then 13, used to walk each day from the family home near the fairgrounds towards the Rogue River and pick up the mail. Along the beach around three hundred miners worked their claims, and among them was George T. Sullivan and George Brown. Sullivan, 27 years of age, was born in Ireland. Brown, 23, was born in Frankfort, Germany.

On April 15, 1861, Lizzie set off on a walk to the residence of Mrs. Riley. The house was located near where the Riley Creek School stands today. She was going to have Mrs. Riley help here with sewing some clothes. Lizzie was going to be going away to boarding school. She left Mrs. Riley’s and headed for home. Later that afternoon, one of the miners came to the Cunniff house and asked Margaret Cunniff for some food. Margaret noticed scratches on his face and was told by the man the scratches were from an encounter with some berry vines. When Lizzie failed to return home, Margaret told the other miners of her suspicions. The miners reacted to the anguish and distress of Margaret over her missing daughter, and they lay down their picks and shovels and started a search. Most of the miners did. One didn’t. George Sullivan kept on working. The miners searched the brush in back of his claim and found Lizzie, dead. They hastily convened a court and gave Sullivan a trial. He confessed to the murder, a crime of passion. They got a rope and hung him from a tree limb on his own claim and buried his body in a pit near what is now the present music room at Gold Beach High School.

About eight months later, George Brown, a miner that had been working on the beach that day, returned to the area. He lived by Hunter Creek. He started talking about how he had been the lookout for Sullivan. The miners caught him and questioned him. He said he got into this by trying to help Sullivan out. He was supposed to watch for the girl and tell Sullivan when she came along. That was enough for them. They hung Brown from the same limb as Sullivan and buried his body in the pit next to Sullivan..

Lizzie was buried in the old Pioneer Cemetery next to the Presbyterian Church and might just be in the oldest grave there.

Dennis Cunniff, Sr., died at his home near Gold Beach on a Thursday afternoon, July 6th, 1911, at the ripe old age of 86. He had been affected by heart trouble for a year or more. In his prime he was a physical giant with impulsive temperament, but he was positive, courageous, and though combative at times, he was genial and warm hearted to his friends who all considered him a good neighbor.

Margaret Cunniff passed away about a year later on a Saturday, April 20, 1912, at the home of her daughter, A. S. Miller. She was 92 years of age. She was survived by one son, two daughters and seven grand children. She was a warm hearted Irish woman. She was buried next to her daughter Lizzie and her husband Dennis. Dennis Jr., was also buried there and their graves are side by side.

The Creek that heads up 11th Street and flows through the Fairground is named Cunniff Creek. (Gold Beach) …Bill Wallace