Eastern Oregon and the surrounding areas were havens for Native Americans. Many of these tribes, including the Nez Perce, Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Shoshone, would spend their summers in the bountiful Grande Ronde Valley, where they would forage, hunt, fish, and bathe in hot springs. Tribes that may have been hostile toward each other would live together harmoniously in the “Valley of Peace”.
The Astor Expedition passed through the valley in 1811; then it became a waypoint along the Oregon Trail for people headed to the Willamette Valley. Every traveler who left a record of passing through the area spoke about it with favor.
This lovely place was also the home of the largest “Used Oxen Dealership” on the Oregon trail.
It was an especially important part of that historic route, from the 1840s up until the Civil War broke out. Once an emigrant party had made it to the Grande Ronde Valley, it had straggled across hundreds of miles of the Great Plains, crossed the Continental Divide in Wyoming and thrashed through hundreds more miles of the Rocky Mountains and the blistering, arid Snake River Desert in Idaho – throughout which they were constantly fighting off attacks by hostile native tribes. By the time a party got to this tiny, fertile valley, it was typically pretty played-out.
This was more applicable to the animals than the people. After all, the people could rest when they needed to, sitting on the wagon while the oxen dragged it up yet another mountain pass. Exhausted from their ordeal, severely under weight and unhealthy from lack of suitable food, the oxen could not be helped by the pioneers. What they needed was a long period of pasturing and rest. That’s where the Native Americans in the region could help … for a fee.
The Nez Pierce, Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes had no use for oxen, except maybe for the occasional bad winter when better meats were unavailable. But they quickly figured out that they could make a lot of money on them.
These tribes would take skinny, exhausted draft animals off the emigrants’ hands for, basically, 50 percent of their value. Then they’d equip the party with fresh draft animals, ones purchased from immigrants during the previous travel season, and send them on their way to the Willamette Valley another 300 miles or so of Blue Mountains, Cascade Range and terrifying river voyages still ahead before the parties would get there.
The Native Americans made good money with his business venture. Pioneers didn’t always like it, but they needed the fresh animals and the Grande Ronde Used Oxen Dealership” was the only shop in town.
“The Nez Pierce can beat a Yankee peddler in a trade,” one exasperated – and out-of-pocket – emigrant groused.
Early pioneers chose not to settle in Eastern Oregon, perhaps because they were intent upon reaching the Willamette Valley, it was too far from a supply base, or they feared the Native Americans in the area.
The first permanent settlement in the Grande Ronde Valley was established in 1861 byBenjamin Brown, an Englishman who had originally settled in Michigan.
Not long after, the Leasey family and about 20 others settled there. Serving as a travelers inn, the settlement was originally named Brown’s Fort, and then Browns Town or Brownsville. Since there was already a Brownsville in Linn County, the name was changed to La Grande.
Early settlements were in the more arable northern parts of the valley, because the southern end had more alkaline soil. It was also often swampy and subject to flooding. In 1862, Conrad Miller settled the opposite side of the valley. This settlement grew into the city of Union, the second largest community in the Grande Ronde Valley. Island City, Cove, and Summerville were not far behind.
Many factors contributed to the growth of the valley. Some of these were the continuing presence of emigrants from the Oregon Trail, and the discovery of gold mines in the surrounding area: Baker in 1861 and the Powder River Mines in 1862.
The name Grande Ronde means “great circle,” and this productive area, the second largest enclosed valley in the world, does indeed contain much of Union County’s economy, including nearly $100 million in annual agricultural sales, a figure that has doubled since 2001. Small towns like Cove, Island City, and Union, and the county seat, La Grande, depend on this economy to support local businesses, while visitors since the days of the Oregon Trail have marveled at the valley’s unique beauty.
In honor of this long, rich heritage, I offer this poem:
Great and lovely valley,
Filled with so much life:
Cougars, deer, elk, eagles
Crops, forest, livestock;
Place of fullness.
Seasons chase each other,
From hottest to cold:
Summer heat to bright fall;
Snow to rains in spring;
Small towns, farms and woodlands
Make a giant quilt,
Looking down from high peaks,
Surrounding the land
Where quiet lives.
Place where native peoples
Hunted and foraged;
Laid down hostilities,
Lived in harmony;
Valley of peace.
(First posted on September 3, 2014)