Northeastern Oregon History, Union County
The history of eastern Oregon might properly be said to begin with the grandiose plans of John Jacob Astor to further his fur business by establishing a fur collection depot at the mouth of the Columbia River and preparation factories for raw furs at New York, New Orleans, and St. Louis. With the aid of Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York, he had secured from the legislature of New York on 6 April 1808, a charter creating the American Fur Company with a capital stock of one million dollars. President Jefferson, ever alert to any matter involving America activity in the Far West, gave strong approval to the Astor plans, as he saw in them another opportunity to strengthen the claims of the United States to the Oregon Country, as opposed to those of Great Britain.
Astor's next move in the direction of his goal was to form the Pacific Fur Company. This enterprise chartered in New York on 23 June, 1810, was specifically created to handle the affairs of the Astor group in the Oregon Country. The list of Astor's associates in the enterprise contains the names of many who later became well known figures in the history of Oregon. The names of Alexander McKay, Donald McKenizie, Wilson Price Hunt, David Stuart, Robert Stuart and Duncan McDougal are all well known to students of the history of the state and their influence is still felt within its confines.
Following the organization of the Pacific Fur Company, Mr. Astor determined to establish without delay a post at the mouth of the Columbia River which would serve as a central collection agency for the furs to be obtained by his agents in the vast interior extending to the Rocky Mountains. Haste was necessary, as the agents of the Hudson's Bay Company were rapidly gaining a foothold in the great Pacific Northwest and any delay would only make their influence stronger among the Indians from whom the furs would be obtained.
To establish the post at the mouth of the great River of the West, Astor determined to send two expeditions, one by land and one by sea. The ocean expedition sailed from New York on the ill-fated "Tonquin" on 8 September 1810 with McKay, McDougal and Robert Stuart as leaders. They arrived off the mouth of the Columbia on 22 March 18l, after a harrowing voyage by the way of Cape Horn and Sandwich Islands.
The Astor overland expedition was under the leadership of Wilson Price Hunt, and left St. Joseph, Missouri, on 20 April 1811. The group ascended the Missouri River, to a point near the present North and South Dakota border, turned westward through Wyoming, and followed in this direction until they reached Snake River. From this point on, the course they followed was near to the route of the Oregon Trail of later date.
The Hunt Expedition was beset with all manner of difficulty and misfortune almost from the very start, but probably the most disastrous in the train of events was their attempt to reach the Columbia by going down the Snake River between the present northeastern Oregon and northern Idaho by way of "Hells Canyon." Finding this impossible of passage Hunt reversed his steps returning to some point near the present site of Fairwell Bend, near Huntington, Oregon. From this spot the party which at the time comprised 32 white men, three Indians and the Indian Squaw and two children of Pierre Dorion, departed on 24 December 1811.
One can scarcely imagine the bedraggled appearance of the group as they came into Oregon. The pack horses, five in number were in a very weekend condition and "cowhipped" from lack of forage. They were kept by Hunt only because it might be necessary as a last resort to use them for food. The Party traveled about fourteen miles daily, rested often and long, and had food sufficient for only one meager meal each day.
Up the Burnt River and across the flat of what is now Baker Valley the party moved slowly and painfully in the cold of the winter. On 30 December, Madam Dorion gave birth to a child somewhere near what is now North Powder. All the men in the party were much concerned for her well being, she having undergone so many hardships without complaining or asking special consideration. But her husband treated this matter lightly and told the rest of the men to go on, that he and his family would rejoin them later. The main group left them behind and late in the afternoon of the same day they looked down from a mountain height on the Grande Ronde Valley. They were probably near the summit of Ladd Canyon. After the horrors which they had recently experienced it is not surprising that they 'gazed with delight upon the serene sunny landscape' which lay before them.
The sight of the green and verdant valley was pleasant beyond description to these travelers, but their cup of joy was filled to overflowing when they spied six lodges of friendly Shoshone Indians encamped along the river which meandered through the area. Hastening onto the plain below, they soon arrived among the Indians and immediately began to trade for provisions. For a rifle and old musket, a tin kettle and a small amount of ammunition, they secured from the Indians four horses, three dogs and some edible roots, probably camas. Without delay they killed some of the livestock and prepared a meal, the first real food sufficient quantity to assuage their hunger that they had had for over a month.
The following morning, 31 December 1811 the Dorion family rejoined the party. Madame Dorion riding on Pierre Dorion's skeleton steed with her newborn infant in her arms and the tow year old youngster slung in a blanket at her side.
New Year's Day 1812 dawned bright and sunny and Hunt was anxious to resume his march to the west across the forbidding Blue Mountains. He knew that once those heights were scaled and the region of the Columbia attained the worst of their journey would be done. However, the Canadian voyagers in his party were loath to pass by any holiday which was an occasion for feasting and prevailed upon their leader to delay departure for another day. Thus that New Year was greeted in the Grande Ronde Valley with the Hunt group grateful that they were among friends. The high point of the day was a banquet of dog meat and horse flesh.
On 2 January the party proceeded once more on its way, following a trial pointed out by the Indians. The sunny open valley was soon left behind and for the next four days they struggled across the Blue Mountains, through dark forests and deep canyons, often battling their way through hip-deep drifts and pockets of snow. On 6 January they reached the summit and viewed at a great distance the west, a region completely free from snow. It was to them their Promised land, as they knew that it marked the course of the Columbia. But as a tragic note it was on this day that the baby born a few days previously to the Dorian family died. Somewhere near the present site of the town of Meacham the little body was placed in an unmarked grave which has never been located.
From this point on the Hunt party traveled to Astoria without particular incident and arrived at the Fort on 15 February.
The next group of white men to enter Grande Ronde Valley came a scant six months after the Hunt party, and like them they were journeying on business for the Aster enterprises. But this group, smaller in number, was bound in the opposite direction, carrying dispatches relative to the progress of the Astoria post to Mr. Astor in New York. The party was made up of Robert Stuart, the leader, and six men who were veterans of the limit westward expedition.
Leaving Astoria on 29 June 1812, they approached the Grande Ronde Valley by way of McCoy Creek and Starkey and camped on 4 August, at the point, where Five Points Creek joins Grande Ronde River near Hilgard. On the next day they came down to the valley, which they called the "Big Flat" and spent two days in resting and repairing their equipment, camping along the river in what is now the city of La Grande. This group departed from Grande Ronde by way of Pyle's Canyon on 7 August and proceeded eastward generally following the route which was later to be the Oregon Trail, the great path by which so many emigrants found their way to the Pacific Northwest. They arrived at St. Louis on 30 April, 1813, and Mr. Stuart went on to New York, arriving there 23 June 1813.
Reference should properly be made also to two other explorers who visited in the region now comprising Union County before the days of permanent settlement. The first of these was Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville who led an expedition into the Oregon country in the years 1832-35. Bonneville had requested leave of absence from the army for the purpose of exploring the country to the Rocky Mountains and beyond, and the expedition of 121 men which he fitted out for this left Fort Osage for the Far West on 30 April 1832.
Just what Bonneville had in mind in leading this group on the long trek has never been satisfactorily explained. Perhaps he sought to explore for its own sake; perhaps it was for the sake of the army. More probably he had some plan to establish himself in the West in some capacity in the lucrative fur trade His wanderings give no direct clue to his purpose.
By late summer of I832, the Bonneville party had penetrated to the eastern border of the Oregon country, and in 1833 explorations were carried on in the upper reaches of the Snake River. Early in 1834 the Bonneville group spent some lime m the Grande Ronde and Wallowa valleys. Unfortunately, the route followed by Bonneville in this region cannot he determined exactly as the Bonneville record of the expedition has been destroyed, and only the account rendered by Washington Irving who had access to the original diaries and reports, is available.
The last of the early explorers who left records of the appearance of Grande Ronde Valley before the era of permanent settlement was John C. Fremont. In 1843 this intrepid soldier was under orders by chief of the Corps of Topographical Engineers of the War Department to complete the explorations of the Far West which he had begun the year previously. Fremont's survey of the interior was designed to supplement the report of Commander Wilkes of the Navy Department, who was exploring the coast of the Pacific along what is now Oregon and Washington. Fremont appeared in the Grande Ronde Valley of 17 October 1843, probably coming by way of Ladd Canyon crossed the valley on the following day, and camped near Rhinehart station. On the 19th day of October his party passed through the canyon of the Grande Ronde and onto the flat where Elgin is new situated. From this point he crossed the Blue Mountains by an Indian trail which probably followed the general route of the present Toll Gate highway. The party arrived in Walla Walla on 23 October. While in the Grande Ronde Valley Fremont made surveys of the soil and from comments made in his reports it is evident that he thought the valley an area of splendid agricultural possibilities. It was, Fremont said ''a place one of the few we have seen in our journey so far where a farmer would delight himself to establish, if he were content to live in the seclusion which it imposes."