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Gold Discoveries and Town Making in Washington State
Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Washington | No Comments
I have related in Oregon II how Colonel Wright was left in command of the department of Oregon when General Harney was invited to Washington upon a pretence of being needed to testify in the Oregon and Washington Indian war debt claims, in order to pacify the British minister and Governor Douglas by removing him from proximity to the San Juan island boundary-war ground; and also that General Scott recommended merging the military department of Oregon in that of the Pacific, with headquarters in San Francisco. In the latter part of 1860 this idea was carried out, and General E. V. Sumner was placed in command of the Pacific department, relieving General Johnstone, whom the people of Oregon and Washington feared might be sent to command the Columbia district. Fortunately for them, since they had come to have entire confidence in Wright, that officer was retained in his important position during the critical period of the breaking-out of the rebellion. The depletion of his command, and the measures resorted to in order not to leave the northwestern frontier defenseless; I have referred to in my History of Oregon.
The news of President Lincoln’s proclamation calling for volunteers did not reach Washington until about the 1st of May, and on the 10th McGill, who was at that time still acting governor, issued a call for the organization of the militia of the territory under the existing laws, each company to report at once to headquarters and be at the call of the president should their services be required. Adjutant-general Frank Matthias immediately appointed enrolling officers in each of the counties of the territory, both east and west of the Cascade Mountains, and required all men subject to military duty to report themselves to these officers. There were at this time twenty-two organized counties, and not more than six thousand men between the ages of sixteen and sixty capable of bearing arms. In the Puget Sound region there was also need of able-bodied men to repair the damages sustained by several years of Indian wars and mining excitement.
Late in the summer of 1861 Wright was placed in command of the department of the Pacific, and Colonel Albermarle Cady of the 7th infantry succeeded to that of the district of the Columbia. About the last of the year Wright, now a brigadier-general, appointed Justin Steinberger, formerly of Pierce County, Washington, but then in California, to proceed to Puget Sound, with the commission of colonel, and endeavor to raise a regiment to be mustered into the regular service. Steinberger arrived in January; but the utmost he could do was to raise four infantry companies, one each at Whatcom, Port Townsend, Port Madison, and Walla Walla. In California he raised four more companies, with which he returned to Vancouver in May, relieving Colonel Cady of the command of the district. As three others were then organized in California, enlisting was ordered discontinued in Washington. In July General Alvord took command of the district, and Steinberger repaired to Fort Walla Walla, where he relieved Colonel Cornelius of the Oregon cavalry. The regiment was not filled, however, until the close of the year. On the 5th of January, 1863, Governor Pickering addressed a communication to the speaker of the house of representatives, informing him that the First Regiment of Washington Infantry, organized pursuant to order of the war department, October 1861, was full, and had been received into the service of the United States, and suggested to the legislature to give some expression, either by memorial or joint resolution, of the confidence of that body in this regiment, whether it remained where it then was or should be called out of the territory in the service of the United States, and invoking for it the favorable notice of the general government, praying that in the event of a reorganization of the army this corps might be retained in service in Washington. It was so ordered.
A portion of the regiment was stationed at Fort Pickett, another portion was with Steinberger at Walla Walla, and the territory had at length and for a time the satisfaction of seeing men with no alien tendencies in its places of trust.
Although it was designed that the Oregon cavalry should be used against the Shoshones, who for eight years had grown more and more presumptuous and hostile, and the Washington infantry be kept to garrison the several posts in the territory, the companies east of the mountains were compelled to support the cavalry on several expeditions against the Indians, in which long and exhausting marches were performed, the history of which has been given in my History of Oregon, but to which some reference is also due in this place.
On the opening of the transmontane country east of the Cascades in October 1858, there was a sudden overflow of population into its sunny vales, attracted thither chiefly by the reputed gold discoveries both north and south of the Columbia, on the Malheur and other streams of eastern Oregon, as well as on the Wenatchee River, in the latitude of the Snoqualimich Pass, and about Colville. Many were discouraged miners, who found the soil and climate of eastern Washington so agreeable and productive as to suggest settlement.
The construction of the military road to Fort Benton drew a considerable number in the direction of the Bitter Root Valley, forming a part of the immense and rather indefinite county of Spokane, attached for judicial purposes to the county of Walla Walla, and consequently far from the scat of any court. The stream of travel toward Fraser River, which crossed the Columbia at The Dalles, pursuing a northeast course to Priest Rapids, and a north course thence by Okanagan Lake and River to the Thompson branch, or deflecting to the west, reached the main Fraser 200 miles above Fort Yale, stood in need of military protection, as did also the boundary commission, one part of which was at Semiahmoo Bay, and the other at Lake Osogoos, near the Rock Creek mines.
For the safety of these disconnected groups of people, Fort Colville was established in May 1859. The Danes, being the one entrepot for so wide a region, rapidly developed into a commercial town, with a journal of its own, and a population ever increasing in numbers if not in worth; horse-thieves, gamblers, and all the criminal classes which follow on the heels of armies and miners giving frequent employment to the civil and military authorities.
In the spring of 1859, also, the little steamer Colonel Wright was built at the mouth of Des Chutes River, by R. R. Thompson and Lawrence W. Coe. She made her first trip to old Fort Walla Walla on the 18th of April, returning on the 20th, and taking a cargo of goods belonging to Joel Palmer, intended for the mines, as far up the river as Priest Rapids. In June she ascended Snake River to Fort Taylor, at the mouth of the Tucannon. A steamboat on the Upper Columbia gave trade another impetus, and Walla, Walla, first called Steptoe City, became a rival of The Dalles in a short time.
The passage of gold-hunters though the Colville country revived an interest in that region. Many unsuccessful miners returning from Fraser River, or, prevented by high water from operating there, were led to explore on the upper Columbia and as far east as the Bitter Root Valley, where they made from five to eight dollars a day, and where living was less costly than on Fraser River. Even the military officers and soldiers became gold-hunters, adding not a little information concerning the mineral resources of the country to that furnished by mining prospectors.
The soldiers on guard at the commissioners’ camp in October discovered gold on the Similkameen, where they could take out twenty dollars a day with pans, besides walking five miles to and from camp. The discovery was as much as possible suppressed, from a fear that a crowd of persons would be attracted there at the beginning of winter, whom there was no means of supplying with food when the military stores should be removed for the season. Miners were warned also not to begin preparations too early in the spring, when the bars of the river would be under water; but the fact was not concealed that the quality of Similkameen gold was superior, being coarse, and equal in coin to seventeen or eighteen dollars an ounce.
Nothing could, however, overcome the eagerness of men to be first upon the ground. By the middle of November companies were organizing in Portland, the mining fever threatening to reach the height of 1858; and by the end of February the first party set out, consisting of twenty men, led by J. N. Bell of The Dalles. These, with fifty others who had wintered there, were the earliest at the new diggings. In March all the floating population of the Walla Walla Valley, with some companies from Yreka, California, were on their way to Similkameen. They were followed by other Oregon companies, one of whom, led by Palmer, undertook the enterprise of opening a wagon road from Priest Rapids to the Similkameen. Fifty or sixty tons of freight were shipped to the rapids on the Colonel Wright, whence it was taken in wagons the remainder of the distance. Several parties left the Willamette in small boats, intending to make the journey to the mines, a distance of 500 miles, with no other conveyance. Similar nerve was exhibited by companies from Puget Sound, which, as early as the 10th of March, were on the move to cross the Cascade Range at the different passes, and succeeded in doing so. Those who arrived thus early could not make more than expenses, the best mining ground being under water. Many turned back; others pressed on to Quesnelle River; and others occupied themselves in prospecting, and found gold on Rock Creek, one of the head waters of Kettle River, which entered the Columbia near Colville, and on the rend d’Oreille. During the summer the Similkameen mines paid well, and in September new diggings were discovered on the south fork of that river.
The Rock Creek and Similkameen mines proved to be in British territory, American traders being taxed over $100 for the privilege of selling goods there.
The Cariboo placers were discovered in August 1860, but their fame was not much spread before winter, and migration thither did not set in before the spring of 1861. When it did begin, it equaled that of 1858. Claims were taken up on Harvey’s and Keethley’s creeks, in August that yielded all the way from eight to fifty dollars per day to the man. Five men in one company took out in six days $2,400. Four men took out in one day over eighteen ounces, worth over $300, and so on. There was sent out by express the first month $30,000, besides what remained in the hands of 250 men in the mines. The reports from Cariboo greatly stimulated mining discovery in the region lying on either side of the boundary line of United States territory.
There had been a discovery made in the spring of 1860 destined to work a rapid and important change in eastern Washington, although overshadowed for a time by the placers which I have here named. From a letter written April 30, 1860, to the Oregon Argus, the discovery appears to have been made a short time before.
E. D. Pierce, a trader among the Indians, had long known that the country east of the great bend of the Snake River was a gold-bearing one, but owing to the hostility of the Indians, he did not prospect it, and for several years resided in California. De Smet had known of it at an earlier period, and in 1854 a Mr Robbins of Portland had purchased some gold of the Spokanes, farther north.
In 1858 Pierce again visited the Nez Percé country but found no opportunity to search until after the ratification of the Nez Percé treaty, and the general cessation of hostilities. Early in 1860 he found means to verify his belief in the auriferous nature of the country on the Clearwater branch of Snake River, reporting his discovery in April at Walla Walla. It does not appear from the public prints that the story of Pierce received much credence, though the correspondent spoken of above reported that some returned Similkameen miners, and others from Walla Walla, had gone thither.
Pierce did not at once return to the Clearwater, on account of the opposition of the Indian and military departments, who dreaded the renewal of trouble with the Nez Percé and Spokanes should a mining population, overrun their reserved territory. About the first of August, however, Pierce, with a party of only ten men, set out from Walla Walla to make a conclusive examination of the country in question; having done which he returned with his party to Walla Walla in November, giving all the information which he himself possessed concerning the new gold-field lying 150 miles east of that place, and believed to be rich. The diggings were dry, and yielded eight to fifteen cents to the pan. The route to the mines was directly through the Nez Perce reservation.
Pierce now endeavored to organize a large company to return with him and winter in the mines; but the representations of those who feared to provoke another Indian war discouraged most of those who would have gone, and only thirty-three accompanied him. The party was followed as far as Snake River by a detachment of dragoons, whose duty it was to prevent their intrusion on the reservation, but who failed to execute it.
Pierce’s party of less than forty men remained in the Nez Percé country preparing for mining when spring should open. The snow in December was six inches deep, and during a portion of the winter three feet in depth. The men occupied themselves building comfortable cabins, sawing out planks for sluice-boxes, and sinking prospect holes. They found the gold of the earth to be very fine, requiring quicksilver to collect it, though coarse gold was discovered in the quartz with which the country abounded. The diggings were situated in gulches and canons of streams of too general a level to make it convenient washing the dirt and disposing of the debris. The gold was found in a red, and sometimes a bluish, earth of decomposed granite mixed with gravel of pure white quartz. Much black sand appeared on washing it. Pierce himself, though convinced of the richness of the present discovery, freely exposed the disadvantages, and declared, moreover, his belief that these mines were but the outskirts of still richer mining territory.
Pierce had hardly reached his camp on the Clearwater before he received a visit from A. J. Cain, the Nez Percé Indian agent, who did not find it necessary to interfere with the party, but on the contrary, expressed himself pleased with their behavior. The agent might have obtained the consent of the Nez Percé to the presence of a single party of miners in their country; but when in February others commenced to follow, they were intercepted and turned back, a few who succeeded in passing the Indian picket being warned that they would be required to return in the spring.
Knowing how impossible it would be, when spring opened, to prevent a migration to the Clearwater goldfields, Superintendent E. R. Geary, held a conference with Colonel Wright in reference to the threatened complication in Indian matters. The result of the consultation was that the superintendent repaired to the upper country, held a council, and made a treaty with the Indians to meet the exigencies of the coming mining excitement, promising them military protection, and the enforcement of the United States laws-a compact of necessity rather than a matter of choice with the natives.
Some weeks before the treaty was negotiated, miners were en route from Walla Walla and Portland, and merchants from the former place had taken goods to Pierce City, situated at the mouth of Canal Gulch, on Oro Fino Creek, to be in readiness for the coming demand. At the time the treaty with the Nez Perce was concluded, 300 miners were already in the Oro Fino district. A month later there were 1,000, with immigration coming in rapidly from California, overland. As the spring advanced the excitement increased, and a line of steamers was put upon the Columbia to accommodate the thousands that rushed impetuously to this richest of all the gold-fields yet discovered north of the Columbia.
The route travelled was by steamer to old Fort Walla Walla, thence by stage to Walla Walla town, and thence by pack-horses or teams to the mines, the whole distance from Portland, where the traveler embarked, being 436 miles. Horses, saddles, wagons, provisions, clothing, mining tools, and camp equipage were in demand at Walla Walla in 1861, the merchants, at least, having found a bonanza.
In May the Colonel Wright made the first trip ever consummated by a steamer to the mouth of the Clearwater, and up that stream to within twelve miles of the forks, or within less than forty miles of Pierce City. A town was immediately founded at this landing, called Slaterville, after its thunder. It contained in May five houses of canvas, two of which were provision stores, two private dwellings, and the other a drinking-saloon. The saloon was roofed with two blankets, a red and a blue one. On its side was written the word “whiskey” in charcoal, and inside, a barrel of the liquid constituted the stock in trade. Two bottles and two drinking-glasses composed the furniture. Fifty white persons were to be found in and about Slaterville at this time. Following the Colonel Wright, the Tenino, the second steamer on the upper Columbia, made a few trips to this place, but it was soon found to be impracticable for a landing on account of the rapids in the Clearwater, which could only be navigated for a short season of the year. The last trip of the Tenino was made before the close of the month, her final departure taking place June 1st.
The next cargo of freight and load of passengers were landed, by necessity, at the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake rivers, on the south side, which was in direct contravention of the terms of the treaty made in April. There did not seem to be any alternative, the mountains rising abruptly on the north side, and this being the natural head of navigation. When the treaty was made, the head of navigation was at old Fort Walla Walla, or in rare cases at the mouth of the Tucannon River. Already this was all changed, and the route most travelled was up Snake River to the Clearwater. By the 10th of June the navigation company and the miners had settled it that a town must be built at this point. The site was most favorable, being a level piece of ground between the two rivers, sloping gently back a mile or two to the high prairies beyond. The name fixed upon was Lewiston, in compliment to Merriwether Lewis, the discoverer of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, who had been entertained by the father of the head chief of the Nez Percé, Lawyer, almost at the very spot where Americans were now mining for gold. Two weeks after it was first used as a landing, Lewiston had a population and business of considerable importance. Pack trains daily departed thence to the mines, laden with the goods brought up by the weekly steamboat, the town at once taking on an air of having come to stay, which its excellent location fully justified. The military authorities, however, who were pledged to protect the Indians in their rights, prohibited the erection of permanent buildings, and the Nez Percé agent called the attention of the public to the breach of treaty committed by them in their invasion of the reservation twice reserved.
But remonstrance were unavailing when opposed to the determination of 3,000 persons already occupying the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and whose number was daily increasing. Lawyer, and the headmen generally, perceived the difficulties in which the white men would be placed if denied access to the mines, or a landing for their goods, and accepting some compensation, they allowed the town site of Lewiston to be laid off in October. That the Nez Perces were not averse to the coming of white men among them was evident from their obliging and friendly conduct. The better class of Indians as well as White men reprobated the introduction of intoxicating liquors; but otherwise, expecting the treaty to be observed in regard to territory, they made no very great protest against the presence of miners on the reservation.
As the summer advanced, new discoveries were made and other mining towns sprang up. Oro Fino City, a rival of Pierce City, in the early part of June had sixty houses, built of logs, ten stores of general merchandise, and various other shops. The population was about 500, most of whom lived in tents. Three families were settled there, the whole of the inhabitants with this exception being males. A wagon-road was completed from the mouth of the Clearwater to Pierce City in June, crossing the south branch of that river.
In July 5,000 men were scattered over the mining region, now no longer confined to Oro Fino district. Two sawmills were in process of erection, and trade was already overdone, so many merchants had hastened their goods into the country. In Oro Fino City building lots sold for from $100, to $200, and with a log-house on them, from $500 to $1,000. Carpenters’ wages were nine and ten dollars a day, and common labor from three and a half to six dollars.
As to what the miners were making, that depended upon the locality. The first discovery was inferior in richness to later ones. On Rhodes Creek, which emptied into the Oro Fino one and a half miles above Pierce City, claims paid from twelve to twenty-five dollars a day to the man. The heavy expenses of opening a claim, however, greatly lessened the profits; lumber costing twenty cents a foot, and nails forty cents per pound, in addition to the high price of labor. A few claims yielded fifty, seventy, and a hundred dollars to the man.
With the usual restlessness of miners, a party of fifty-two men left the Oro Fino district in May to explore and prospect the south fork of the Clearwater and its tributaries. This stream was almost unknown, being far to the north of the travelled roads between the Rocky and Blue Mountains, and even remote from the trails made by the fur-hunters. Proceeding seventeen miles above the north branch of South Fork, they crossed from the north to the south side of the stream, keeping up the river to the junction of the south branch of the South Fork, up which they continued for six miles, or until they arrived at the village of the chief of that district of the Nez Percé country, Coolcoolsneenee, who objected to this infraction of treaty agreements, which excluded white men from the south side of the Clearwater.
After a prolonged interview with the chief, who insisted upon an observance of the treaty, thirty of the party turned back. The remaining twenty-two crossed the South Fork to the north side, and proceeded along up the stream by the southern Nez Percé trail to the buffalo grounds, going about twenty miles from the crossing in an easterly course, until they came to where three branches of the South Fork met. Here they made an examination of the earth, and obtained from twelve to twenty-five cents to the pan of shot and drift gold.
About one third of the party returned to Oro Fino, where they arrived on the 6th of June, exhibiting their specimens, and after purchasing a supply of provisions, immediately rejoined their associates in the new diggings.
The discovery on South Fork led to a rush of several hundred Oro Fino miners, some of whom returned before winter. Other diggings were found on the north side of the Clearwater, on Newsom Creek, where from eight to fifteen dollars a day were obtained. The opposition of the Indians to the intrusion of white men on the South Fork for a time restrained the mining but good reports continuing to come from there, a fresh migration set in, and by September a town called Elk City was laid off between Elk and American creeks of Red River, the main branch of South Fork, which contained 2,000 inhabitants, several business houses, and forty dwellings already erected or in process of construetion.
Elk valley, or prairie, was about seven miles in length, and not more than half a mile in width. The mountains on either side were low and covered with small pines. From the tops of these ridges flat ravines sloped down at intervals, covered with rich grass, and watered by springs. Elk City was situated a mile from the lower end of the valley, on a flat between two of these ravines, which gave it a greater extent of view. On the west the mountains rose ridge above ridge toward the great spur of the Bitter Root range, which the miners were obliged to cross to reach it, and Elk Creek, its meanderings marked only by occasional clumps of willows, flowed along the western border of the town. The distance from Elk City to Oro Fino was 120 miles. Between it arid the crossing of the South Fork were two rugged ranges, one fifteen miles, the other twenty-five miles over, separated by Newsom Creek. On every side in this locality rose ledges of pale red or rose quartz. Between the mountains were intervals of beautiful grassy prairies; on the mountains heavy pine forests. Game abounded, the principal being the elk, of which there were large bands. The country was, in fact, very different from the California miner’s preconceived ideas of a gold country. But experience had proved that gold might exist either under barren sands, rich alluvium, or the frozen mosses of a Cariboo; and certainly this was a pleasanter country to live and mine in than Cariboo. The objection to it was that the mining season, so far up in the mountains, must be comparatively short; and in order to make up for the expense of a long idle winter, it was important to secure a considerable sum during the summer. It was also necessary to lay in a sufficient stock of provisions to last while the heavy snows suspended travel.
Some who preferred wintering in Walla Walla left the mines early to avoid the snow; but the majority remained, and for these the traders provided by hurrying in ample stocks of goods as long as the weather permitted. Such was the energy and enterprise of the latter class, that by the first week in September a trail six feet wide was cut through forty miles of timber on the mountains between Elk City and the South Fork, obstructions removed, and the hills graded where required. In October, in spite of treaty obligations, a white man had taken up a farm on the road, and erected a cabin of the nature of a wayside inn, called the Mountain House.
At this period of the development of the Clearwater mines, there were comparatively few except Oregon and Washington men engaged in mining or trade in the Nez Percé country. The sale of whiskey, reprobated by the majority, was carried on, notwithstanding the danger that it might involve the miners and Indians in trouble. Few crimes, however, were committed this season. One American was shot in a drunken quarrel with a Frenchman, and one packer was murdered and robbed on the road. Some instances of sluice robbing occurred at Oro Fino; and horse stealing by an organized band of thieves began.
By the end of summer, when the mining season was expected to close, the profits of the outlay in opening up the gold-fields began to be speculated upon by the press; and although no doubt was entertained of the riches contained in the gold region, or that it would continue to yield well for a longer period than the Fraser mines, which were already worked out, it was asserted that the Willamette Valley was a million dollars worse off for the discovery. And yet the Willamette Valley was, as far as cash was concerned, already poor, on account of the long period of Indian wars, and the non-payment of the war debt, while the weekly receipt of gold-dust at Portland was nearly $100,000. These jealous writers admitted that this money was developing in various ways the natural resources of an immense region east of the Cascade Mountains, but chiefly on the Washington side of the Columbia. Even The Danes, which had received a great impetus from the Colville and Fraser River migrations, was but little benefited by this one; for now that the steamers carried freight and passengers directly to Lewiston, the business of supplying miners was transacted either at that place or at Portland. Others with more comprehensive views remarked that the gold discoveries came opportunely for Oregon, the disbursement of money in the country by the army paymasters and quartermasters having almost ceased through the withdrawal of the regular troops to participate in the civil war. It was also remarked that, contrary to the ideas generally entertained of the value of the country east of the mountains for agriculture, those persons who had taken up farming claims on the route from The Dalles to Lewiston had raised fine crops, and were getting high prices for them. This was the beginning of a better understanding of the capabilities of the soil in what has since become one of the best wheat-producing countries in the world, but which was up to this period considered as a grazing country only.
The opinion had been repeatedly expressed that the Clearwater mines were but the outskirts of some richer central deposit. In the hope of verifying this belief, prospecting parties had been traversing the country in an easterly and southerly direction during the entire summer of 1861. The party, which successfully proved the theory, consisted of twenty-three men who left Oro Fino in the early part of July to prospect on Salmon River. After testing the bars on this river for a distance of 100 miles, with encouraging results, they retraced their steps to a point about seventy-five miles south of Elk City, to which place they desired to go in order to lay in a stock of provisions. At the point mentioned, the company divided, nine of them remaining to hunt, and to examine the country for a practicable route through the great masses of fallen timber, which obstructed travel in the direction of the Clearwater.
In their reconnaissance, while travelling over a wet, boggy flat on the top of a high mountain twenty miles north of Salmon River, they stopped to rest in a temporary camp, when one of the explorers laid a wager with another that the color of gold could not be found in that country. In sport the wager was accepted, and in a short time the prospector having taken a pan of dirt from the roots of an upturned tree, found it to contain five cents’ worth of gold. Upon this wholly unexpected and flattering prospect the party proceeded to examine the creeks and gulches in the immediate vicinity, obtaining five, ten, twenty-five, and even seventy-five cents to every pan of dirt washed. They then followed their former associates to Elk City, where, after resting for a few days, they purchased a month’s supplies and returned to their discovery, accompanied by a few others.
The discovery was made in September, and in October a town called Millersburg was laid off on Miller Creek, where the richest diggings were found. From the first pan of dirt taken out of the first hole sunk in this creek $25 was obtained. In the course of an afternoon Miller washed out $100. The remainder of the company then staked off claims and began operations with vigor. Working only with a rocker, each claim averaged from $75 to $100 daily to the man. With a pan alone $75 was obtained in ten hours, and in one gulch five men took out $700 in the same time.
During the first two weeks in October fifty men were mining at Millersburg, and a radius of five miles had been prospected. To get a winter’s supplies to camp was the first care of those on the ground, to which end they expended much labor upon a pack- trail to Elk City. The first train that left Elk City under the guidance of Leech became lost in a snowstorm, and after wandering about for two weeks, returned to the starting-point. But in the mean time three trains belonging to Creighton had left Elk City and proceeded as far as Camas prairie, ten miles south of the Clearwater, where they were met by Eagle-from-the-light, who peremptorily ordered them to turn back, and observe the treaty made in April. They endeavored to pacify the justly offended chief, and pushed on.
By the first of November there were 1,000 men on the creeks and gulches of the new district, believed at that time to be limited to a small extent of territory. Elk City and Oro Fino were soon almost deserted. Although a large amount of provisions was hurried into Millersburg, not enough could be taken there before the snow had stopped the passage of trains to support all who had gone there, and by the middle of November many were forced to return to Oro Fino a distance of 100 miles, to winter, lest starvation should attack the camp before spring. The snow was already over two feet deep, and the cold severe, so that frozen feet very frequently disabled the traveler for the remainder of the season.
The excitement which hurried men to the Salmon River mines was intense. Nor was it without justification; for every report from there confirmed and strengthened the accounts given by the first explorers, though some who had gone there returned without any treasure. The weight of evidence was to the effect that these mines excelled in richness the placer mines of California in their best days. Of their extent, men were not so certain.
A letter to the Portland Times of November 25th stated that while the correspondent was at the Salmon River mines, in the latter part of October, he had known from personal observation some claims to yield from thirty to eighty dollars to the pan. One panful of dirt from Baboon Gulch contained $151.50. The same claim yielded $1,800 in three hours, two men working it with a rocker. This claim belonged to a man named Weiser, the same after whom Weiser River in Idaho was named. John Munsac of Yamhill County, Oregon, purchased a claim for $1,800, and from two pans of the dirt took four ounces of gold. In two weeks he had taken out forty-five pounds of dust! It was no uncommon thing to see, on entering a miner’s cabin, a gold-washing pan measuring; eight quarts full to the brim, or half filled, with gold dust washed out in one or two weeks. All manner of vessels, such as oyster-cans and yeast-powder boxes, or pickle-bottles, were in demand, in which to store the precious dust. A claim was held in small esteem that yielded only $12 a day, as some claims did, while hundreds of others returned from one to four ounces for a day’s labor.
Owing to the lateness of the season and the hostility of the Shoshones, whose territory bordered on the Salmon River basin, the question of the extent of these rich gold mines was necessarily left undetermined until spring should open the roads and strengthen the hands of the miners. As far as could be judged from external appearances, there was an extent of country comprising a thousand square miles similar to that where the mines were being worked. This area was included in a basin rimmed with mountains that seemed, when viewed from a distance, like the broken walls of an extinct volcano, while the basin itself might have been the burnt-out crater. A deep canon extended around inside and next to the mountain walls, and thrown up in the centre were countless small buttes, overgrown with small pine and tamarack trees. Fires had burned off the growth on some of them; others were covered with blackened stems, where the fire had only partially done its work, and others were green. Where the ground was bare of trees, bunch grass had sprung up.
Between these buttes were the gulches in which the gold was found, being simply strips of lowland, covered with a tough sod from six to twelve inches in thickness. The lowest parts of these gulches were marshy or boggy. All of them had numerous ramifications. Under the thick turf was a depth of from one to six feet of loam, and under the loam a red gravel, in which was the gold, in small round particles and of a red color. Underneath this was a solid bed of white quartz gravel, or hard-pan, in place of bedrock, of from six to eighteen inches in thickness, and under all another bed of loose quartz gravel mixed with water. Very little clay was found in the mines. The method resorted to for obtaining water for mining purposes was to dig holes or wells of a convenient depth, which soon filled from the moist gravel. The rockers were placed beside these holes, and the water used over and over until it became very thick, when the well was emptied and allowed to fill again over night.
The early part of the winter of 1861-2 was not severe. New diggings were discovered at Florence, thirty miles north of the first discovery, before prospecting was interrupted; and all during the month of December companies from the outside were exploring and opening routes to the mines, the most promising of which was by the old emigrant road to the Grand Rond Valley, thence by an Indian trail to Snake River and beyond, after which there were fifty miles to be opened over a range of mountains. December closed with the heaviest storms hitherto known in Oregon, extending over the whole northwest coast and California, snow and floods interrupting travel in every direction. At the time of this interruption to communication there were between 500 and 800 men in the Salmon River mines, and every kind of provisions was worth a dollar a pound, excepting beef, which was still cheap.
The sudden migration to Salmon River did not by any means depopulate the Clearwater mines, which continued to yield as well as at first. The return of many to winter in Oro Fino, where some mining could still be done, kept business alive in that district. Those who could afford to be idle went to Lewiston, which now, in spite of prohibition, was a growing town; while those who had accumulated large sums returned to the world and society to enjoy their wealth.
Politically, the effect of the Clearwater gold discovery was remarkable. Walla Walla County with Shoshone attached elected four representatives, and with Missoula a joint councilman, more votes being cast in the counties of Walla Walla and Shoshone than in any two west of the Cascades. A new county called Nez Percé was organized by the miners in the Oro Fino district during the summer, which was legally created and organized by the legislature the following winter, along with the county of Idaho, and the territory was redistricted in order to give a federal judge to this region. The judicial districts as newly defined made the 1st, or mining district, embrace Walla Walla and the counties east of that, P. Oliphant presiding; Chief Justice James E. Wyche being assigned to the 2d, or Columbia River district, and C. C. Hewitt to the 3d, or Puget Sound district.
The legislature found itself much embarrassed by the situation. Three judges had no more than sufficed when the business of the courts was confined to the region west of the Cascades, when suddenly the population east of the mountains became sufficient to require, with the great extent of territory, two if not three more. One of the expedients proposed was to grant the probate courts of the several counties civil and criminal jurisdiction, provided the Supreme Court then in session should give a favorable opinion upon the right of the territorial assembly, under the organic act, to confer such jurisdiction. By the advice of the federal judges, acts were passed establishing a district court at the county seat of each county, said court to have concurrent jurisdiction within its own boundaries, except in those cases where the United States was a party, in the same manner and to the same extent as before exercised by the federal district courts, with right of appeal to the supreme court of federal judges; the counties to pay the expenses of these courts.
The assessed valuation of taxable property in the county of Walla Walla in 1861 was nearly half a million dollars, which must have been much less than the real value at the close of the year. Two steamboats were now running upon the upper Columbia, built at a cost of $60,000. Pack-trails had been opened through the hitherto inaccessible mountain regions, wagon-roads projected and to some extent completed to the most important points, and ferries established on all the rivers they intersected, and all chiefly by private enterprise. A company was incorporated to construct a railroad from old Fort Walla Walla to the town of that name, which was eventually built and operated. Printing-presses had been taken to Walla Walla, and public journals established, and the place became an incorporated city, and a county seat by act of legislature in January.
Two thirds more population was contained in the counties cast of the mountains in December than in the whole lower Columbia and Puget Sound region, settled sixteen years before. And the empire-makers, believing that they had no interest in Puget Sound, but that Olympia was too distant a capital, instructed their representatives to endeavor to get a memorial to congress from the legislature, asking that the eastern division of the territory might be set off and organized as an independent political entity. The council, however, declared that no good reason existed for a separation, which could not benefit the transmontane portion, and would seriously retard the growth and improvement of the Puget Sound region, in which all had a mutual interest as a seaboard, and refused to sanction the prayer to congress. It consented, instead, to ask that body to establish a land-office at Walla Walla for the convenience of those desiring to take farms in either of the new counties east of the Cascades, which in due time was granted.
It would be impossible to imagine greater hardships than were endured by a certain number of over-sanguine persons who took the risk of remaining in the Salmon River Mountains without an adequate supply of food. Men continued to force their way in until February. After that for several weeks the trails were obliterated or blockaded by snow, and those who had neither money nor provisions suffered all the horrors of slow starvation. And this state of affairs lasted until May. G. A. Noble started on the 21st of December to go from Oro Fino to Florence, the latest new town which had sprung up in the Salmon River district, having with him a small pack train. He was ten days toiling through snowdrifts a distance of 125 miles, and would have perished but for assistance from Indians.
He found a town regularly laid out, with building lots recorded and fenced in, all under a city government. The buildings were of logs, dragged half a mile on hand-sleds. By the last of January nothing to eat could be purchased, excepting flour at $2 a pound. Some of the miners earned enough to keep soul and body together by warming water to wash out the gold from earth, obtained with much exertion and exposure by digging down through several feet of snow. The consequence of this, and of insufficient food, was rheumatism, scurvy, and diseases of the chest. During the latter part of winter the snow was from seven to ten feet deep; yet some men who lived on a scanty supply of bread and weak coffee without sugar, in trying to provide themselves with these necessaries, were compelled to remove this amount of snow from their claims in order to work them enough to pay for such food.
It was not until the first of May that pack trains could come to within ten or twelve miles of Florence. For the remainder of the distance the goods were carried in on the backs of men, at forty cents a pound transportation, and the starving were glad to perform this labor for the wages. These were only incidents of mining life, and did not affect the reputation of the mines, which in the spring of 1862 drew a wild crusade of gold worshippers toward them from every hand. The steamship Cortés, as early as February 13th, landed 700 California miners at Portland, and preceded to Bellingham Bay with still another company, destined for Cariboo. There was plenty of ground from which to choose, for eastern Oregon as well as Washington and British Columbia was now known to be a goldfield. In April the regular line carried 600 or 700 on each trip, and on the 5th of May three ocean steamers, the Panama, Oregon, and Sierra Nevada, were at Portland together, their passengers crowding up the Columbia day and night as fast as the river steamboats could carry them, and on the 6th the Brother Jonathan arrived with another 600.
It was in vain that the newspapers in California and Oregon endeavored to check the rush, at least until the roads in the upper country were opened to travel. The Portland Advertiser of the 14th of March published a fair warning, that the snow at The Dalles was still two feet deep, and from one to four feet between there and Lewiston, with a greater amount in the mountains east of Lewiston; that provisions along the whole distance were exhausted, and no entertainment could be had, nor any transportation, not even on riding or pack animals, the cattle being all either frozen or too thin to travel; that the weather was still severe, and no wood along the route from The Dalles to Lewiston, except at long intervals a few willow poles; and those who should undertake to walk would be in danger of perishing with cold. But miners had been pouring into Oregon for a month when this notice was given, and they were not likely to stop then, when spring was so near. Nor did they. The Dalles was at one time so crowded with people unable to pay the high prices of provisions that a mob was raised, who proceeded to help themselves at the stores. In general, however, men bore their privations with dogged endurance, hoping for better things.
Nor were the Oregonians more prudent than strangers who knew less of the country, the climate, and the phenomenal effects of the floods and frosts of the winter of 1861-2. Some had mining claims to which they were anxious to return; others, farmers, had lost heavily by the floods of December, and were in haste to retrieve their fortunes. Traders were desirous of being first to bring their goods to a market where gold-dust was more plentiful than flour, sugar, or bacon; and all had good reasons for their precipitancy in the matter of getting to the mines. Most of those crowded into The Dalles began moving forward about the 17th of March, when a saddle-train arrived from Walla Walla, bringing the first passengers that had come through since the disasters of January. They brought 400 pounds of gold dust, sufficient apology for the haste of the crusaders. By the 22d a change in the weather had left the roads in an almost impassable state, and the streams too high to be forded. Fortunately for those not already upon the way, the steamboat Colonel Wright succeeded about this date in forcing a passage from Celilo to old Fort Walla Walla, where J. M. Vansyckle had laid off a town called Wallula, and was making improvements at the landing, and regular navigation to this point was soon resumed, although the water in the Snake River was still too low to admit of a passage to Lewiston. At this place during the winter the suffering had been great from want of adequate shelter, most of the population living in tents. Fuel was scarce, and provisions both scarce and high. At length, when the snow melted in the upper country, the Columbia rose to a stage which in May inundated Lewiston, The Dalles, and the lower portions of Portland.
The first trains reached Powder River about the last of April; the first that arrived at Salmon River not before the middle of May, the goods being carried, as I have said, on the backs of starving men the last twelve or fifteen miles, many of them becoming snow blind while performing this labor. When the product of the winter’s work, with all its disadvantages, began to appear, it increased the mining furore. The different gulches in the Florence district were found to yield per day to the rocker from $30 to $250. Some great strikes were made, as when Weiser took out of Baboon Gulch $6,600 in one day, and half that amount in another, one panful of dirt yielding $500. The average yield of these placers was $75 per diem.
Prospecting began by the middle of May. In the latter part of June there were thousands of men ranging the country in every direction. Some put their number at 25,000. It is more probable that in the autumn, after the emigration from California and the east was all in, there were 20,000 persons in the mines of Clearwater, Salmon, Powder, and John Day rivers.
From these mines, the accounts received were generally flattering, though occasionally a disappointed adventurer expressed his disgust at adverse fortune in terms more forcible than elegant. As to Powder River, after it had been pretty well prospected it was set down as rich, but not of the extraordinary richness of Salmon River. Water was scarce, and until ditches were constructed to carry water from Elk Creek to the flat below, where the claims were located, no sluicing or rapid work could be accomplished. There were about 1,000 persons in the Powder River mines by the middle of June. Among them were many from the mines of Washoe in Nevada. Others followed during the summer, and a considerable proportion of these settled in eastern Oregon, in the neighborhood of the mines. They found a beautiful country of rolling plains, and long sunny slopes partially wooded with stately pines, of fertile valleys, and free-flowing streams of excellent water at frequent intervals; and last, but not least, unlimited grazing, making this the stock-raiser’s paradise. Several important discoveries were made in the region both east and west of the Blue Mountains, sonic of which mining ground turned out a large amount of bullion, and some of which is still mined, but the main rush was to the country east of Snake River.
About the 1st of August, James Warren, a “shiftless individual, a petty gambler, miner, and prospector,” made up a party in Lewiston for a tour through the Salmon River basin, and returned in less than a month with the report of new and rich diggings. Unlike the Florence mines, the Warren diggings were deep as well as rich. The mining ground extended about sixteen miles north and south along the creek, and the gold assayed from $12 to $17 an ounce.
This proved to be one of the most valuable discoveries made. The diggings outlasted the Florence mines, and when the placers were exhausted on the creek bottoms, still yielded to hydraulic treatment returns nearly as rich as the placers.
Notwithstanding the unsavory reputation of the discoverer, Warren’s diggings were worked chiefly by practical miners and men of good character, many of whom long remained there in business. In November 400 men were mining at Warren’s, taking out an average of from $14 to $20 daily.
Three years afterward the population was 1,500, which dwindled two years later to 500. When the mines had been worked for ten years they were sold to Chinese miners, some of whom became wealthy.
Late in the summer of 1862, the opinion of old miners that a rich deposit would be found farther to the south than any yet discovered was verified. Many companies were searching for such a field, but the successful party was one which left Auburn, Baker County, Oregon, about the middle of July, proceeding east to Snake River and up it to Sinker Creek, above the mouth of the Owyhee, where, the company dividing, one portion returned to a point opposite Boise River, and having made a skiff and ferried themselves over to the south side of that stream, followed along it to a junction with the immigrant road, where they again constructed a raft and crossed to the north bank of the Boise, where now stands the city of that name.
Proceeding north, but being interrupted by the impassable canons of the country, they succeeded in entering the basin of the Boise River by following a divide which brought them to a stream twelve miles southwest of the present town of Idaho City. After prospecting this stream for three miles on the south side, they proceeded the next day down the north side into the basin and to a larger stream. Here they obtained excellent indications, and spent a week examining the ground higher up, finding it to be rich for fifteen miles. While encamped at Grimes’ Pass they were fired upon by some Shoshones who had hung upon their trail for several days. Grimes, Wilson, Splawn, and the Portuguese pursued the attacking party into the mountains, when Grimes was shot and instantly killed, having at the same moment shot an Indian.
Being too few in numbers to remain in a hostile country, the eleven returned to Walla Walla by the same route they travelled in going out, arriving about the 1st of September, and bringing between $4,000 and $5,000 in gold-dust, with which they purchased supplies for another season in the mines. A company of fifty-four men was quickly organized and armed to return to Boise basin, where they arrived on the 7th of October. After a fortnight spent in determining the value of the new mines, all of the company but twenty returned to Walla Walla to obtain provisions, while those left behind occupied themselves in building a stockade and cabins for the company. In spite of an effort that had been made to keep the discovery secret, the returning party met on the road another company of between fifty and sixty following their former trail; and it was not many days before a rush to the Boise mines succeeded.
The distance of the new discovery from Walla Walk was about 300 miles, and 70 due east front old Fort Boise. The basin in which it was situated is a picturesque depression among the mountains about thirty miles square, hitherto unknown to the inhabitants of the Pacific coast. The face of the country varied from grassy meadows to timbered hills and abrupt mountain precipices. The climate, so far from being severe, admitted of sleeping in the open air in November. The camps could be approached with wagons to within fifteen miles, with a possibility of ultimately making that portion of the road passable for wagons. The first camp of the pioneers of this region was on Grimes’ Creek, and was named Pioneer City, sometimes called Fort Haynes; but owing to the selfishness of the original discoverers, it received from those who arrived subsequently the euphonious appellation of Hog’em. There are several Hog’ems on the maps of mining districts, probably originating in the same cause. Mutation in the condition of eastern Washington such as had occurred during the year could not but effect some political changes. The county of Boise was created January 12, 1863, comprising all the country lying south of Payette River and between Snake River and the Rocky Mountains, with the county seat at Bannack City. A large number of charters were granted for roads, bridges, ferries, and mining ditches, in every part of the territory from Yakima to Boise River, and from the 44th to the 49th parallel. The city of Lewiston was incorporated, having become, in the eyes of its founders, a commercial mart of greater promise than others, for the reason that it was at the terminus of river navigation, and centrally located with regard to the whole Snake River country. It had already, like older cities, large mercantile establishments, hotels, mills, gambling-houses, churches, a newspaper, the Golden Age, issued first on the 2d of August by A. S. Gould, and a line of four-horse coaches to Walla Walla and Wallula, while along the line of the road farms were being rapidly improved.
In short, eastern Washington had outgrown the Puget Sound region, and was demanding a separate government. Committees were appointed in every mining district to procure signers to a petition asking the legislature to memorialize congress on the subject. But the legislature refused to agree to such a memorial. A bill was introduced, and passed in the council, to submit for ratification by the people the constitution of the state of Idaho, intended to effect the desired organization, which was defeated by the lower house substituting “state of Washington.” But congress, to which the petitioners appealed directly, regarded the matter more favorably for the mining interest, passing an act, approved March 3, 1863, organizing the territory of Idaho out of all that portion of Washington lying east of Oregon and the 117th meridian of west longitude.
Although the loss of a large extent of rich mining territory was regarded with disapproval by the remainder of the population, the benefit to the whole, of the more rapid development of all the resources of the country was cause for congratulation, both then and later, the mines having given an impetus to the growth of the territory that agriculture alone could not have done in a long period of time. The area left comprised 71,300 square miles, with a population in 1863 of 12,519, which, although small, was nearly double that of 1860.
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