John Day Fossil Beds
Historic Resources Study
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John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was created in 1974 by an Act of Congress. According to an early planning document approved in 1979, the purpose of the Monument is:

To identify, interpret, and protect the geologic, paleontological, natural, and cultural resources along the central and upper John Day River and to provide facilities that will promote and assist visitor recreational enjoyment and understanding of the same.

A more recent National Park Service strategic plan has since officially acknowledged the global significance of the Monument's fossil resources and given priority to its paleontological values. Nonetheless, the protection and interpretation of cultural resources remains an important component of the Monument's educational mission. This commitment to cultural values is best demonstrated in the preservation and adaptive use of the historic Cant Ranch as the Monument's headquarters.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument comprises 14,400 acres in three widely-separated noncontiguous units: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno. All are in the watershed of the upper John Day River in north-central Oregon. While each unit has a distinctive geological history and landscape, all are united in sharing a common cultural history.

location map
Fig. 1. Location Map - John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in northcentral Oregon (National Park Service, 1991).

The goal of this study is to relate the human history of lands in the vicinity of the John Day Fossil Beds, to identify historic resources within the bounds of the Monument, and to set them in a local and regional context. To that end, this study describes the important themes of regional and national history relevant to central Oregon. At another level, it explores those themes specific to the development of Grant and Wheeler counties, within which the Monument lies.

Indigenous habitation, conquest and settlement, transportation, livestock ranching, mining, lumbering, recreation and tourism were all a part of the human experience in the place known as "the John Day country."

The study consultants made use of a variety of primary and secondary sources in this effort. These include published and unpublished manuscripts, cultural resource reports, census documents, diaries and journals, historic maps, patent files, General Land Office publications and archival records, oral histories, local histories, historic photographs, and newspaper articles, among others. These documents are annotated in the Bibliography presented at the end of this report.

An overview of extant historic resources across the two-county area was assembled from current Oregon State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) records for sites historic listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and/or in the Oregon Inventory of Historic Places. Analysis of pre-historic archaeological site data was not within the scope of this study, and no discussion of such sites is included in this report. SHPO records for historic properties were supplemented with limited field survey in the communities of Fossil, Service Creek, Richmond, Spray, Kimberly, Mitchell, Dayville, Mt. Vernon, John Day, and Canyon City, and along the connecting highways linking these communities. Tourism literature dating from the 1970s to the present was also inspected in order to determine those resources of lasting significance to present-day residents.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument lies in an area of limited population. This has been its situation throughout the historic period. Until well into the twentieth century, the area was extraordinarily remote and difficult to access. Isolation is the thread that runs through the story of the John Day country. This fact more than any other, accounts for the compressed time frames of human activity in this region — of primitive homesteading concurrent with a maturing urban culture at Portland not 250 miles away, of lone range-land sheep herding overlapping the age of auto tourism, of twelve-horse team freight wagons beside corporate gold dredging operations.

Although the larger area defined as Grant and Wheeler counties attracted early-day ranchers to its grassy valleys and miners to its forested mountains, the lands in closest proximity to the present-day Monument saw limited settlement. By 1875, government grants of tens of thousands of acres of land to The Dalles- Boise Military Wagon Road Company compelled the General Land Office to withdraw much of the area from public entry. The fossil beds locale drew a sparse, hard-working population who lived a rural, subsistence existence. Most engaged in stock raising and concentrated for decades on the production of cattle and sheep. From the 1870s, geologists of note sojourned in the fossil beds on expeditions to collect specimens, but they did not remain. The scientists who collected specimens wrote their reports in other places. No railroads penetrated the borders of Grant or Wheeler counties until 1911. In a very real sense, the area became that point "where the rough road dwindled down to a trail."

It was not until the I 920s that improved roads finally began to open up the region to the modern world. With motorized vehicles, large-scale logging and milling in the area's vast forests of ponderosa pine became viable, and gradually brought a shift in the traditional ranching economy of the two-county area. When the State of Oregon opened two state parks in the vicinity of the fossil beds after World War Two, a new era of tourism ended once and for all — in both symbolic and literal terms — the isolation of the John Day country.

Several important themes of western history have touched this place and merged in the flow of time over this unique landscape. Human beings are inherently interested in human history. Although the mission of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is primarily concerned with educating the public about the fossil record, the human story is compelling. This study seeks to contribute to the larger interpretative potential of the Monument, and offers a series of chapter recommendations for further expanding historic period baseline data, for filling identified research gaps, and for sharing the human history of the Monument with visitors.

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002