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Oregon Trail: Baker City, Oregon

The Oregon Trail is a pioneer trail that extends approximately 2,170 miles from the Eastern to the Western United States. It was used by large-wheeled wagons by primarily Euro-American settlers heading West before the railways were built. It was originally carved by trappers and fur traders from 1811 until 1840, originally only passable by horseback and foot. The first wagon trail was cleared from Independence, Missouri to Fort Hall, Idaho, and eventually to Willamette Valley, Oregon. The modern-day states that the trail passed through were Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Since its 1811 inception, the trail grew and expanded with trails to roads, cutoffs, bridges, and ferries were established. Then it died when the rails brought settlers via train faster and more safely. It is believed that between 1846 and 1869 over 400,000 pioneers followed the trail with over 10% of which died along the journey. The Oregon Trail was used to access other immigrant trails such at the California Trail in 1843, Mormon Trail in 1847, and Bozeman Trail in 1863. The First Transcontinental Railroad was finished by 1869 diminishing its use. Federal Interstate highways were later established for motorized vehicles creating faster, safer travel along Interstates 80 and 84 west. You can read our article about the entire Oregon Trail here:

As the Oregon Trail passes through Baker City, Oregon … inbetween Ontario and La Grande, Oregon … the heart of Oregon’s gold mining booms begin. Baker City was known as the “Queen City of the Mines” and was the first town to be established along the Oregon Trail in Northeast Oregon. It became a stopping point for many on the trail, a new home, and a major trading center. In 1890 it had a population of over 6,663 inhabitants. The scenic corridor along the Blue Mountains holds a tremendous amount of history, stories, and lore. This was a major wagon route. The diaries of pioneers have been collected by historians for this area. As politicians were determined to expand the United States, the government lured pioneers along this trail with great promises during the 1830s. More than 400,000 pioneers traveled west on the trail. Historians calculate approximately 10 percent died during travel. It took approximately 5 to 6 months to make it to Oregon City at the end of the trail. Here a man could claim 320 acres of land, and 640 if he was married, filing papers with the state. Outside of Baker City is the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center atop Flagstaff Hill overlooking well-preserved ruts from the 19th century.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

Permanent Settlers
In 1861, Henry Griffin, a prospector from California, discovered gold eight miles southwest of the present site of Baker City. Emigration patterns changed immediately, and eastern Oregon became a destination for both gold-seekers and settlers. Many earlier emigrants to western Oregon moved back to the fertile valleys they had admired during the initial migration. They soon established farms and stores, and settlers provided hay and produce to travelers bound for the gold mines. During the 1860s large wagon trains loaded with freight were a common sight in the valley. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Laid overall day on excellent grass 2 miles west of Powder River. A large empty freight train passed us, going west for a load. 6 and 8 mules to a wagon. Two little bells on the top of the hems of every mule. The same one we seen in Boise City one week ago today. Splendid day, the first day I have had a good rest and enjoyed it. No shoeing to do today, Something new. ” ~ S.B. Eakin, August 5, 1866. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

“Oregon Trail emigrants caught their first glimpse of the Blue Mountains from the desolate hills east of the Baker Valley: “they struck us with terror,” wrote Medorem Crawford, emigrant of 1842, “their lofty peaks seemed a resting place for the clouds.” Emigrants found plenty of water and grazing in the Baker Valley, but with snow visible in the Blues, and the road ahead described by Esther Belle McMillan Hanna in 1851, as “very tortuous,” they did not tarry.” ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“… started up a long hill without any timber, as we reached the summit, little sister Rosa was sitting down in front. She jumped up in great glee and said ‘Johnnie I see the Boo Mountains.’ looking toward the north and west the Blue Mountains were in plain view. We could trace the outlines for many miles, and to our unaccustomed visage, they appeared to be covered with a thick growth of small pines. In the state of the atmosphere they appeared to be a beautiful blue. ” ~ John Johnson, July 29, 1851. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

Itinerant Traders
The Baker Valley was known to Oregon Trail emigrants as the Powder River Valley. Emigrants camped on sloughs along the Powder River and many along with Joel Palmer, emigrant of 1845, found local Indians eager to “barter for cattle”. Although emigrants and Indians continued to barter, and many like George Belshaw in 1853 bought their first “Salmon fish” from the Indians, itinerant traders from the Willamette Valley soon moved in to peddle supples. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“… here are some traders come out from Oregon with provision to meet the sufering emegrants who have lost nearly all their cattle, and some we know have spent all their money, and others nearly all, and they only ask 35 dollars per hundred for flour and sugar 40 cents per pound, and cheese 75 we expect to get to the Grand round tomorrow, and hope to meet with a more pleasing prospect. we have good grass here good water and wood and all well, and have some thing to eat yet, but nearly out.” ~ Sarah Sutton, August 13, 1854. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon. .

Unimproved Road
The Oregon Trail was never a single set of parallel ruts leading from Missouri to the Willamette Valley. In valleys and plains where wagon wheels and oxen hooves churned up tremendous clouds of choking dust, emigrants often traveled abreast, sometimes widening the trail to several miles. Although ferries and toll roads were eventually established at river crossings and difficult hills, the trail remained an unimproved road. Emigrants lacked incentive to engage in road building, especially when they never expected to return over the same route. In this valley, where the trail followed the Powder River, a passing lane would have been helpful. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“… we came in contact with a train forward of us that traveled so very slow that we were retarded at least an hour, we passed them and went on at a good job till we overtook another slow train and were hindered an other hour We however reached a strem of running watter at about two o’clock which was very gratifying to us and the poor cattle which have traveled 18 miles without drinking, and the last 8 miles were very dusty and the middle of the day very hot.” ~ Charlotte Strat Pyngt September 21, 1853 ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

The Lone Tree
Oregon Trail emigrants entered the Baker Valley after days of arduous travel through the Burnt River watershed, where James Nesmith, emigrant of 1843, considered “The roads rough and the country rougher still.” Early emigrants crested the south flank of Flagstaff Hill, and with the Blue Mountains looming to the west, the rolling valley below presented a single tree – The Lone Pine. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“We at last found the top of the mountain at a distance we could see what we supposed to be the Blue mountains and they struck us with terror. their lofty peaks seemed a resting place for the clouds. Below us was a large plain and at some distance we could discover a tree which we at once recongmized as ‘the lone tree’ of which we had before heard. We made all possible speed and at 7 1/2 o’clock the advance party arrived at the Tree nearly an hour before the cattle. The Tree is a large Pine standing in the midst of an immense plain intirely alone. It presented a truly singular appearance and I believe is respected by every traviler through this Treeless Country.” ~ Medorem Crawford, September 8, 1842. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

The Vandal hands of Man
The Lone Pine stood in an otherwise treeless Baker Valley. In 1839 Sidney Smith noted, “there is no other pine in Sight and this Rears its head in the prairie like a towering monument.” The Lone Pine was a sentinel to Indians, fur trappers, missionaries, and emigrants until felled in 1843 by what John Fremont called “some inconsiderate emigrant axe.” The Lone Pine, called l’arbre seul by French-Canadian fur trappers, was soon referred to as the Lone Pine Stump. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“This noble tree stood in the center of a most lovely valley about ten miles from any other timber. It could be seen at the distance of many miles, rearing its majestic form above the surrounding plain, and constituted a beautiful landmark for the guidance of the traveler. Many teams had passed on before me, and at intervals, as I drove along, I would raise my head and look at that beautiful green pine. At last, on looking up as usual, the tree was gone. I was perplexed for a moment to know whether I was going in the right direction. There was the plain, beaten wagon road before me, and I drove on until I reached the camp just at dark. That brave old pine, which had withstood the storms and snows of centuries, had fallen at last by the vandal hands of men.” ~ Peter herdsman Huf… September 27, 1843~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

pathway to the “Garden of the World”
Excitement filled the air May 22, 1843 as nearly one thousand Americans left Missouri toward new lives in the Oregon Country. During the next two decades more than 50,000 people emigrated to a land of abundance, a land that Abigail Scott, emigrant of 1852 called the “Garden of the World.” The Oregon Trail was more than two thousand miles through what Riley Root, emigrant of 1848, called “Landscape without soil!” River bottoms with scarcely enough grass to support emigrant teams.” The fragile landscape’s ability to sustain life eroded as numbers of emigrants increased, and privation, illness and death often plagued emigrants. Survivors endured an extremely wearisome road, and by the time they reached this portion of the Trail, with much of the journey behind them, the “Garden of the World” still seemed very distant. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“Remained in camp to graze our poor, brave cattle. Will start about two and go as far as we can tonight, as the days are so excessively hot, and we have 28 miles to go without water.” Felt very unwell today, Am almost worn down with the fatigue of the constant travel. Our way seems endless.” ~ Esther Belle McMillan Haan… August 13, 1852~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

Dear Little Willie
Emigration on the Oregon Trail peaked in 1852 with 10,000 would-be Oregonians. Poor sanitation and contaminated water along the trail led to epidemics of fever, cholera, and dysentery. Those too weak to walk were jostled about in wagons like baggage. On this segment of the trail, with the Blue Mountains looming ahead, sick emigrants could not afford time to recover, and many died. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“Our dear little “Willie” is not expected to live 12 hours as he evidently has the ‘Cholera Infantum’ or Dropsy in the brain. the doctor tells us it is in vain to administer any medicine as he must surely die. This to us is heart rendering, but God’s ways are not our ways neither is his thats our thoughts! O’may we bow with submission to his will. …. Last night our darling Willie was called from earth, to vie with angels around the throne of God. He was buried to-day upon an elevated point, one hundred and fifty feet above the plain in a spot of sweet seclusion … He was four years of age.” ~ Abigail Scott, August 25-28, 1852″ ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

The Burnt River
The Burnt River, also known as Riviere Brule, took its name from the fire-blackened hillsides, probably produced from the fire ecology of local Indians. In 1843 explorer John C. Fremont noted, “wherever the fire had passed, there was a recent growth of strong, green, and vigorous grass.” Many, like Thomas Jefferson Farnham, emigrant of 1839, trekked through this canyon and found “The atmosphere all the day smoky.” Some emigrants, like James Clyman in 1844, believed that “Some Indian as is their habit when they discover Strangers in their country set fire to the grass.” Whatever their cause, the fires of the Burnt River Canyon provided an amazing and frightening spectacle. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“This river takes its name from the blackened and burnt appearance of the hills and mountains on either side of it, and the frequent burnings on them. They are mostly covered with high bunch grass. This often gets on fire, burning for miles and days together. One of these burnings is in sight of us today. It is on the opposite side of the river from, or I should fee alarmed. The fire in the mountains last night was truly grand. It went to the tops of them spreading far down their sides. We were obliged to go over after our cattle at dark and bring them across the stream. The fire extended for several miles, burning all night, throwing out great streamers of red against the night sky.” Esther Belle McMillan Hannes, August 15-16, 1852. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

Hole Among the Hills
The ascent of the Burnt River canyon required up to six days of back-breaking labor over what Joel Palmer, emigrant of 1845, considered “the most difficult road we have yet encountered.” In 1848 Rile Root traveled eight miles up the river and exclaimed “Oh, when shall I view, once more, a verdant landscape!” In 1849 William J. Watson entered the steep-walled canyon and described it as “a hole among the hills.” Emigrants chopped their way through brush along the streambed, crossed the river several times, and in several places ascended the steep walls of the canyon – accidents were common. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“Traveled 15 miles crossing several spring branches yesterday and to day our road has been very crooked and hilly to day we had another wagon tip over on a very sidling hill … broke the wagons bows all up the only damage done got some willows and again twisted up some and went on.” Susan Cranston AUgust 7, 1851~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

We Shall Get to Oregon
Covered wagons were not the only means of transportation employed during the emigration era. A few emigrants traveled with their possessions on their backs, and some pushed carts or wheelbarrows. Methods of travel notwithstanding, the real issue was the choice of draft animals. Although horses and mules were indeed hitched to wagons, their lack of stamina or legendary stubbornness was problematic. Henry Cook, emigrant of 1850, exclaimed, “What perverse brutes these mules are … Eh the beasts. How I hate ’em!” The lowly ox was the animal of choice, and here along the Burnt River many died of exhaustion, leaving emigrants to wonder just how they would carry on.~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“… passed a wagon and yoke of oxen dead by it. one wagon and family … campt with us night before last. they went off and left us very lively, and it is their oxen dead, and they had fixed a cart of the 4 wheels, and gone on … 3 of our cows are sick this eve. we are tented to night on a branch of burnt river, and pretty good many dead cattle to day that have died the last day or tow. … our case looks desperate but some of us have faith strong enough to believe we shall get to Oregon. ~ Sarah Sutton, August 10, 1854. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

Almost Impassable
Oregon Trail emigrants trekked from Farewell Bend on the Snake River through the Burnt River Canyon to Virtue Flats, then around Flagstaff Hill into the drainage of the Powder River – today known as Baker Valley. The emigrant route along the Burnt River was extremely arduous, and one of the most lamented by emigrants. In 1843 explorer John Fremont exclaimed “I have never seen a wagon road equally bad …” Loren B. Hastings traveled through this precipitous canyon in 1847 and described the trail as “up hill and down, mountainous and rocky.”~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“This day we traveled about twelve miles. The road exceeded in roughness that of yesterday. Sometimes it pursued its course along the bottom of the creek, at other times it wound its way along the sides of the mountains, so sidelong as to require the weight of two or more men on the upper side of the wagons to preserve their equilibrium. The creek and road are so enclosed by the high mountains, as to afford but little room to pass along, rendering it in some places almost impassable. Many of the mountains viewed from here seem almost perpendicular ….” ~ Joel Palmer, September 7, 1845.~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

A Game of Skill
Despite fantastic tales of savagery on the frontier published in more than 300 “Indian Captivity Narratives,” violent encounters between Oregon Trail emigrants and Indians were rare prior to 1849. Although emigrants were ever wary of Indian attack, the most common complaint was thievery – especially horses. To the warrior, stealing livestock was a game of skill and one-upmanship, at which two could play. To emigrants, who never learned to appreciate the irony of being stranded, however, the game was at best a nuissance. At worst it was a matter of life or death. Emigrants soon learned to guard their stock carefully. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

“… on a creek called Brule, we found one family, consisting of five Snake Indians, one man, two women, and two children. They had evidently but very recently arrived, probably only last night, and as they must certainly have passed our camp, we feel little hesitation in believing that my lost horse is in their possession. …. We cannot even question them concerning it, as our interpreter, McCarey, left us with the trapping party.” ~ John Kirk Townsend, Naturalist – August 20, 1834. ~ Interpretive history sign, Baker City Oregon rest area.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.
Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon. Oisin’s Adventure East: Quest for American Giants, Adventure 3: Photo taken on March 24, 2021 by Thomas Baurley, Oisin Rhymour, Leif McGowan: Technotink Photography: All rights reserved, (c) 2021 copyright.

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  • Colby, Terri 2018 “In Baker City, Following the Oregon Trail”. The Bend Bulletin. Website referenced 5/24/21 at
  • State of Oregon undated Interpretive History Signs, Baker City Oregon Rest Area.

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