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A little more than thirty-one years have passed away since the first discovery of gold on Griffin’s Gulch an event which led to the first permanent settlement in Eastern Oregon southwest of the blue mountains. Many of the pioneers of thirty years ago are still living, but their number is growing less year after year, and soon there will be no living witness to the stirring events. The toils, hardships and adventures of those gold seekers who first made known the resources of the country. True, the old emigrant road passes through Powder river valley, and most of the early settlers of Western Oregon had seen some of the valleys, and most of the early settlers of Western Oregon had seen some of the valleys, the grass – covered hills and timbered mountains through and over which the road passes, but none had thought seriously of making a home so far away in the interior if the country, where they would be constantly exposed to the depredations of hostile Indians. With no navigable streams east and south of the Blue mountains, agriculture could not have flourished; with hostile Indians roaming over the country for hundreds of miles, stock raising would have been too precarious to tempt anybody to engage in that industry and for a long period all that region must have remained uninhabited and almost unexplored but for the discovery of gold in quantities sufficient to attract the hardy miners who yield to no obstacle that stands in their way when in pursuit of the precious metal.
Bancroft in the History of Oregon, volume 1, page 401, says of the immigration of 1843; “Nevertheless by the first of October the main body of the immigration had arrived at Grande Ronde valley, which appeared so beautiful, set in its environing pine-clad hills, with its rich pasturage and abundant watercourses, that not a few of the immigrants were deterred from settling there only by the impossibility of obtaining supplies for the colony during the coming winter.”
Of course that impossibility was sufficient to banish all thought of remaining east of the Blue Mountains, but it may be doubted whether, even if supplies had been available, the great beauty of the valley would have been sufficient attraction to induce them to take the risk. True immigrants of 1843 were not molested by Indians, and consequently would not have given the possibility of danger from that source as much consideration as others would who had been constantly in fear of being massacred by the savages for four or five months. But the immigration of 1843 was caused, in a great measure, by so many of the people of the western states being dissatisfied on account of having poor markets for the productions of their farms. The rich lands of the Mississippi valley yielded so abundantly, and the era of railroads not yet arrived, farmers who lived at a distance from navigable streams could see no way of reaching a market, and in the midst of plenty many became so discontented, and longed to be nearer to a sea coast, and in Oregon they thought they saw the promised land. But Grande Ronde Valley, at that time, was worse than the country they had left, so far as accessibility to market was concerned, and their expressed wish to settle there was prompted more by a longing to rest from the toils of a weary journey than by the fascination of the beautiful valley, There is always something interesting in tracing out the chain of circumstances, link by link, which finally leads to some event of great importance. An enterprise which is undertaken for a certain purpose, may come, in the course of time, to serve some end of which the projector had never dreamed. Such was the case with the expedition of Elijah White in the month of July, 1845, in search of a pass through the Cascade mountains near the head of the Willamette Valley for the purpose of establishing a shorter and better road by which the immigrants could reach Western Oregon. He was unsuccessful, returning to Oregon City he shortly afterwards with seven others set out for the east by the Columbia River route. At the hot springs near Fort Boise he met a company of immigrants who had set out from Independence, Missouri, and Brancroft says there can be little doubt but White induced about two hundred families to leave the road the others had followed down Snake River, and take an abandoned trail of the Fur Company up the Malheur River, thinking they would certainly find a pass through the Cascade Mountains and that he would ultimately get the credit of having discovered a new and better route by which immigrants could reach their destination.
Four days before White started from Oregon City on his expedition in search of a pass through the Cascade Mountains, some one sent word east that such a pass had been found, and that a company had been successful in crossing the mountains to the head of the Willamette Valley, the honor of having made a most important discovery would have been awarded to White without question, as was generally believed, to get himself appointed governor of the Territory of Oregon which it was supposed would soon be organized. It cannot reasonably be supposed that he would have urged a company of immigrants to try a new and unknown route if he had anticipated the suffering which they were doomed to endure. Doubtless he had perfect faith in the feasibility of the enterprise, for at that time there was nothing known of the character of all that country lying between Snake River and the Cascade mountains, and it would be but reasonable to suppose that the Malheur and Burnt rivers had their source in the Cascade mountains, and judging by the size of those streams, the distance to the summit could not be so very great. The existence of the lake basin and desert plains between the heads of those streams and the Cascade Mountains, was not then known. But whatever may have been White’s motives, and whether or not he did induce a company to leave the emigrant road and follow the trail up the Malheur River, certain it is that they did try that route with Stephen H. L. Meek for a guide. He was a brother of Jo Meek, who, it has been erroneously stated, induced the company to make the unfortunate attempt, himself acting as guide.
It appears that Meek himself, (Stephen) knew nothing about the character of the country except what he had learned from the meager reports of trappers who had traveled the country with pack animals only, and taken but little note of its features as a practical road for a train of emigrant wagons. However they met with no great difficulties until near the head of the Malheur river when the country became so stony that their jaded and footsore teams could not travel, and they turned to the southward in the hope of finding a more feasible route Their course led them into a country where grass was good but no good water, and it was now apparent to them that their guide knew no more about the country than they did themselves, and refusing to go further in that direction, they turned northward and coming to a dry ridge between the John Day and Des Chutes rivers, they suffered terribly for water. There was no alternative but to continue on, and after some Pays of travel they came to the brink of the Des Chutes canon where they were enabled to draw water in a bucket from the river by letting it down the perpendicular wall of the canon with a rope two hundred feet in length. Following down the canon, in a few days they came to a place where they could cross the river, but with great difficulty, and finally arrived at The Dalles on the Columbia river, having lost about twenty of their number by sickness brought on by exposure and poisonous water since they crossed Snake river.
After the company had left the Malheur River, and found themselves in the alkali lake country, they began to murmur against their guide whom they charged with having led them into an unknown country and thus caused all their suffering. As day after day passed and no relief came, their murmurs grew to threats against the life of their guide, and when they reached the dry country between the John Day and the Des Chutes rivers, the danger became so imminent that Meek was advised by some of the more cool and considerate members of the company to conceal himself, and let it be reported that he had deserted them, and the next day his friends could go on in advance of the main body to explore the way, and he could join them at a safe distance from the train. The plan was carried out and in this way Meek arrived safely at the crossing of the Des Chutes river, in advance of the main body of the company and remained there until they came up, thinking no doubt, that their better fare for some days past would have appeased their anger, but some of the first who arrived informed Meek that one man of the company had vowed to shoot him on sight in revenge for the death of his two sons. On learning this Meek went down the river farther, and having affected a crossing pushed on to The Dalles and sent a man with a few pack horses loaded with provisions to the relief of the company.
It appears that there was nothing in Meek’s conduct during the time that he acted as guide for the company, which was unworthy the character of a brave and honorable man. His fault was in being over sanguine in regard to his ability to conduct them safely, a fault that might have been forgiven had it not been for the extreme suffering of the people who had entrusted themselves to his guidance.
Sixteen years afterwards an enraged company of disappointed prospectors in the same country where Meek came so near losing his life, let their guide escape their vengeance more narrowly.
Some of the members of the company of immigrants alluded to, found some nuggets of gold near the headwaters of the Malheur river – perhaps across the divide – but knew not what kind of metal it was until some years afterwards when gold was found in California and they, seeing some specimens were at once reminded of their find in the country east of the Cascade mountains From their account of the circumstances arose all the various tales about the lost diggings, etc., one report being that the immigrants filled a blue bucket with nuggets which they left on the ground where they crossed the creek or gulch.
In Bancroft’s History of Oregon, Vol. 1, page 512, appears the following note: “The first gold discovery in Oregon made by an American, if not by any person, was near the head of the Malheur River, on a small creek divided from the Malheur by a ridge. The stream ran southwest, and was supposed to be a branch of the Malheur, an error that caused much trouble and disappointment to prospectors eight or ten years later Daniel Herron, a cousin of W. J. Herron, of Salem, was looking for lost cattle while the company were in camp here, and picked up a piece of shining metal on the rocky bed of the creek, and carried it to camp as a curiosity. No one could tell what the metal was, and no one thought of its being gold. Another nugget was found and brought to Mr. Martin’s wagon, who tested it by hammering it out on his wagon tire; but not being able to tell its nature, it was thrown into the tool chest and forgotten, and ultimately lost. After the gold discovery in California these incidents were remembered, and many parties went in search of the spot where the emigrants said this gold was found, but were misled by being told it was on a tributary of the Malheur.” S. D. Clarke, in Portland Daily Bee, Feb. 6, 1869.
Mr. Clarke has long been a resident of Salem, and no doubt is acquainted with some who were present when the gold was found, and his account may be accepted as correct. But whether it is the true story or not, one thing is certain, the reports put in circulation by the men who found the gold, or the tales which grew from those reports, induced many parties to search for the 1st, or “Blue Bucket” diggings, the most important which, so far as results were concerned at least, was the one which set out from Portland in August, 1861, with a Mr. Adams guide and captain.
David Littlefield, William Stafford, Henry Griffin and G. W. Schriver were in Portland on their way from California to the Oro Fino mines in Washington territory, which had been discovered the year previous. The latest news from the mines not being of a very flattering nature, they were in exactly the condition to engage in any adventure which might give promise of being profitable, when they, or some of them chanced to encounter Mr. Adams on the street telling the story of the lost diggings of ’45. Stopping to listen through curiosity at first, they soon became interested and on questioning Adams as to his knowledge of the locality of the lost diggings, were assured by him that he had been there and had seen the gulch wherein the nuggets were found, and that he could find the same place again, and was anxious to do so if he could have a company sufficiently numerous to cope with the roving bands of Indians likely to be met within that country. His statements were corroborated by three young men who, stated that they were with Adams and saw the place which he described and that his account was true.
A company of sixty men, including the four Californians above named, was soon formed, all well armed and equipped for the expedition, and with Adams for guide and captain, set out on their journey. Crossing the Cascade mountains by the Barlow route, they struck the Des Chutes river at the point where is now the crossing of The Dalles and Canyon City wagon road – the same crossing that was discovered by the immigrants in 1845. Going up the river on the east side, they came to Crooked river, a tributary of the Des Chutes, which they followed to its source, and beyond came to a dry desert where their suffering for water began. Here they became suspicious of the truthfulness of their guide as he showed no signs of knowing more about the country than any one else, and under their angry accusations, the three young men who had said, when in Portland, that they were with Adams when he found the lost diggings, now declared they were not with him and knew nothing about the pretended discovery, thus confirming the doubts already entertained against him, and intensifying the bitter feeling that his supposed perfidy had aroused. But in the face of all the evidence there was against him, Adams asserted that his story was true and that he could find the same spot again, and led them southward till they entered the lake basin – the region of poisonous alkali water. Here the company, like the immigrants who went into that country in 1845, refused to follow their guide any further, and became more vehement in their accusations and threats against him. Turning to the northward again they came in sight of Castle Rook on the Malheur river and continued on towards the headwaters of Burnt river still threatening Adams with death if he did not find the lost diggings.
Those who were the most vehement against him were men who had left their farms and growing crops in the Willamette valley to follow him, relying on his positive assertions that he had seen the lost diggings. The pecuniary loss they must sustain in consequence of their absence from home at the time when their crops should be cared for, and the disappointment and hardships of the journey exasperated them to such a degree that more than once some of them, with pistol in hand threatened their captain with death on the spot. Adams made an attempt to escape them, but failed, and was given one more day to search for the lost diggings and if unsuccessful should be tried for his life. About one third of the party, including the Californians, did not share in the extreme bitterness against Adams, and it was by their influence that he obtained a respite of one day from the vengeance of his companions. Those of the more moderate party, although convinced that Adams had made false representations to them in order to induce them to undertake the enterprise, yet they did not regard it as a malicious lying for the purpose of doing them an injury, as he had accompanied them and shared in their hardships and disappointments. This they regarded as proof that he sincerely believed he could do what he said he could at the time of starting, and they were as much or more disposed to question his sanity than his honesty.
If the matter could be probed to the bottom it would most likely be found that Adams had heard the story of the lost diggings repeated so many times, and the place where the gold was found so minutely described, that it had become fixed in his imagination like a fact in his own experience. The imaginary scene may have become so strongly fixed in his mind, that he really believed that he had seen the actuality, or, at any rate, he had faith in his ability to find such a place. In this view of the case he could not reasonably be held wholly responsible for what he had done, but the majority of the company did not see it in that light, and the evening of the day of probation having arrived and no diggings found, they were strongly in favor of the immediate execution of Adams, but were prevailed upon to keep him under guard until the next morning. Morning came and the more moderate of the party managed to delay proceedings until about ten o’clock when a vote was taken whether they should proceed to try him and decided in the affirmative. A jury was selected and the trial proceeded with some-what according to the forms of law, but with the variation of trying to convict him more on his former record than on the present charge. The trial lasted all day and the case was submitted to the jury in the evening, who failed to agree on a verdict until the next morning, when they announced their decision to be that Adams was to have his horses, blankets, provisions, and everything but the clothes he had on, taken from him, and he was to separate himself from all the company, and that each one of them was to have the reserved privilege of shooting him if he should be discovered following them. He was also required to sign a paper containing an acknowledgement or confession that he had been guilty of perjury. Adam’s trial took place at the head of Burnt river where there had been a fight with the Indians in 1856.
Perhaps some of the company thought the sentence against Adams would be carried out, and he would be left to perish of starvation, but others thought differently. They arranged matters so that they could supply his wants while he remained concealed from the majority, until the company should divide, and he could then join the smaller company who were going to continue in a north easterly course till they should find the old emigrant road by which they intended to return to Portland, whilst the majority proposed to turn to the northwest and return by the route over which they came. The last named party on their way across towards the Des Chutes River discovered the John Day mines on the headwaters of the John Day River.
The party which took the north-easterly course prospected China creek at the head of Burnt river where they got some small particles of gold. Continuing on their course they crossed the divide between Burnt and Powder rivers prospected along the route, always getting colors but finding no pay diggings. At noon on the 23rd of October they crossed Blue Canon near where the town of Auburn was afterwards built and passing over the ridge and across Elk creek, they camped in the evening on a gulch, where Henry Griffin sunk a prospect hole about three feet deep and struck bedrock and obtained a good prospect, He was allowed one claim for discovery and another by pre-emption, and twenty-two more claims of two hundred feet each, were staked off, the company casting lots for choice of claims. The gulch was named Griffin’s gulch. After having surveyed a route for a ditch to convey the waters of Elk creek to Griffin’s gulch they broke up camp and departed for Walla Walla, Griffin, Stafford, Littlefield and Schriver intending to return with provisions and spend the winter in the mines, the others going on to the Willamette valley.
While they were encamped on Griffin’s gulch, Littlefield went out to the northward looking for their horses, and at the distance of a mile from the gulch, came to the edge of the timber and saw Powder river valley. Returning to camp he reported that they were rear the edge of the biggest valley he ever saw.
Having procured supplies for the winter in Walla Walla, Griffin, Stafford, Schriver and Littlefield came back to Griffin’s gulch in November and built a cabin and prepared for the winter. This work was completed none too soon for in the latter part of the month snow fell to the depth of three feet, Early in December it began to rain and continued without intermission for five days and nights, melting all the snow in the mountains and flooding the valleys below, Powder river valley was all under water. When the snow had disappeared, they worked their claims for some days, when they found they needed waterproof boots. These could not be obtained nearer than Walla Walla, and about the twentieth of December, Littlefield and Schriver set out for that point to purchase gum boots, taking with them a little more than one hundred dollars worth of Griffin’s gulch gold dust.
One night, when camped on Ladd canon at the edge of Grande Ronde valley, Littlefield awoke some time in the night and saw some kind of an animal standing apparently within a few feet of where they lay. After awakening Schriver, he drew his revolver from under the blankets and snapped it six times at the animal, but owing to the powder having become damp neither barrel was discharged. Schriver then tried his revolver with the same result until the fifth time, when it was discharged and the animal sprang down the hill howling with pain. Instantly a howl arose on all sides of them and they realized that they were in the midst of a pack of large grey wolves. The animals rushed after the wounded one, and for a few moments there was a noise of ravenous feeding, then all was quiet and the men knew the wolves had devoured their disabled companion. Kindling a fire they sat by it until daylight when the wolves skulked away and they saw them no more. Proceeding onward to the farther side of Grande Ronde valley they found several persons who had taken claims, near where Island City now stands, with a view of making a permanent settlement. Here they spent Christmas day, and witnessed one of those freaks in the affairs of life, which are to be seen only in new and unorganized settlements. A married couple had learned after thirty or forty years experience that they could not live together agreeably, but found it equally difficult to separate on account of a disagreement about the division of their property. For the purpose of settling the affair and preventing more serious trouble which it seemed probably might follow, the settlers organized a court and took the case up and divorced them and divided the property betwixt them, making a settlement that answered all purposes as well as if it had been done legally.
At Walla Walla they sold their dust to a Mrs. Humason, of The Dalles, who happened to be at Walla Walla on business. Humason sent the dust to Portland where it was exhibited in a showcase as a sample of the product of the Powder River mines and from this originated the stories of immensely rich diggings having been found. It was reported that two men working half a day on Powder River cleaned up two and a half pounds of gold dust, and that another claim yielded six thousand dollars in four days, and that one hundred and fifty dollars worth of dust was obtained from one pan of dirt. Mr. Littlefield said they told no such tales at Walla Walla; on the contrary, they merely stated that they had found diggings which they thought would pay good wages. A quantity of gold dust no greater than six or seven ounces being exhibited as the product of some newly discovered mine, at a time when traveling is not practicable, is sufficient to induce the telling of such stories, and though they may not be fully believed, yet they will be given credence enough to cause a rush as soon as it is possible to travel. It was the severe winter of 1861-62 that Littlefield and Schriver were at Walla Walla, and having bought boots and some other articles they set out on their return with one pack animal.
On the Blue Mountains they found the snow so deep that their horse could get nothing to eat, as they thought, so they turned him loose and taking their goods on their backs, began the journey across the mountains. The snow deep but light and soft, and they waded through it, their horse falling in behind them and following all the way across the mountains, subsisting on twigs and the bark of trees. It took them nine days to reach the Grande Ronde Valley, a distance of forty miles, and finally arrived at the cabin on Griffin’s gulch in the latter part of January, where the four men spent the balance of the winter. One of them kept an account of the snow each day and by spring it aggregated fourteen feet.
They had turned their horses loose on Powder River where they would have fared well by pawing the snow away to get at the grass, and sheltering themselves from the storms amongst the dense thickets of willows, but for the enemies, the wolves. A pack of wolves, finding a horse separated from the rest, would attack him and soon kill and devour him. In this way they destroyed all bust five of the band. These had evidently observed and studied the methods of the wolves and hit upon a plan of self defense. At the first alarm, all five of them would quickly assemble together and, backing up close to each other thus protecting their flanks, whilst each one of them fought the wolves away in front of him by striking with his fore feet.
It was very seldom that a grey wolf was seen after that winter of 1861-62. A pack of them crossed Powder River some miles above Auburn three or four years afterwards, but they have never infested the country to any considerable number.
In April, 1862, Littlefield and Stafford were prospecting on the head of Washington Gulch at a point where they could look down over Powder River Valley, and were surprised and somewhat alarmed at the appearance of a large band of horses near the edge of the valley. Their first thought was that a band of Indians had come into the valley, but on going down the ridge and reconnoitering they found a camp of white men which proved to be a party of 40 or 50 in search of the Powder River mines. George Hall and O. H. Kirkpatrick were with the party, and the Griffin’s Gulch men now learned for the first time how enormously their claims were yielding according to the reports in the Portland papers, they having heard nothing from the settlements since Littlefield and Schriver left Walla Walla. The men who composed this party were not to be disheartened, however, by learning the truth about the mines, but went to work prospecting, and in a short time made discoveries on Willow creek, French Gulch, Freezeout, Blue Canon, etc, and tents were set up along the gulches where the town of Auburn was built in the fall. Some time after the arrival of the party alluded to above, four or five men drew up before the Griffin Gulch cabin and inquired of Littlefield if that was the Powder River mine. After learning the facts about the discovery and working of the diggings they informed Littlefield that quite a large party traveled with them the greater part of the distance when they met some persons returning who told them it was all a false report about mines having been found, and that there were no diggings in the country. They also stated that some men had been hired by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company to spend the winter on Powder River and send out extravagant stories about the rich mines being found, in order to create excitement and cause a rush and consequently furnish business for their boats. On hearing this the greater part of the company turned back wishing anything but blessings on the O. S. N. Company and their supposed accomplices in the Powder River mountains. The newcomers, after making the above statement, asked if some assurance or proof could be given to attest the genuineness of the mines. Littlefield went into the cabin and brought out some gold dust which he showed them and told them they obtained it in the gulch near the cabin, which seemed to be satisfactory, as the doubting men proceeded to hunt for claims for themselves. Prospectors continued coming, and by the first of June there were several hundred roaming over the hills far up towards the head of Powder River.
The old theory of California miners was received, viz: If there is a small quantity of gold on or near the foothills there must be a greater amount farther up in the mountains. Acting upon this theory, by the first of June most of the men were up the river several miles from Griffin’s Gulch prospecting for the rich deposits which they had assumed must be there.
The first Monday in June being Election Day, the people assembled on Union Flat and organized an election board and voted for state officers, casting more than one hundred votes, which were sent to the secretary of state as the election returns from Baker County. Of course, they were not counted, as Wasco County was the only county organized east of the Cascade Mountains at that time. Two days after the election was held on Union Flat occurred the first tragedy in Baker County, or rather in the territory now comprised within the county. A man by the name of Griffin was killed in his tent by his partner, and so quietly was it done that nobody heard any sounds of a disturbance, although several persons were nearby when it took place. Of course the man was arrested, and when questioned about the affair said he had to do it in defense of his own life. There was no evidence to the contrary, yet his statement was deemed rather weak because no angry words or other noise indicating a quarrel were heard from the tent. The assembled crowd felt that something ought to be done about it, but what should be puzzled them, until they were relieved by a couple of men proposing to take him to The Dalles and deliver him to the proper authorities. The company accepted their proposition and raised fifty dollars subscription to pay their expenses, and they set out with their prisoner, but never reached The Dalles. It was reported that the three, guards and prisoner, were afterwards seen mining together on Salmon River.