John Day Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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Chapter One:

Fossil finds lead to the first park proposal

Soon after its discovery, the John Day Fossil Beds supplied a number of species and genera previously unknown to paleontology. By 1900 over 100 scientific papers had been published about the upper basin and most major museums in the world had collections from there. [26] An important find made near Picture Gorge in 1916 contributed to a suggestion that a national park be established in the Sheep Rock area. Although little more than a local newspaper editorial supported the proposal, it signaled local recognition that the fossil beds could attract tourists to the area.

Hostilities between the Northern Paiute and Euro-American newcomers throughout eastern Oregon became the catalyst for discovery of fossil plant and animal remains in the upper John Day Basin. A military detachment at Fort Dalles under Captain John M. Drake's command brought back fossils from an area 30 miles southwest of Sheep Rock in 1864. [27] The next year Thomas Condon, a geologist and Congregational minister from The Dalles, secured permission to accompany a cavalry unit into this area. Condon subsequently made finds along Bridge Creek near the present Painted Hills Unit and around Sheep Rock, in a locale he called Turtle Cove.

In 1870 Condon brought the John Day Basin to the attention of science through paleontologist Joseph Leidy. [28] By making the first study collections for this part of Oregon, Condon induced several leading paleontologists to visit the upper basin. One of them, Othniel C. Marsh, utilized a specimen collected by Condon to decipher horse geneology and in so doing made a significant contribution to evolutionary theory. [29] Marsh is also credited with bestowing the name "John Day Fossil Beds" in 1875. [30] Over the next 15 years, a number of fossil collectors such as Charles Sternberg, Leander Davis, William Day, and Captain Charles E. Bendire visited the upper basin. Although about 100 papers had been written on the upper basin by 1900, virtually all of them concentrated on naming new genera and species rather than relating them to the basin's geological record. [31]

After leading the University of California expeditions in 1899 and 1900, John C. Merriam became the first person to depict the relationship between stratigraphic sequence and the basin's vertebrate faunas. [32] In doing so, he named the Clarno, Mascall, and Rattlesnake formations and laid the foundation for subsequent studies in the area. This achievement and his subsequent efforts to establish state parks there made him the most prominent figure associated with the John Day Fossil Beds during the first half of the twentieth century. [33]

Route of the first expedition led by John C. Merriam
Route of the first expedition led by John C. Merriam.
It corresponded closely to the Dalles Military Wagon Road except for their trek into the Butler Basin, and back to Celeb.
(from J. Arnold Shotwell, University of Oregon Museum of Natural History Bulletin No. 19, 1972)

Anticipation of automobiles reaching the Sheep Rock area led a John Day newspaper in December 1916 to propose that part of western Grant County become a national park. [34] According to this editorial, the basis for the park consisted of public domain lands totaling two townships which the federal government could withhold from prospective settlers. The writer justified this proposal in economic terms, contrasting scenic and scientific values of the area's fossil beds with their having little or no value for grazing or crops. [35]

This proposal coincided with announcement of a significant paleontological discovery made the previous summer. Fragments from a Pliocene bear found just south of Picture Gorge generated some publicity after a paper with Merriam as lead author described them in November 1916. [36] At a time when the idea of continental drift still struggled to win widespread acceptance, the find matched a fossil previously unearthed in India and implied that Asia and North America had once been joined. [37]

Nonetheless, this proposal for a national park quietly disappeared. Although paleontological areas had secured a place among federal reservations by this time (presidential proclamations under the Antiquities Act created Petrified Forest National Monument in 1906 and Dinosaur National Monument in 1915), there seemed to be little political interest for a park in the John Day Fossil Beds. What little local support the proposal could generate was more than offset by the fact that very few people had ever been to the upper basin. Without a rail line or roads suitable for automobiles, no park proposal could succeed in this remote and sparsely populated region.

Next> Access to the upper John Day Basin

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Last Updated: 30-Apr-2002