Exploration of Baker County, Oregon


     Through the ages, it has been axiomatic that empires explore and expand to the westward.

     Although the history of early exploration of Oregon is commonly known, it is recited here briefly to furnish the background against which Baker County developed and made its contribution to its own people and to the state and nation.

     For centuries, Oregon was a legendary land in the misty west, marked on some maps as "Quivara." Only after the Renaissance did the European nations develop interest in those new lands hidden over the horizon.

     In seeking a way to the Orient, Columbus sparked Spain's interest in 1492, especially with the prospect of wealth. That set the stage for exploration and settlement in Central America and Florida (1519), and discovery of the Pacific (Balboa - 1513). In the following -two centuries, Spain led the exploration of the American west coast in many expeditions, including Cabrillo and Ferrelo for the Northwest passage (1542-43), Agular, Heceta Juan de Fuca (1592) and others.

     Belated, but persistent, England followed with Sir Francis Drake (1579), and several others, including the very active Pacific explorer, Captain James Cook (Circa 1778) and John Meares in 1785.

     Russia explored the North Pacific, notably through Danish explorer, Bering. That effort was the source of Russian claims to ownership of the Northwest and Alaska.
     Captain Gray in 1788 and 1791 laid claim to the Columbia for the United States while British explorers were busy in the same area. Naturally, contention for ownership followed.
     Thus England, Spain, and Russia became contenders for the West Coast, along with the late-comer, the United States, but there was a difference in their interests. Essentially Spain and England were interested in the commercialism of furs for trade in the Orient or for a Northwest Passage which would make the Orient accessible to the European countries. Russia had no interest in the Northwest Passage, but had an eye for trade.

     New England traders were not to be outdone.
     In the New World, the exploring nations found a centuries-old Indian culture based on a working relationship with nature. In that primitive world, the Indians adjusted their life patterns to the immediate environment and had little means of invading other territories, as contrasted with the wide-ranging white nations.

     American vessels from Boston brought metal for tools, cloth, beads, and other products for trade with the Indians for furs; traded the furs to China for spices, tea, silks and other products which were attractive in American or European markets.

     (One of the wonders of West Coast history is why no nation made a serious attempt to colonize and dominate the country.)

     In 1803, while the coast was known but the interior was a mystery, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France while Napoleon was beleaguered with war and turmoil in Europe.

     That enormous transaction established American ownership of land from the Missouri to the Rockies, with indeterminate claims over the western wilderness.
     President Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-06), which ascended the Missouri, crossed the Rockies, descended the Clearwater to the Snake and the Snake to the Columbia. This generated great excitement back home.

     In 181 1, John Jacob Astor established a fur depot at Astoria, but, with worsening British American relations on the eve of the War of 1812, he also dispatched the Wilson Price Hunt expedition overland. (Please see Rod Hunt's report and commentary on that expedition in this volume.)

     In 1812, facing threat of British gunboats as the war spread westward, Astor's representatives sold the Astoria depot to the British Northwest Fur Company, which was a competitor. In sequence, the Northwest merged with the Hudson Bay Far West Company in 1821, and the Hudson Bay Company virtually ruled the area until 1846.

     After 1812, with British dominance on the coast, American interest turned to a continental thrust toward the new country. This, in turn, laid the foundation for travel through the overland route which would confirm Northeast Oregon as the gateway. By the Oregon Trail, pioneers would settle the Willamette Valley and lay permanent claim to the Oregon Country.
     A list of explorers who led the way would include Lewis and Clark; Hunt; Peter Skene Ogden; Jediah Smith, a fur trader who took wagons over the Rockies; Bonneville, 183234 who brought wagons through the south Pass; and Nathaniel Wyeth, who established Fort Hall in 1834.

     Missionaries had their influence after 1831, when Nez Perce Indians, reacting belatedly to the L and C expedition, traveled to St. Lewis to ask for the "White man's Book of Heaven." From that request came Marcus Whitman and Henry H. Spaulding, missions near Walla Walla, Washington, and Lapwai, Idaho; and the first major wagon train over the Oregon Trail.
     U.S. and Britain agreed on boundaries of `the Oregon Territory in 1846. Oregon became a state in 1859 and Baker County was established in October, 1862, as the eighteenth county. Previous counties had been established by the Oregon Territorial Government. (J.R.

The Astorians - The Vanguards of the Oregon Trail

     In the winter of 1811, Wilson Price Hunt, leader of the overland Astorians, traced the route between the Snake and Columbia that was to become a key part of the western section of the Oregon Trail. Using the same route to return to civilization in 1812, a small party of Astorians led by Rob Stuart, discovered South Pass, and, by returning to St. Louis down the Platte, traced the Oregon Trail east of the Rockies.

     On May 15, 1813, The Missiouri Gazette, St. Louis' leading newspaper, ran a front page article soon after the return of the Astorians telling of the expedition and stating: "By information received from these gentlemen it appears that a journey across the continent of North America might be performed by wagon, there being no obstruction in the whole route that any person would dare to call a mountain, in addition to its being much the most direct and shorter one to go from this place to the mouth of the Columbia."

     The Astoria Expedition had discovered the geographic passageway viable for the Oregon Trail and the way was now laid open for migration to the West Coast by wagon train, but, in 1813 and for years afterward, even though fur traders and trappers used the Oregon Trail. there was no effort by Americans to immigrate to the Northwest Territory because the United States had no claim to that area.

     However, without any prior intention to do either, the Astoria Party not only became the vanguard of the Oregon Trail, but, also without design, gave the United States its first formal claim to a piece of Northwest Territory as follows:

     During the War of 1812, the British sent a warship to take Astoria from the Americans. They pulled down the American flag that had flown over the Fort and hoisted the Union Jack.
     After the war, at the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, Great Britain and the United States, in an effort to end hostilities, agreed to return any territory taken by either side from the other by an act of war.

     This, in effect gave the United States its first formal claim to Oregon Territory and paved the way for its latter settlement by Americans going over the Oregon Trail.
     However, if John Jacob Astor had hired a less innovative and adventurous man to lead his overland Astorians, these history-making events, proving so important to the expansion of America to the Pacific, may not have taken place.

     The original plan was for the overland Astorians to follow the Lewis and Clark Trail up the Missouri, with four forty-foot keel boats loaded with equipment and goods, to the headwaters of the Missouri in Montana, and then by pack-train over the mountains to the Columbia.

     Upon reaching the Arikara Indian Village in northern South Dakota the Party had been warned that the Blackfoot were on the rampage against Americans and it would be suicide for them to attempt going to the Pacific by the Lewis and Clark route. The "Blackfoot Wall" had come down and before it would be safe for Americans to once more travel the upper Missouri, pioneers would be going to the Pacific over the Oregon Trail.

     Faced with aborting the expedition and returning to St. Louis or continuing up the Missouri against the advice of men who had barely escaped Blackfoot scalping knives, Hunt decided to cut loose from the Missouri and use horses to transport his goods and men to the "waters of the Columbia."

     This was a startling reversal of all former judgments on the necessities of far western travel, a defiant acceptance of the risks presented not only by the geographical unknown, but by the technical unknown.

      It was said that as Manuel Lisa, field marshal for the Missouri Fur Company, experienced Indian fighter and traveler in the western wilderness, watched Hunt's Party with horses laden with goods fade into the western landscape on July 18, 1811, he exclaimed that it would be the last the world would ever see of Hunt or his followers.

     (Perhaps that prophecy came close to fulfillment when Hunt's expedition attempted to descend the Snake River from present-day Farewell Bend in an attempt to float to the Columbia. They discovered the terrors of Hell's Canyon, lost at least one man, and retreated up the Snake to Burnt River. They ascended Burnt River, northwestward, on what would later be known as the roughest stretch of the Oregon Trail and this in winter! J.R.E.)
     On the 28th of December, 1811, Hunt led the first white men into Baker Valley, making contact with the Powder River at, or very near, the present city of Baker, Oregon.

     Following the Powder north until the river turned northeast, he left the stream and continued north.

     Three miles north of the present town of North Powder, a courageous Indian woman with Hunt's party, named Marie Dorion, who would one day become famous in Northwest history, gave birth to a child.

     Within hours after her child was born, Madam Dorion was back astride her horse with her new baby in her arms her two-year old son in a sling by her side and her four-year old riding astride behind her. The father of the child, Pierre Dorion, was half white, so this was the first child with white blood to be born in the Powder River Valley of Oregon.

     (Madam Dorion's name is perpetuated in "Dorion Hall," a lady's dormitory at Eastern Oregon State College; and Hunt's name is perpetuated in "Hunt Mountain," a peak in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Haines. J.R.E.)

     Before Hunt's return to the East Coast of the United States, he would sail to the Russian Settlements of Alaska; to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea; to Kamchatka Peninsula of northeastern Siberia; be imprisoned by the Spanish in California; then sail to the Hawaiian Islands and warn King Kamehameha of Count Baranov's plan to put Hawaii under the Russian flag, thereby being instrumental in preventing Russia from taking over the Islands. He would then sail to Canton, China, to trade Hawaiian sandalwood and furs for Chinese luxury goods, a cargo that John J. Astor would sell at a tremendous profit in New York.
     After leaving Canton, his ship would be attacked by Malay pirates while sailing through the Straits of Malacca and, after an exchange of gunfire over several miles, finally escape.
     Returning to New York City around the Horn of Africa, Hunt would circle the globe before arriving at a New York dock on October 16, 1816. Wilson Price Hunt's story would make the front pages of New York City newspapers soon after his return.

     What a fabulous adventure for a young man who was born on March 20, 1783, near Hopewell, New Jersey, in a manor house built by his grandfather and namesake, Wilson Hunt. (A house that is still standing and occupied to this day.)

     John Price Hunt, Wilson's father, was a wealthy farmer and had been a Captain in the Revolutionary War. It might also be interesting to the reader to know that Wilson Price Hunt's cousin, John W. Hunt, was the grandfather of General John Hunt Morgan, the Confederate hero during the Civil War.

     The writer of this piece shares a direct decadency with Wilson Price Hunt from John Hunt who came to America from England in 1708 and settled early on a farm near the Delaware River in New Jersey. (By Rod Hunt descendant of the Hunt Family)

The Oregon National Historic Trail In Baker County

     From Farewell Bend at the Snake River crossing, to the Powder River valley, wagon wheels turned thousands of revolutions over the emigrant road in Baker County. Sixty thousand travelers between 1843 and 1860 awoke in the morning and began a daily trek ,which would leave a lasting impression on the cultural arid natural landscape of Oregon. Averaging 10 to 16 miles per day, the emigrants regarded the eastern Oregon terrain with mixed feelings, ranging from trepidation and frustration, to relief that they should be so near the Blue Mountains - one landmark near the journey's end.

      The Oregon Trail, its traces and many alternate tracks, is like a thread that ties the packages of culture, history and place together for the American west. In eastern Oregon, many traces of wagon ruts are visible on public and private land, offering a glimpse into the past.

     In 1978, Congress amended the National Trails Act to include the Oregon Trail as a National Historic Trail, designating important cross-country segments and sites on public land, where the pioneer wagon trains traveled and camped on their journey across the western states to Oregon. In Baker County, the old Emigrant Road can still be seen as wagon ruts crossing the dry hills and valleys between Farewell Bend on the Snake River toward the crossing of the Powder River near the town of North Powder in Union County.

     The route followed by emigrants through eastern Oregon was probably much the same trail as used by the Indians, fur traders, explorers and first missionaries in their travels through this country. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Henry and Eliza Spaulding, accompanied Hudson Bay Company traders in their 1836 journey to Oregon, traveled through Baker County along the route which was to become the Emigrant Road. Narcissa Whitman recorded her impressions of the . Powder River valley in 1836, telling us that Mr. McLeodwent hunting and returned with 22 ducks, some of which were prepared for her evening meal.

     During the next few years small groups of emigrants and missionaries began to travel the trail to Oregon. Like the Whitmans, most of these emigrants had left their wagons at Fort Boise and traveled by horseback since the route was not considered passable for wheeled vehicles. The first couple with young children traveled the trail in 1840, proving that the journey could successfully be made by families, thus opening the west to overland settlers.

     In 1840, another new achievement in travel opened the route to the vast immigrations soon to follow. In this year a small band of fur trappers, with their Indian wives and children, appropriated three wagons abandoned at Fort Boise, and succeeded in bringing the wagons over a trail through the Blue Mountains to the Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu. Joe Meek was one member of this group, traveling with his Nez Perce wife and young daughter, Helen Mar Meek. Marcus Whitman took note of this achievement, becoming convinced that a route for wagons was feasible. Thus, in 1843, Marcus Whitman (who had returned to the States the previous year) was prepared to lead the first large wagon train of 1000 settlers over the trail past Fort Boise, into Oregon. Through the rugged Burnt River Canyon, over the hills and through Baker Valley, Whitman brought the overlanders and their wagons as far as the Grande Ronde Valley. But it was a Cayuse Indian leader, known as Sticcus, who guided the first wagons blazing a trail on the difficult crossing of the timbered Blue Mountains to the Walla Walla River valley.

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