Arrival of Early Pioneers to Baker County Oregon

Early in June 1862, traveling parties from California and Nevada began to arrive at the mines on Powder River. These parties had started for the Salmon River mines, and were surprised when they found a mining camp in Eastern Oregon. Amongst those who came across the country from those states were Hardin Estes, Fred Dill, John P. Bowen and perhaps others who have remained here ever since. Estes and Dill came from Nevada with a party of about twenty, known as the White Horse company, having received that name on account of so many of their horses being white. They came down the Owyhee River and struck the emigrant road which they followed to Burnt river, and there kept on the hills to avoid crossing the river more than once. Finding a suitable place, they crossed the river, and struck the emigrant road where it turns across the hills towards Powder river valley, and came over to the valley which they found overflowed to such an extent that it was impossible to follow the road farther. Turning to the right and keeping to the low hills north of the valley they came to the point where North Powder joins the main stream.

Here they saw Mr. John Hibbard and some others out in the valley across the river with whom they opened communication and learned where they were and that there was a mining camp up in the hills. Mr. Hibbard and party were on their way to Walla Walla for supplies, and told the Estes party that they could not cross the river anywhere in the valley nor cross the valley either for that matter.

The White Horse company, after finding they could not cross below, returned around the north and east sides of the valley and went into the canon and camped, while Mr. Estes went farther up found a place at the mouth of Blue canon where they could build a bridge on which their animals could pass over. The company moved up to that place and began building a bridge by falling a small tree across the river and afterwards sliding others over and placing them side by side until they made it wide enough, and they finished with brush and dirt on top. That was the first bridge across Powder River. The White Horse company had set out for the Salmon River mines, but about half of them remained at Powder River and the rest went to the John Day mines. Mr. Estes stopped at the mines a day or two and then he and Fred Dill crossed over to the valley for the purposes of taking a claim for a ranch. After crossing the valley to North Powder and Wolf creek they returned and located on Washington gulch the 16th day of June – the first claim in Powder river valley.

Returning from Walla Walla with provisions and hay making implements, on the third of July their animals had to swim Rock Creek, which indicates a greater amount of water than has ever been known in the stream since.

About the time Estes and company were building the bridge across Powder River at the mouth of Blue canon, John P. Bowen and company from California, forty-nine men in all, came down the ridge from the direction of Burnt River, and seeing the smoke arising from the timber where the miners were encamped, supposed there were Indians over there. They too, had set out for the Salmon River mines where men filled gum boots with gold dust, as they had heard. Continuing down the ridge they came to the old emigrant road, and finding they could not travel it across the valley they turned towards the mountains to find a place where they could cross the river. At the mouth of the canon where the river enters the valley they struck the trail of the Estes party which they followed to the bridge which that company had built at the mouth of Blue canon, and found a man in possession of the bridge, charging toll at the rate of one dollar per head for animals. The company protested against such exorbitant rates but finally paid the charge and crossed over to the mines. Here they met a man who had been to the Salmon River mines, and from him they learned that the rich diggings in that country were limited to a small spot of ground which had already been taken up, and that there were thousands of men who had nothing to do, so they concluded to try their fortunes in the Powder River country.

Mr. Bowen tried mining on Willow creek, near Auburn, for a few days, but being troubled with rheumatism quit the business and went over to the valley and took up a claim for a farm.

Soon afterwards he and several others started to Walla Walla for supplies and at North Powder met a man who had come up from Grande Ronde valley through Pyle’s canon, exploring a route for a road. At his request the company went with him through the canon, it being his desire to mark out a trail that might be followed by others, but as the boys allowed their animals to scatter about instead of following one after the other, his design was frustrated to some extent, nevertheless it was a beginning and that route became the principal through fare between the two valleys.

Mr. Estes, learning that some one had claim to the bridge on the Powder River, went over there and sold it to him for the sum of two hundred dollars, with the understanding that he was to charge but fifty cents toll for animals in the future.

Besides the companies already mentioned several others from California and Nevada arrived about the same time or soon afterwards, amongst whom were Anthony Webdell, Jerry Shea, John and Stephen McLain, well remembered by most old timers in Baker county, especially Shea, whose tricks and capers are still made the theme of conversation in reminiscences of the past.

All through the months of May men had been coming to the mines from California and the Willamette valley by the way of the Columbia River and across the Blue Mountains.
On the 12th day of June Wm. H. Packwood and Ed Cranston arrived at the mines, each with a stock of goods. At that time there was but one store in the Blue canon district and one at Griffin’s gulch. There was no regular market price for goods as there were so many discouraged men selling such things as they had brought with them for whatever price they could get, in their hurry to return. Usually flour and bacon brought from fifteen to twenty-five dollars per one hundred pounds, and nearly everything else sold at a higher rate in proportion to cost.

Fresh beef was comparatively cheap. A band of cattle belonging to Knight Abbott and Packwood having been driven in to be butchered. Knight and Abbott had attempted to drive the cattle across the country to Salmon River in the summer of 1861. At Snake River, near where Brownlee’s ferry has since been established, they herded their cattle for some time, and thinking it was not practicable to cross, turned back towards Walla Walla. Coming to a considerable tributary of Powder River, they shot an eagle, and from that circumstance named the stream Eagle creek. In Grande Ronde valley they concluded to spend the winter and await developments at the Powder River mines which they learned had been discovered. Reports in the spring of 62 being favorable they drove their cattle to Auburn and set off a meat market, and that arrangement led Mr. Packwood to join them with a stock of goods in June.

On the 13th of June 1862, a meeting was called by Wm. H. Packwood, Ed. Cranston, Geo. Hall and others at which time it was resolved to lay out a town to be called Auburn, and the next day a street was located from Freezeout gulch to Blue canon, and building lots taken on each side, and in a short time a number of buildings were put up and Auburn assumed the usual appearance of a new mining town. The diggings in that vicinity were thereafter called the Auburn mines.

About the 20th day of June 1862, a miners meeting was called for the purpose of electing a recorder of claims for the Blue canon district. The people assembled on the ridge between Blue canon and Freezout gulch and elected a president, it being understood that Wm. H. Packwood and E. C. Brainard were the opposing candidates for the office of recorder. The president suggested that a convenient method of voting would be for the crowd to divide according to each one’s preference. Pointing to a log a little way to the right, he said, “there’s a log for you to stand on, Brainard.” The candidates took their respective positions when the president said, “now boys, all of you who are in favor of Packwood for recorder, go over to him. An Oregonian immediately started towards Packwood, calling out, “come on all you Webfooters, here’s our Webfoot candidate,” and a Californian answered, “come this way all you Tarheads, here’s a Tarhead candidate.” On counting the two parties it was found that Brainard had the majority and he was accordingly declared to be the elected recorder.

Mr. Brainard’s first official act was recording a claim June 23, 1862, and from that time until May 6, 1863, he recorded twelve hundred and ninety-one claims in Blue canon district.

As water was not plenty in the district in the spring of 1863, a miners meeting was held on the 10th of May at which a law was enacted that claims should be held free from the necessity of working until April 1, 1864. In the summer of 1864 the water rates of the auburn canal company were regarded as being too high, and on September 14th at a meeting of the miners of the district it was resolved. That all claims should be held free from the necessity of working until the first of May, 1865, to which a clause was added stating that inasmuch as there were many claims that would not pay to work with water at twenty-five cents per inch, therefore no claim should be considered abandoned or forfeited until water could be obtained as low as twelve and a half cents per inch.

In 1885 the miners and canal company joined issue on the Chinese question, the miners opposing their admission to the camp and the company favoring it on the grounds that they could sell more water if Chinese were admitted, and consequently they could reduce the rates of water. A vote being taken on the question, it was decided not to admit Chinamen into the district. Some time afterwards the subject was reconsidered and decided favorable to their admission and water rates were reduced according to the promises of the company.

On the 20th of May 1862, the ditch from Elk creek to Griffin’s was completed by Littlefield and company – the first ditch constructed in Baker County for the purpose of conveying water for mining. Carter and Davidson finished their ditch from Elk creek to French gulch in the following August, taking the water from the creek below to the head of Griffin’s gulch ditch, but they afterwards claimed and held the first right to the waters of Elk creek to the amount of two hundred and fifty inches, their claim being confirmed by a decree of Judge Shattuck. Mr. Littlefield says there were more witnesses who wanted the water in French gulch than there were who wanted it in Griffin’s gulch.

During the summer of 1862 parties of prospectors roamed over the country in all directions finding gold in a great many creeks and gulches along Powder and Burnt rivers. A party was encamped on a creek on the south side of Burnt river when a member of the party named Clark, had the misfortune to shoot himself which compelled them to remain there until he was able to travel, and while there one of them found a piece of gold worth two dollars and seventy-five cents, and on prospecting the creek good diggings were found and the stream was named Clarks creek, which proved to be a good mining camp for many years. Gold was found across the divide towards Willow creek but owing to the scarcity of water, the mines were not worked till some years afterwards. The Mormon Basin diggings were found the same season, a district in which water was not plenty, but was probably the richest camp in placers in Baker county.

In the summer of 1862, a man and his family were encamped on a creek which enters Powder river valley about two miles west of Washington ranch. On prospecting the bed of the stream the man found gold in paying quantities, and named the stream Ru Ann creek after his eldest daughter.

In the fall of the same year gold was found on Salmon creek, Marble creek and McCord’s gulch at the western edge of the valley. The former received its name from the abundance of salmon fish found in the stream, and Marble creek was so named from the immense body of marble rock at its head. David Kelley, and Robert D. McCord sunk the first prospect hole on McCord’s gulch in September. Mr. Kelley set out for Walla Walla soon afterwards for a load of provisions, and Robert and his father built a cabin near a spring at the foot of the hill. That fall a ditch one mile in length was dug from Marble creek to the gulch and water was brought to the diggings some time in December, and the gulch has been worked almost continuously ever since. As often happens the first discoverers did not find the best pay. For many years the surface was worked above a porphyry formation, the presence of gold below it was not being suspected. In 1872 Samuel Baisley and John Bulger, having purchased the diggings, dug through the porphyry formation to bedrock and found better pay than ever before. The total yield of McCord’s gulch from the first discovery is estimated at two hundred and fifty thousand dollars or more.

A number of persons went up into the timber near the mountains and laid out a town which they named Pine City. It was located on the trail made by travelers in the spring and early summer to avoid the mud which they had to encounter further down the valley. At that time it was thought that it would not be practicable to cross the valley in the spring of the year, and many supposed the main traveled road would eventually be located along the foot of the mountains. This belief was founded oil observations of the valley taken in the usually wet spring of 1862. At the time that Pine City was located, there was a wagon road across the valley below the edge of the timber where John McLain had taken a ranch, and he, believing that would be the main road, set about having a town there and induced the citizens of Pine City to move down to that place, and the town of Pocahontas was built. Mr. Morrison, at that time a justice of the Peace, lived about two miles from the new town on the road to Auburn. Having declined an invitation to unite his fortunes with the town, a rivalry sprang up betwixt them, each striving for the patronage of travelers and the business of the infant settlement.

Pocahontas had a hotel, an express office and a blacksmith shop. Morrison kept hotel, express office, justice’s office and butcher shop. As a business point, Pocahontas made no progress, and Morrison never tired of announcing its death and preaching its funeral. The founders of the town doubtless overrated the ‘Squires’ influence on the business prospects of the place; but be that as it may, it happened one day in the fall of 1863 that Morrison was at Pocahontas, and some of its citizens in conversation with him took occasion to remind him that he had been speaking disparagingly of their town, to which the ‘Squire,’ assuming an air of the most reverential solemnity, replied: “No, gentlemen you are mistaken. On the contrary, from my earliest recollection on down to the present time, has always been against my principles to speak disrespectfully of the dead.”

Mr. Wm. Baldock came to the valley from Colorado in September and after taking a look at the wild grass standing untouched along the river he went to Auburn to see if there was any market for hay. Finding the prospect satisfactory, he procured a scythe and swath for seventeen dollars and began making hay with a will, using forked willow sticks for pitchforks. In a short time he had hay ready for market and took a load to Auburn and sold it for fifty-five dollars. He put up many tons which he hauled to Auburn that fall and winter, for which he received from fifty to sixty dollars per ton, and after providing for his family had four hundred dollars in cash the next spring.

Collection: Baker County Oregon Genealogy.

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