John Day Fossil Beds
Historic Resources Study
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Despite its isolation, the John Day country possesses a richly textured human history. Although some of the familiar themes of western history — fur trading, exploratory expeditions, missionary activity — appear to have bypassed the rugged canyons and secluded basins of the John Day Fossil Beds, other more universal themes of the arid West did not. People coped under widely differing circumstances with the same pervasive challenges, issues, and joys: searing summers and bone-chilling winter winds; flash floods and dust storms; torturous terrain and lack of water; bitter conflict over land; struggles for water rights and grazing rights; ethnic diversity and ethnic conflict; far-away war and economic fluctuations; community and family.

For a variety of reasons, the John Day basin, specifically Grant and Wheeler counties, have a high potential for extant historic resources not yet identified. From the first rush of gold seekers bent on penetrating the region in search of riches to the present day, is a very short span, even in terms of human history. "History" lingered late in this area, where homesteading continued into the 1910s and 1920s, colliding headlong with the auto age and the construction of improved roads. Logging got a late start and gold mining persisted into the 1940s. The earliest phase of settlement and its attendant economic activities are in some instances still evident on the land. Places which flourished within living memory — some now ghost towns, remnant stretches of wagon road, or abandoned mining sites — still exist.

Lack of modern development explains this to a large degree. For the old reasons of rugged terrain, distance from markets, and a tenuous economic base, intensive growth and development have missed this corner of Oregon. The new has not yet erased the old. Here as elsewhere, limited financial resources often result in historic preservation by default — property owners simply get by for longer, maintaining, but making fewer changes to the physical fabric of ranches and towns. Once abandoned, structures and features survive longer here in the arid climate than they would on the rainy, western side of the Cascades. Lack of development has also allowed the ranching landscape to persist. Range lands, cultivated bottomlands along the rivers and streams, and forested mountains seem to fairly closely reflect the setting that prevailed in the John Day Valley one hundred years ago. In other words, the larger cultural landscape is surprisingly intact.

Despite the high potential for extant historic resources, no systematic survey of private lands has taken place in Grant or Wheeler counties. For site specific information, this study relied upon available SHPO inventory data that are spotty at best, as well as secondary and anecdotal sources. A comprehensive inventory of rural areas in Grant and Wheeler counties is badly needed. Like other SHPO offices around the country today, the Oregon Office of Historic Preservation is short on funding for such intensive survey efforts. Incremental survey/inventory projects may be the answer, focused on single themes.

Since these areas lie outside the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, this report suggests encouraging, sponsoring, and/or partnering with appropriate universities, the Oregon SHPO, the Grant County Historical Society, and/or the Fossil Museum to undertake thematic studies on topics where research gaps appear to exist. Suggested topics, as set forth in previous chapters, include ranching in the John Day Valley, the hot springs resort industry in Grant County, and the physical development of towns and hamlets in the vicinity of the Monument.

A summary of recommendations presented in previous chapters for active involvement of the National Park Service in continued cultural resource investigations is as follows:

  1. Conducting a field survey of ranch in-holdings within the Monument, to provide a stronger comparative basis for the interpretation of the Cant Ranch.

  2. Expanding the oral history program to the Painted Hills and Clarno units.

  3. Updating the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings listing of Camp Watson, through field verification of the fort and cemetery sites.

  4. Ascertaining the locations of the Clarno and Carroll family cemeteries, and any other family plots in the vicinity of Clarno, Painted Hills and Sheep Rock units.

  5. Documenting, field surveying, photographing, and mapping extant remnants of The Dalles-Boise Military Road, in collaboration with BLM and/or the Oregon SHPO.

  6. Assisting the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in documenting and assessing the Hancock Field Station for possible nomination to the National Register in 2001 or later.

  7. Verifying, mapping and photo-recording the campsites of early-day paleontologists within the Monument.

  8. Inventorying any surviving landscape features associated with Painted Hills State Park and Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park.

The brief course of human history in this region pales in comparison to the geologic time scale embedded in the exposed strata of the John Day Fossil Beds. Generations of people have lived their entire lives in the daily company of these magnificent formations. We wonder what inspiration they may have drawn from this landscape. Perhaps small projects such as these that explore the inclination of humans to understand and shape their surroundings, will help us to know the answer to that question.

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002