John Day Fossil Beds
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Chapter Five:

For Euro-Americans, the upper John Day watershed remained an inaccessible pocket of north-central Oregon through the decade of the 1850s. Its rough terrain and unnavigable stream left it off the beaten track of early explorers, missionaries, and military men. Visitation by non-natives was almost non-existent until the early 1860s when gold was discovered in the vicinity of Canyon Creek on the upper John Day, at the present site of Canyon City. What first took shape as a well-traveled supply route from The Dalles to the mines at Canyon City was formalized as The Dalles-Boise Military Road by the late 1860s. For roughly fifty years, this wagon road provided primary access into the upper John Day country. Although nearby railroad stub lines did shorten the region's connections to markets after the turn of the nineteenth century, no major lines ever penetrated the upper basin. Easy access to the area now surrounding John Day Fossil Beds National Monument did not become a reality until the advent of the automobile, and the construction of state-supported roads and bridges in the 1910s and 1920s.

Oregon Trail Crossing

In the 1840s and 1850s, Willamette Valley-bound emigrants on the Oregon Trail encountered the John Day River in their route across the Columbia Plateau, between the Blue Mountains and the eastern entrance of the Columbia Gorge. Because of the dangers of travel in canoes and bateaux on the Columbia and the rugged basalt flows along its shores, the emigrants dropped south to follow a sandy, almost desolate trace through bunchgrass and sagebrush. Their route lay some seventeen miles south of the Columbia and brought thousands to a well-traveled ford on the John Day River, later known as McDonald's Ford/Ferry. The crossing provided little challenge. At mile 1,770 west of independence, Missouri, the emigrants were experienced in crossing streams. The John Day was relatively shallow but rocky, especially in August and September when the majority arrived at the ford. Some took advantage of the region to send their worn and hungry livestock to graze on the bunchgrass of the Plateau. This type of grass was far more abundant in the 1840s and 1850s than in subsequent decades when cattle raising and tilling dramatically diminished its presence and gave rise to a spread of sagebrush. Emigrant comments about crossing the John Day River are numerous but often terse:

  • Jacob Hammer, 1844

    [October] 17th We traveled ten miles and camped on John Day's river (Hammer 1990: 165).

  • Edward Evans Parrish, 1844

    Tuesday, Nov. 12. Came to a long, steep hill, doubled teams, got up and drove on two and a half miles to John Day's River and camped (Parrish 1888: 118).

  • Joel Palmer, 1845

    September 26. This day we traveled three miles. The road ascends the bluff; is very difficult in ascent from the steepness, requiring twice the force to impel the wagons usually employed; after affecting the ascent, the sinuosity of the road led us among the rocks to the bluff on John Day's river; here we had another obstacle to surmount, that of going down a hill very precipitous in its descent, but we accomplished this without loss or injury to our teams. This stream comes tumbling through kanyons and rolling over rocks at a violent rate (Palmer 1847: 60).

  • Loren B. Hastings, 1847

    October 16. Saturday. This day moved down to creek to John Days river (saw some Indians here). We crossed the river, found 26 wagons, camped; we passed and ascended a rocky ravine; we found three wagons that had been robbed by the Indians and 12 head of oxen driven off. Tears stood in the eyes of the women and children and the men were down in the mouth (Hastings 1926: 23).

  • Elizabeth Dixon Smith, 1847

    Oct 21 made 12 miles camped on John Days river scarce feed willows to burn here we put a guard for fear of indians which we have not done for 3 months before (Smith 1983: 138-139).

  • Riley Root, 1848

    [August] 28th 7 miles to crossing of John Day's river. Way down Beaver fork, very rocky, and road crosses it 4 times.

    [August] 29th Down John Day's river, half a mile. Then ascended the bluff, about one mile, up a narrow, winding, rocky ravine, the worst we have travel[e]d. On the top of this bluff, the road divides, one leading to the Columbia river. The other, to the left, is the one we took (Root 1955: 29-30).

  • William Wright Anderson, 1848

    August the 28th we traveled 8 miles we pursued a verry narrow rough and rocky canyon for 7 miles where it empties into John days river we crossed this river and traveled one mile down it and camped here the road turns to the left and goes up a steep hill in a narrow canyon at the mouth of this canyon we were camped (Anderson 1848: 42-43).

  • Honore-Timothee Lempfrit, 1848

    19th September. As we were unable to find water anywhere we made preparations for travelling throughout the night. During the day I was able to help a poor woman who thought she was going to die. I delivered her baby. We left later on, about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and traveled all night without the slightest mishap.

    About midnight we went through a little valley where the cold was intense. At 5 o'clock in the morning we reached a creek. We took advantage of this by getting our horses to drink a little water but as there was no fodder we carried on for another seven miles and camped on the banks of the John Day River (Lempfrit 1984:144-145).

  • Harriet Talcott Buckingham, 1851

    [August 13] Traveled 12 miles over verry hilly road, ascended a mountain which we had to double team, and could hardly get up at that, Camp to night on John Days river a pleasant stream, upon the mountain just before we crossed the river we saw Mt. Hood towering high above the Cascades, A beautiful snow capt Mt (Buckingham 1984: 93-94).

  • John S. Zieber, 1851

    Tuesday, September 30 — We made an early start and had not proceeded over 1 1/2 miles when we passed those who had yesterday gone ahead. In 8 1/2 miles we came to a spring, affording water for cooking but not enough to water many cattle, and we were obliged to drive on to John Day River before we could get water for the afternoon. Camped after crossing the river. The valley of the river is narrow and without timber. A few small willows afforded scanty supply of fuel and we shall have to travel 36 miles before we get to wood. Fish appear to be plenty in the river (Zieber 1921: 332).

  • Esther Belle (McMillan) Hanna, 1852

    September 1st, Wednesday: Travelled about 12 or 14 miles today until noon over a good road, which brought us to John Day River. We had a very steep hill to descend in coming to it. We had all rejoiced to see water once more as our poor beasts had had none since yesterday noon. We have encamped on the river bottom, which is large and very level (Allen 1946:100).

  • E. W. Conyers, 1852

    September 9. We ascended a very long hill about two miles to the table lands, and traveled on three miles further and descended a very steep hill. Here we forded John Day River and traveled down the river one-half mile and camped. There has been good grass in this valley, but the ground is now barren, the grass having been eaten off. We drove our cattle to the table lands back of our camp, where we found bunch grass. Wood tonight is very scarce . . . " (Conyers 1906: 498).

These diary entries confirm that the early overland emigrants gave the John Day River little attention. Their goal upon reaching it was to find water for cooking and for their thirsty livestock. They forded it, camped on its banks, and took their livestock to graze on the bunchgrass on the tablelands above. None turned up the river to explore its course. The John Day was just one more stream to cross during a long journey to a destination west of the Cascade Mountains.

sketch of Oregon Trail
Fig. 22. Descent of western flank of the Blue Mountains, Oregon Trail, 1849 (Cross 1850) (OrHi 35, 575).

The established crossing would change in time, reflecting a growing pattern of settlement east of the Cascades. In 1858, newcomer Tom Scott put in a ferry about a half-mile north of the emigrant ford. In October, 1864, Elizabeth Lee Porter forded the shallow stream and wrote: "Came over a nice road to Mud Springs. A nice day. A ranch house here just put up. 30 miles to The Dalles (Porter 1990: 32). In 1866 Dan Leonard is said to have built a bridge at the site. Leonard's Bridge reportedly collapsed in 1896 with a rancher from Condon and his heavily loaded wagon teams on it. Around 1904, W.G. "Billy" McDonald and his wife Mattie began operation of a ferry service at the crossing. It remained operational until 1922 when the Columbia River Highway opened (Gilliam County Historical Society, n.d.).

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002