Using Artifacts to Study the Past: Early Evidence for John Day Exploration

By McKenzie, Michael | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Using Artifacts to Study the Past: Early Evidence for John Day Exploration


McKenzie, Michael, Oregon Historical Quarterly


Dedicated to Keith Clark 'Was there ever an undertaking of more merit, of more hazard and more enterprising, attended with a greater variety of misfortune?"

--John Jacob Astor, letter to Ramsey Crooks, reflecting on Astor's expedition to the Pacific Northwest, September 14,1814 (1)

THE OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY has recently acquired a basalt rock that may represent one of the earliest pieces of physical evidence of non-Native exploration in Oregon. Inscribed with the date "1811" and a cross, the light gray rock is triangular in shape, about twice the size of a basketball, and weighs about 120 pounds. In my judgment, this rock probably marks the nadir of what was already a star-crossed endeavor: the overland journey of the expedition sponsored by John Jacob Astor and led by Wilson Price Hunt in 1811-1812. The artifact, if genuine, could place some members of Hunt's expedition about fifty miles farther west than previously thought and could teach us more about early Oregon exploration in general and the overland expedition of the Astor party in particular. The rock may also provide additional evidence that links John Day, a hunter with the expedition, with the river and region that bear his name.

I learned of the rock's existence in early 1995 through a series of conversations with historian Keith Clark of Redmond. We talked about the propensity of explorers and pioneers to carve their names and the date in stone or wood. Clark told me about what he called "pioneer petroglyphs" in central Oregon and about those that have survived as powerful testimonies of the past. Two specific sites--one near Grizzly Mountain and the other near Paulina--are pioneer and cowboy registries carved in stone, with names and dates going back at least to the 1870s and continuing in some instances nearly to the present. (2)

Clark then gave me a black-and-white photograph of what he called a mystery rock, etched not with a name but with a date and what appeared to be a cross. From historian Lowell Tiller--Clark's co-author of The Terrible Trail: The Meek Cutoff, 1845--he knew the general location of where the rock had been found, but there was little specific information. No one at the Oregon Historical Society knew about the rock or the photograph, and even the rock's existence could not be verified. The trail was decidedly cool. After a number of phone calls, however, I finally located the family who had the rock and from them I was able to learn the story of its discovery.

Sometime around the summer of 1944, near the tiny mill town of Bates, Oregon, a ten-year-old boy was exploring the edge of a small pond adjacent to the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the John Day River. A smooth, light-colored rock, mostly covered in duff and pine needles, caught his eye. Upon closer inspection, the rock appeared to have writing carved into its surface. After cleaning the rock off with pond water, the boy saw a chiseled date and cross on the rock's surface. He apparently did not see any significance to the rock, and it was not until about twelve years later that the boy told anyone about his discovery. He and his father then moved the rock from its original location to their home in Bates, and it remained in the family's possession until the summer of 2003 when they donated it to the Oregon Historical Society.

Realizing the potential significance of such a find, I wanted to answer the obvious questions of origin and motive: Who had carved the rock and why? Assuming that answering the first question might go a long way toward solving the second, I knew it was essential to take stock of just which explorers might have been in the upper John Day country in 1811. First, however, I wanted to investigate the likelihood of forgery and whether the John Day rock fit any accepted patterns of carvings made by explorers and pioneers. (3)

EARLY NON-NATIVE EXPLORERS often marked their place on the western landscape. …

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