First Settlement in Grande Ronde Valley, Union County, Oregon

    As community, the region now comprising the city of La Grande did not come into existence until the year 1863. But settlers had established themselves in the Grande Ronde Valley in the preceding year and the settlement of the Grande Ronde may properly be said to date from 1361.

     In view of the fact that every traveler who left a record of passing through the Grande Ronde Valley prior to the period of settlement was impressed with its beauty and potential economic value, it appears strange that some of the emigrants, particularly those of the emigration of 1843, did not stay in the valley. After their long and arduous journey from the east, it would seem that this place offered them all they were seeking as a new home. Many reasons have been offered for this. Perhaps it was that they had determined on the Willamette Valley as their goal and would not be deterred from achieving it. It may have been that the Grande Ronde was too far from a base of supplies, or it may have been fear of Indian savagery.

     It is certain that at least one tribe was interested in having the white people settle here General J. H. Stevens stated that when he passed through the valley in 1853 his party met the chief of the Nee PercÚ tribe. Lawyer This chief offered 500 ponies to one member of Stevens party if he would remain in the valley, build a mill and break the Cayuse horses belonging to the Indians to work in harness. The majority of the Stevens party not trusting the Indians were opposed, however, to accepting this offer. It is probably well that they refused since whoever stayed probably would have been massacred during the Indian Wars which came a few years later.

     On 5 September 1561 a family of emigrants from Iowa by the name of Leasey came into the valley, and finding it a paradise of grass upon which they might rest and fatten their jaded teams decided to stay for a couple of weeks. Their campsite was near the river and probably was about where La Grande is situated at the present time. Here the family came into contact with Indians from across the Blue Mountains who were coming to harvest the camas rout which grew in great abundance on the watery flats of the valley. The Indians were very friendly to the Leasey family, and the squaws took a great interest in the white children, bringing to them each night bundles of the camas which had been harvested during the day.

     At the conclusion of their period of recuperation the Leasey's departed from the Grande Ronde Valley and began the journey onward toward the Willamette Valley. While struggling up the hill on the old emigrant road they met three travelers bound for the Grande Ronde and this chance meeting radically changed the plans of the Leasey family The three men. Daniel Chaplin, Green Arnold, and Charles Fox had with them supplies obtained at the government past at Umatilla and they had crossed the Blue Mountains in the expectation of meeting emigrant parties from the east to whom they hoped to sell their wares. They urged Mr. Leasey to turn around and return with them to the valley where they planned to establish a permanent settlement. As an inducement to him to do this they promised that they would provide him sufficient supplies to carry him through the coming winter. The distance to the Willamette region being yet comparatively great, the season far advanced, and his horses despite the rest in the Grande Ronde, still tired and worn, it required but little persuasion to convince Mr. Leasey that he should accept their proposition.

     It was also at about this time that the man generally credited with being the first permanent settler in La Grande appeared in the valley. This individual Benjamin Brown. a native of England came into the valley from the Umatilla region in search of a location in which he could settle and establish a home. Mr. Brown had first settled in Michigan after his arrival in the United Slates in 1857 succumbing to the gold fever then sweeping the east, he left Michigan in 1858 and came to California by way of the Isthmus of Panama being unsuccessful in his search for wealth in the Bear Flag Slate. He moved to British Columbia and for a time mined in the Fraser River country. Here he had no more luck than in California.

     Mr. Brown returned to Michigan for his family in 1860 and started for the west once more, this time across the plains, arriving at Umatilla in September of that year. That fall Mr. Brown engaged in freighting from The Dalles to Walla Walla and the Umatilla Agency, while Mrs. Brown was employed in cooking for the officers of the agency.

     The Umatilla Agency had been created in 1860 and was commanded by G. W. Abbott a loyal member of the Democratic Party. When news of the election of Abraham Lincoln and the victory of the Republican Party was received at Umatilla, Mr. Abbott and all of his staff of employes resigned. It was then that Mr. Brown determined to leave the Umatilla country and try to find a new home in the valley to the east. However, before bringing his family over the mountains, he made an exploratory journey to the Grande Ronde in the company of William McCauley, Jake Reeth, William Marks and Job Fisher. This was for the purpose of selecting a satisfactory location for their claims. They were seeking a spot in the Grande Ronde close to an ample supply of water, sufficiently near to timber to permit easy construction of homes and one naturally situated to offer protection against marauding Indians.

     After a cursory examination of the west side of the valley, they selected a spot in the bend of the small stream which comes from the mountainside as one travels down the hill on the market road from the south into the Mount Glenn district. The area was about 200 yards to the west of the present road. It is now marked by an appropriate tablet on the roadside.

     Upon the return of the party to Umatilla with the report that a satisfactory location had been found upon which in build a settlement, a group of 20 individuals, including the Leasey family, who had earlier remained in Grande Ronde, came to build homes at the selected spot and founded the first permanent establishment in the Grande Ronde Valley These individuals were Benjamin and Frances Brown and their daughters Ada and Esther: Henry W and Emily Leasey, and their children Caroline, Will, John, Columbus, Joseph and James, and Richard Marks, William Marks, William Chaffin, Job Fisher, S. M. Black, F. C. Crane, R. Alexander and William McCauley. Mount Emily, the great mountain which dominates the northern end of the Grande Ronde Valley was named in honor of Emily Leasey.

     Five log houses, constituted the colony at Mount Glenn that first winter of settlement. 1861-1862. The cabin farthest east and south was occupied by Ben Brown and his family: the house text westward by William McCauley and E. C. Crane. Still farther westward was the 'home of three other single men. Richard and William Marks and Job Fisher: northward from this was the cabin occupied by the Leasey family and eastward from this last was that occupied by Black, Chaffin and Alexander.

     Although it would seem that life in such a frontier establishment would be hard and, devoid of pleasure Mr. William Leasey in later years was to recount that there were no sufferings or even hardships during the first winter. Of inconveniences, of course, there were many. But the pioneer spirit was evident in their determination to make the situation as comfortable as possible. The Marks brothers had brought a whipsaw with them, and with this tool they provided enough boards to make doors for all the cabins. An outdoor baking oven was constructed within the camp enclosure and a great deal of baking was done, especially by the bachelor members, on a community plan.

     A fair supply of fresh meat was available for the colony. Job Fisher had started in the fall of 1861 to take a band of cattle from the Willamette Valley to the mines at Oro Finn in Idaho. There was such a heavy fall of snow in the mountains of northern Idaho, however, that he was unable to get the stock to his intended destination and he brought the cattle into Grande Ronde There he turned them loose to winter in the tall rye grass growing in the "island" formed by two branches of the river. This was the vicinity of what later became Island City. The presence of these cattle forestalled any shortage of fresh beef during the winter.

     Despite their seclusion in the lonely western valley far from the ordinary conveniences and comforts generally in this day considered necessary to a nappy existence, these early settles engaged in the simpler pleasure and did not look upon their lot as being particularly hard. To pass the winter evenings debating was a popular pastime. Mr. Brown recounts in his diary that on 2 December a debate was held on the subject of whether the whites or the Indians made better use of the land. After the arguments were completed dancing was enjoyed. On the 7th of that same month the question of which caused the most misery. War or Intemperance, was argued with those who believed that intemperate use of liquor was the greater evil being the winners in this debate. Mr. Crane- evidently a staunch defender of the cup that cheers argued his point that war was the greater curse for a full hour and a half.

     In an effort to bring more pleasure to the primitive life of the settlers, Dick Marks made two violins during the first winter. The tops and backs were made of pine and the side walls of the instruments were fashioned from alder wood. Strings were fabricated out of sinews of beef, the bows were made of Indian arrow wood and the hair for the bows was procured from horses' tails. Glue to put the instruments together was manufactured from beef hoofs. Although undoubtedly not of the finest tone, it is probable that the music from these homemade instruments sounded as sweet to the ears of the lonely little group as any they had ever heard.

     The first Christmas in Grande Ronde was a time of great happiness. On Christmas Eve the pioneer party, augmented by several men who were passing the Christmas season in Grande Ronde away from the Powder River mines, engaged in dancing and singing, finishing off the night with what Mr. Brown described as an "Indian war dance." On Christmas day 30 people in all gathered for a dinner of duck fried chicken. After the feasting, dancing was once again the entertainment for the evening, the "hall lasting until 3 o'clock in the morning. There being but three ladies in the settlement, one can well imagine that their feet must have been tired when the final set was called.

     The group of men which the Leasey family had met at the time they were leaving Grande Ronde came into the valley and one of them Daniel Chaplin, staked out a claim to 160 acres of the land where La Grande is now located. Mr. Coffin, evidently the first promoter to appear the region, set about to organize a joint stock company among the settlers for the purpose of building a sawmill. Being without money those who subscribed to the enterprise did so with the understanding that their stock would be paid for by their labor.

     The joint-stock mill was never constructed although Coffin later built a mill on his own account in the Oro Dell region Mr. Coffin and his companions did not winter in the Grande Ronde but left some time in October 1861, promising to return the following spring with the necessary machinery to put a sawmill in operation.

One factor which made that first winter in the Grande Ronde region more agreeable than it otherwise might have been was the discovery of rich gold deposits in the Auburn area in what is new Baker County. When news of these rich diggings became widespread there naturally was a gravitation of gold seekers from the Willamette Valley into the eastern Oregon country. Many of them came back to Grande Ronde when the snow got too deep in the high mountains for mining activities. The presence of large numbers of whites afforded the settlers in the valley protection from any Indian depredations that the savages might have planned. It had been the intention of the Mount Glenn group to construct a log stockade around the colony, but on this account it was not deemed necessary. However the name "Brown's Fort" was generally applied to the settlement.

     The location at Mount Glenn was somewhat off the path generally taken by travelers passing through the valley and during that first winter Mr. Brown, Mr. Black and Mr. Chaffin determined to stake out clams in that region which was on the main route of travel. They settled upon the land which the Coffin party had staked out and built a cabin. None of the Coffin group ever returned to the valley to reclaim their land except Mr. Chaplin.
     Mr. Brown immediately set himself to the task of erecting a house on his claim. It was to be the first individual home ever built in what is now the city of La Grande it was a solid structure built of double logs and lumber, the latter costing Mr. Brown according to his diary 12Ż cents a foot. Thus it was that Mrs. Frances Brown in addition to the distinction of being one of the first two women to settle in the valley was the First to have her own home is what is now La Grande. The Ben Brown home was located on the site of the L. H. Russell home on C Street in South La Grande, or as it is more popularly known, "Old Town."

     There being no regularly constituted officials to conduct any legal businesses which might arise the early settlers in the Grande Ronde Valley were forced to adopt practices which were perhaps not absolutely within the letter of the law. Nevertheless they were acceptable to the majority and carried with them authority as great as that which might have been the case were the more regular agencies established. This is evident in the first case of divorce on record in what is now Union County. Ben Brown established the "Supreme Court of Grande Ronde" on 22 November 1861, be being the judge on the bench and other members of the community constituting the prosecuting attorney, attorney for the plaintiff, and clerk. On the 23rd of November "Judge" Brown handed down his decision directing that the defendant go back to his wife and attempt to regain domestic happiness. This the defendant tried, but without success and later on both parties to this first suit at law in Union County married others.

     Neither was the absence of legal authority sufficient to deter the progress of love and romance in the little community. At Mount Glenn on the 8th day of January 1862, William Marks was wed to Frances Caroline Leasey, with Mr. S. M. Black being the official in charge of the ceremony. Black had previously been a justice of the peace and was familiar with the old territorial statute which covered exigencies of this nature. According to that statute, in the absence of anyone duty empowered to perform, marriage ceremonies, a marriage could he legally made if both parties would ratify a written agreement to become husband and wife. In the Marks-Leasey marriage this was properly attended to as a part of the wedding ceremony. Such an event of course called for a real celebration and Mr. Brown in his diary remarks "that we had quite a time dancing" and that "some of the boys got a little tight".

     S. M. Black was later county clerk of Union County for a short time. His wife had drowned in the Umatilla River when they were en route to Grande Ronde, leaving four children all of whom grew up in the little settlement of La Grande. At this writing. Mr. John Adams of this city, a grandson, is the only descendant of Mr. Black living in this area.

Contributed by: Jim Reavis

Union County

´╗┐
Latest Content

Oregon Obituary Database

We changed our name, and have expanded!

Contains obituaries for Baker, Crook, Grant, Hood River, Lane, Linn, Malheur, Umatilla, Union, and Wallowa Counties.

´╗┐ Untitled 1
Suggestions
Report broken link


Oregon Host


Member Site


Member Site


Contribute to Oregon Genealogy
If you have information you would like contribute to the website, please use our comment form!! If you find a broken link please let us know!