John Day

A watercolor illustration of two men at the banks of a river surrounded by hills made of basalt and covered in tan grasses.

Watercolor by Michelle Ordway, NPS

Who was John Day?

One of the more frequently asked questions at the park is: Who is John Day? John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is named after the river that flows through the area. It was Thomas Condon who named this area the John Day Fossil Beds because of the river's role as a landmark and its importance in eroding and exposing fossil bearing rock layers. But how did the river get its name?

John Day came to Oregon in 1812 as part of an overland expedition to the new Pacific Fur Company post in Astoria. The once large party split up into many small groups before reaching the Oregon Territory. While camped where the mouth of the Mah-hah River meets the Columbia, John Day and Ramsay Crooks were robbed of all their belongings, including clothing. Luckily they were rescued by a party of trappers also headed to Astoria.

John Day became well known at the trading post. Whenever others would pass the spot of the incident, they would point out where he had been robbed. By the 1850's, the Mah-hah River had been renamed the John Day River. As far as historians can tell, John Day never found a fossil nor came within 100 miles of the monument that indirectly bears his name.

Last updated: December 29, 2017

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