Oregon Trail – Baker City: Visiting History

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Baker City, Oregon 24October2018
Covered wagon encampment

On the Oregon Trail

     “We’re almost there,” Pa said. He pointed towards a low sagebrush-covered hill. “It’s just over that rise.”

     “How many times have you said that, Pa?” I said to myself. I shaded my eyes and looked at the dismal landscape. Dusty sagebrush and clumps of dry grass for as far as I could see.

Covered wagon, Baker City 24October2018
Covered wagon and rabbitbrush in bloom

     The year is 1853 and my name is Lizzie. My family is heading west along the Oregon Trail. It’s not a trail so I don’t know why they call it that. Some people call it Emigrant Road, but I don’t think that’s right either. It’s a rough meandering pathway to a new life, that’s what it is. That’s why so many of us are making this journey, no matter what the cost.

     We have traveled nearly 1,600 miles so far. On a good day we make 20 miles but on most days we travel 10-15. It’s been five months since we left Missouri.

     We came here because of the promise of free land. If Pa was a single man, he could claim 320 acres; since he’s married, he and Ma can claim 640 acres. Was it worth it? I sure hope so. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think this is “The Land of Milk and Honey” that everyone said it was.

Oregon Trail map by Ezra Meeker
The Old Oregon Trail map by Ezra Meeker 1907

History of Trail

     Many of the nearly half a million emigrants that migrated to the Oregon Country in the years 1840-1870 could have written this account. In the nineteenth century, Great Britain, France, Russia, and Spain claimed parts of this region. Each country eventually gave up its claims. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 ended the joint occupancy with the British and set new boundaries for Oregon. As a result of this action, the U.S. government encouraged settlement of the newly acquired land.

Sensationalized accounts of the “Promised Land” caused the single largest voluntary migration in America. Artists such as Albert Bierstadt presented glamorized versions of the journey along the Trail.

Painting by Albert Bierstadt of the Oregon Trail
Oregon Trail by Albert Bierstadt 1869

For many of the settlers, the Willamette Valley was the final destination. To read about another wagon route, located near Sisters, Oregon, see my post Santiam Wagon Road.

Display on settlers early years in Oregon, Baker City, Oregon 24October2018
Display on settlers’ early years in Oregon

     In 1861, they discovered gold in the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon. The gold rush brought even more people to the state. Miners established mining camps in several locations. In 1894, gold was discovered on Flagstaff Hill and a mine was built there. By 1897, three quarters of Oregon’s gold—worth millions in today’s dollars—came from Baker County. One nugget weighed seven pounds!

National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center

     The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, located atop Flagstaff Hill east of Baker City, introduces visitors to this fascinating era in American history. Exhibits at the Interpretive Center focus on different aspects of the journey west, including the experiences of pioneers and native peoples.

Part of the Oregon Trail, Oregon Trail Interpretive Center 24October2018
Part of the Oregon Trail

     Approximately 300 miles of the Oregon Trail still exist. Much of the 2,170 mile trail has disappeared because of erosion and development. When traveling on a dirt road, motorized vehicles create two distinct ruts. In contrast to that, wagons pulled by teams of animals create a trench-like swale, or wide depression. Hooves pack down the middle of the road. At the Interpretive Center, you can hike or drive to areas where you can view actual remnants of the trail.

Display on wagons and teams, Baker City, Oregon 24October2018
Display on wagons and teams

Covered wagons – Inside and Out

     Covered wagons are a prominent part of the Interpretive Center, both inside and outside. Teams of oxen, mules, or horses pulled the wagons. Mule teams cost the most to buy. Though mules could be stubborn, they had remarkable endurance and surefootedness.

Mule team pulling a wagon, Oregon Trail Interpretive Center 24October2018
Mule team pulling a wagon

     Wagon makers often painted wagons blue, with red wheels and undercarriage.  The wheels shrank and separated in the heat so the wagon trains went through creeks and rivers to soak them back to size. The emigrants sometimes painted the canvas covers with oil paint for waterproofing.

     Every inch of space was used in the wagons. For example, false floors and pockets sewn into the canvases held extra supplies in the interior. They strapped other supplies to the outside or carried them in saddle bags. However, many of the supplies were abandoned along the way because of excess weight. Many wagons went without brakes since this too would add weight. They slowed wagons going downhill with rough locks, wheel shoes, or a tree tied to the wheels.

     Emigrants used the wagons for sick rooms, birthing rooms, and shelter from storms.  Most did not travel inside the wagons on the trail. The rough roads led to a bone-wrenching ride, so the emigrants walked alongside their wagons. When the landscape allowed it, wagons traveled abreast to avoid each other’s dust.

A typical camp along the Trail, Baker City, Oregon 24October2018
A typical camp along the Trail

Life and Death on the Trail

     If several wagons were traveling together, they often formed a circle at the end of the day’s travel. The area inside the wagon circle served as a corral for livestock. Exhausted travelers slept in tents and bedrolls outside of the circle. The day started when the sun rose. After breakfast and gathering of the livestock, the caravan would travel for five to six hours. The travelers had limited food supplies so meals might include such delicacies as Velvet Tail Rattlesnake, Blue Beaver Tail Soup, and Cricket Mush.

     Sometimes the wagon trains camped at noontime resting spots, but most of the time they pressed onward for several more hours.  Women and children collected firewood and men hunted for game along the way. As evening approached, they would encircle the wagons again. Evenings were a time for chores, such as repairing wagons and mending clothing, but also a time to tell stories, sing, and dance.

     Quarrels along the trail were common due to events like wagons getting stuck in the mud or runaway livestock. They took thousands of livestock animals on the trail for the settlers. The emigrants lost many because of predators, disease, and accidents.

     Many emigrants died on this perilous journey. Some called the trail a “two thousand mile long graveyard.” One estimate suggests there were 10-15 graves per mile from Missouri to Oregon.  Provisions gave out and hired hands abandoned their employers. The weak and the sick gave up hope. Cholera caused death within hours and it took the lives of many on the trail. Crossing rivers was one of the most dangerous parts of the journey. Records show that ten percent of the travelers perished.

Sharing the Trail

     Emigrants shared the Oregon Trail with trappers, traders, and native people. The Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, and other tribes lived in the area near the Interpretive Center. As emigrants displaced local people, conflicts such as the Cayuse War of 1847 arose. The old ways of living off the land and using it for hunting and vision quests had passed. It forced Native Americans to deal with sweeping changes.

Oxen team pulling a wagon
Oxen team pulling a wagon

     Both emigrants and natives learned to engage in the business of trading. Native people traded horses, local game, and salmon for cattle, beads, clothing, powder, and lead. Emigrants learned to differentiate the tribes by their clothing, hairstyles, beadwork, and basketry. Communication often consisted of hand signals and a few common words.

Visiting the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center

     After decades of planning, the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center opened in 1992 to commemorate this period of history. The 23,000-square foot building sits atop Flagstaff Hill where visitors get a panoramic view of the surrounding territory. The Interpretive Center includes exhibits, a theater, a café, and a gift store. There are living history interpretive talks, lectures, and special events throughout the year. Regular demonstrations include topics such as flint knapping, Dutch oven cooking, blacksmithing, and black powder firearms. For more information see this brochure.

Exhibit inside the Interpretive Center, Baker City 24October2018
Exhibit inside the Interpretive Center

     A network of trails leads you to living history encampments and to ruts left by wagons passing along the trail. You may catch glimpses of eagles flying overhead or pronghorn browsing in the sagebrush. In the spring and summer, wildflowers such as lupine, Indian paintbrush, and buttercups splash the desert with color. Visitors can take part in regular guided nature hikes. 

The white arrow points to the Trail location, Baker City, Oregon 24October2018
The white arrow points to the Trail location
A closer view of the Trail, Baker City, Oregon 24October2018
A closer view of the Trail

     Flagstaff Hill marked where the Great American Desert ended on the journey west. For the emigrants that made it this far, the lush vegetation and abundant game near the hill amazed them. This site symbolized all they had worked so hard for and many returned to the site years later. The Interpretive Center presents the tragedies encountered along the trail, and the joy many felt when they reached their destination.

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Baker City, Oregon 24October2018
Entrance sign

Pete French Round Barn

Horsemen of the past

Turning in his saddle and tilting his dusty hat to shade his eyes, he finally sees it in the distance. The round barn. The year is 1887 and he and the other vaqueros are moving a herd of horses collected over the sagebrush covered plains of the High Desert in Oregon. He had worked so many hours that week that when he finally settled down each night on a bed of hard sandy soil, he instantly fell into a deep sleep.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017

Moving cattle, horses, and mules for his boss, Pete French, was a hard but satisfying life. Guiding his horse with worn leather reins, he moves  to the back of the herd of mustangs and starts driving them towards the barn.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017

Round barns – marvelous structures with a purpose

The Pete French Round Barn, near Diamond, Oregon, was built in the 1880’s. The center pole and supporting poles are made from ancient western juniper trees. The juniper shows cuts and gouges from past use but is still strong. Umbrella-like beams radiate out from the center to support the rounded roof of this 100-foot diameter barn. Horses were stabled in the middle part of the building. The 63-foot diameter rock wall in the middle section forms a round corral in the building’s interior. A 20-foot wide circular paddock surrounds it. During the long winters, 400 to 600 horses and mules were moved through and trained in the barn, safe from the harsh conditions outside.

Round barns allowed livestock to be sheltered and trained year round. Teams of horses and mules were trained to pull freight wagons in the barns. This particular barn has an interesting history.

Pete French

In 1872, Pete French and a group of vaqueros were camping in an area south of present-day Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He was working for cattleman and wheat baron, Dr. Hugh Glenn, moving 1,200 shorthorn cattle to better grazing lands on Steens Mountain.  French met a prospector named Porter who had about a dozen cattle and squatter’s rights to the land. He bought the cattle, rights to the land, and the “P” brand. The laws of the land were a bit different back then so when he moved the cattle onto unsurveyed land nearby, that land became his. Ranchers were required to build fences to keep cattle out of their lands.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017French continued to work with Hugh Glenn and together they created French-Glenn Livestock Company.  Pete French became president of the company in 1893. The company went on to become one of the best run cattle businesses of the time. French-Glenn Livestock Company had two round barns and numerous other buildings on their 150,000 to 200,000 acres of land.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017Though successful as a businessman, Pete French was not well liked by some of his neighbors. Settlers were putting up fences on what they claimed was public land and French contested those claims in court. He fought with one neighbor, Edward Oliver, off and on for ten years. On December 26, 1897, they got in their last argument. Oliver shot and killed French and was later acquitted of all charges.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017

Preserving the past

The round barn has been carefully restored by state and federal agencies.  It is now protected as the Pete French Round Barn State Heritage Site. Cycle Oregon and Trust Management Services have also put work into maintaining and improving the site.

The barn is in an isolated location but it’s a remarkable structure well worth seeing. When you stand in it and look around, you really get a feel for the history of the place. It is a place full of many stories. For driving directions, click here.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017

The Round Barn Visitor Center

There is also an impressive visitor center and store near the barn. The Round Barn Visitor Center contains a small museum and a store featuring clothing, jewelry, hunting knives, and a very good assortment of local and regional history books. The store also has a few snacks and beverages. The museum contains artifacts related to the Jenkins family, who have lived and worked in the area for several generations. Talk to Mr. Jenkins, the proprietor of the store, to learn more about the stories this land has to tell.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Rounded

Cowboy Dinner Tree

Cowboy Dinner Tree gift shop

Cowboy Dinner Tree gift shop

Tucked away in Oregon’s Outback, you will find a unique place that hearkens back to an earlier time. The Cowboy Dinner Tree is a small restaurant located in Silver Lake Oregon, about an hour and a half southeast of Bend. The restaurant is only open from 4:00-8:30 pm four days per week and reservations are required. They give you ample portions of food here and you are advised to bring a cooler for leftovers. They do not take credit cards or debit cards so have cash on hand.

You have your choice of a 26-30 oz. top sirloin steak or a whole roasted chicken. Both are  accompanied by several tasty side dishes. There is green salad, hearty soup, old fashioned sweet yeast rolls, baked potato, and a dessert. You can have coffee, iced tea, or pink lemonade with your meal. On the day we were there, they served bean soup and a small shortcake with fresh berries. Everything is homemade and made daily.

Many years ago, ranchers pushed their cattle through this area on the way to the lush meadows of Sycan Marsh. The Dinner Tree, a big old juniper tree, was at the halfway-point. There was a small shack where the restaurant now sits and hungry ranchers stopped here for some grub from the chuck wagon. The food they had then was probably buckaroo beans and biscuits – not the large meal now served at the Cowboy Dinner Tree. The site was a homestead back in the late 1800’s and it was converted into a restaurant in 1992.

Cowboy Dinner Tree

Cowboy Dinner Tree

Today the Cowboy Dinner Tree is a popular destination. They have a restaurant, gift store, and a couple of cabins for lodging. The lodging has been so popular that they are in the process of adding five additional cabins. The gift store features items crafted by local artisans and craftspeople.

Main dining room

Main dining room

We arrived at about 4:30 pm and the place was filling up fast. We had a large group so we shared a long table but there are also smaller tables available. The place is decorated with cowboy print curtains and lots of related items such as horse bits, ropes, stirrups, and saddles. Dollar bills scrawled with notes from customers adorn the walls and ceiling.

The food was great and the server, Cowboy Dinner Tree owner Angel Roscoe, was very attentive. She and her husband, John, took over the restaurant from her mom in 2012. You will not leave feeling hungry that’s for sure! As their website says – Join us for a taste of the real Old West.

Cowboy Dinner Tree restaurant, Silver Lake, Oregon

Cowboy Dinner Tree restaurant