The upper John Day country was remote, and familiar to the Western Columbia Sahaptins and Northern Paiute alone until well into the nineteenth century. The lands that later would become John Day Fossil Beds National Monument lay distant from the routes of major exploration in the Pacific Northwest. From the 1810s through the 1850s, a parade of explorers came to the region and, while some passed the river's mouth, few ventured up its course. The region remained largely undocumented and unknown to a larger world.
The earliest Euro-Americans to explore the Columbia River east of the Cascade Mountains were Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery. Dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was charged with finding an easy portage through the mountains of the far west, extending the commerce of the nation, and mapping the unknown lands of North America. In October of 1805, the expedition passed the mouth of the John Day River en route to the Pacific Ocean. The explorers named the stream Lepages River in honor of Jean Baptiste Lepage, a workman in the party (Moulton 1983-: 319). None of the members of the expedition ascended the river.
John Day Origin of the Place Name
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, both the United States and Britain turned to the interior of the Pacific Northwest in hopes of building and dominating vast fur-trading empires. Two rival enterprises, the North West Company of Montreal and the American-owned Pacific Fur Company, had both entered the region by 1812. From as early as 1789, the North West Company led by skilled explorers Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and David Thompson gradually expanded its fur-trading network westward through what is now British Columbia. In 1810, John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company dispatched an overland party led by Wilson Price Hunt to establish a base of operations at the mouth of the Columbia River.
One member of Astor's overland expedition was John Day (1771-1819/20), a backwoods Virginian and experienced hunter, trader, and miner. Day was said to have been tall, handsome, and physically robust, but was no longer youthful when he joined the expedition. On the banks of the Snake River in Idaho, Day fell ill, and was left behind with his associate Ramsay Crooks. The following spring, the two men reached the mouth of the river, which subsequently bore his name. Near this stream, the men were robbed by Indians and stripped of their clothing. Day and Crooks were soon rescued by the Robert Stuart party of Astorians, and taken on to the newly established post at Astoria, arriving in May of 1912. Day later reportedly suffered either a mental breakdown or disability from extreme depression, but remained in the region in the fur trade even after the sale of the Pacific Fur Company in 1813. He died in 1819/20 in the Snake River watershed (Elliott 1916: 373-374; McArthur 1974: 392-393).
With scant historic documentation to explain it, trapper John Day became legend in the region. His name was forever imprinted on the land through the John Day River and its basin, the community of John Day, and John Day Dam on the Columbia.
Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002