Further Exploration of Baker County, Oregon

Olds Ferry, near Farewell Bend, was significant feature of Old Oregon Trail after 1865.
1920 photo courtesy Jim Evans

     These thousands of wagons rolling across the land left the imprint of their passing, seen today as swales of wagon ruts in Baker County. The route proceeded from Farewell Bend, on the Snake River, through a low pass toward the Burnt River at present day Huntington. Following the Burnt River through its steep canyon, and occasionally traversing the hills along tributaries, this portion of the journey was considered particularly grueling. Wagons were forced to cross the Burnt River up to seven times in one day. Pioneer diarist John Kerns described the route in 1852: "Only traveled 10 miles yet over the roughest road we have encountered on the journey, being up and down the sidling mountains, into the brush and across the creek every 200 or 300 yards, over stony places enough to hide all despairing sinners."

     Leaving the Burnt River near Durkee, the wagons passed up Alder Creek to the locality known today as Straw Ranch, where they began to trek over the hills toward Virtue Flat. Ruts created by passing wagons are still preserved on public lands near Straw Ranch, and on private land in the hills above. Descending from the hills, the wagon trains crossed Virtue Flat near the old White Swan mine, making a bee-line toward Baker Valley. Some of the best preserved wagon ruts in Baker County are found crossing private land on Virtue Flat. After crossing Virtue Flat, emigrants were treated to a vista of valley and mountains overlooking the Powder River and Baldock Slough, the location of nooning encampments, according to many pioneers diaries. At the slough encampment once stood a Lone Pine tree, cut down by an emigrant in the 1843 wagon train.

     Pioneers descended into the valley near Flagstaff Hill, a location which has been the focus of several preservation and commemorative endeavors. Here are the visible remains of several parallel wagon ruts, diverging and converging in a gentle swale. The exact location of the "Emigrant Road" across the valley was first recorded on 1864 General Land Office survey maps. In 1906, Ezra Meeker (pioneer of 1852) placed a stone marker on the Oregon Trail, which can be seen just north of Highway 86. Also on Highway 86 is a cobble stone obelisk erected by the local Kiwanis Club. In 1976, the Bureau of Land Management constructed and dedicated an interpretative ramada - the Flagstaff Hill Historic Site, and placed concrete obelisks on the trail route.

     Emigrants looked forward to camps with good water, grass and wood. Cecilia Adams wrote in her dairy of 1852: "After going about four miles we found a kind of dry creek, where there was plenty of water standing in pools, but poor stuff. Here we watered our cattle. Drove on about five miles and got badly fooled by the willows growing abundantly here as we supposed it was the Powder River. Stopped on some good feed for our cattle and looked there for water to get our dinner, but found nothing but dirty pools. Grass in many places fresh and abundant. In about a mile's travel came to a small stream a branch of the Powder River and stopped for the night. Found more Oregon cranberries. They say we must hurry if we are to get over the Blue Mountains."

     A glimpse of this native valley vegetation has been relatively protected in the early historic Wingville Cemetery, where a relict community of cut-leaf sagebrush, Idaho fescue, and Sandberg's bluegrass, and stands of Giant wild rye can be found. The Wingville Cemetery site provides probably the last remaining example of the native shrub-steppe vegetation that was once common in the Powder River Valley.

     Traversing the Powder River Valley, the wagon trains made a second crossing of the meandering Baldock Slough near the present day Colton Ranch, where protected wagon ruts are visible from the adjacent highway. Near this slough crossing, a way-station - the Slough House, was erected in later years. The 1864 survey map and early county road maps show two buildings located near the slough crossing in the vicinity of the Colton and Warner ranches; thus both buildings may have been recognized by early settlers at a Slough House. For those enterprising Oregon Trail enthusiasts who wish to view the faint traces of the wagon route across Missouri Flat, a flight by airplane above the Baker Airport provides the best view of a track which has been almost erased by decades of agriculture. On early spring and fall mornings, when the sun is low, the persistent trace of the Oregon Trail is visible from an oblique aerial angle.

     From Baldock Slough the pioneers proceeded north to cross the Powder River near present day North Powder, then on to the Grande Ronde Valley and the Blue Mountain Crossing, where the only preserved wagon ruts through timbered country can be seen on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

     For almost twenty years the emigrants passed through Baker County on the Oregon Trail before any settled. Although they noted the beauty and potential of the lush Powder Valley, none would stay until the discovery of gold near Auburn brought thousands of miners and settlers to the region, thus beginning a second chapter in Baker County history. (Mary Oman, Archaeologist, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Baker, Oregon)

The Beginning of the Perkins Wagon Train

     As told by Hardin Perkins, Woodburn, Oregon, (former resident of Baker County)

     About 1860, or a little before, my grandfather, Joseph D. Perkins sat down with his two older sons and had a serious talk about the Civil War that was about to break out. They lived then in Missouri, almost on the Mason Dixon Line (as it was to be called). Grandfather had come up from Kentucky, bringing his family around 1850.

     He had come over from England with two brothers. Those two stayed up in the New England states and Grandfather edged on down south, where he met and married a real pretty Southern Belle. That was in Kentucky. They lived there for some time and began to have their children. His father-in-law had set them up with some family land and family slaves. From what I understand they were farmers, hut I believe her father had a good sized brewery business producing the real stuff, Kentucky whiskey.

     Now Grandfather, being an Englishman, didn't believe in slavery and I imagine it was pretty hard becoming a real Southerner with all the trappings. So I suppose they decided to move on to Missouri on their own.

     But this day in Miss., he sat the boys down and he said, "Now you boys are going to have to make your choice. There's a war coming up and you've got friends in the South and friends in the North, but you're going to have to make a choice on who you'll be fighting with."

     The boys, like their father, didn't hold with slavery, but they grew up a part of their life in the South, and it was a hard thing for them.

     But evidently they had been thinking for some time, too, and they were real interested in the Oregon Territory, so they didn't take long. They told their Dad, "We're not choosin', we're goin' to Oregon." So they signed on to a wagon train right then, and they made several trips to the territory taking folks out and coming back, and signing on with a new train.

     When they came back in '64 they found their folks almost destitute. The army from the South had moved up and taken all the livestock. Then the wind changed and from the North the soldiers came through and took all the silver and pans and bedding. Then the South came back, and so on. When the boys saw what a pitiful condition things were in they said, "Get what you got left and come with us. We're taking you West with us."

     So they got together some others and they formed up a train. J.D. Perkins was the Lieut., Hardin Z. Perkins was the Wagon Master.




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