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Fur Trappers, Wagon Trains and Military Expeditions

Landscape view of the expanse of sagebrush“At sunset we reached the lakes. A small ridge of land [the Harney Lake dunes] an acre in width divides the fresh water from the salt lakes. These two lakes have no intercourse. The fresh water has an unpleasant taste 1 mile wide 9 long. In this (salt) lake [Malheur Lake] discharge Sylavailles River [the Silvies river] and 2 small forks; but it has no discharge. Salt Lake at the south end is 3 miles wide. Its length at present unknown to us but appears to be a large body of saltish water. All hands gave it a trial but none could drink it. All the country is low and bare of wood except worm wood and brush. We had trouble finding wood to cook supper. The trappers did not see a vestige of beaver. Great stress was laid on the expedition visiting this quarter. Here we are now all ignorant of the country, traps in camp, provisions scarce prospects gloomy. Buffalo have been here and heads are to be seen. Fowl in abundance but very shy.” ~ Peter Skene Ogden 1826

Fur Trappers

In 1826 French-Canadian fur trapper Peter Skene Ogden led a large expedition of trappers from the Hudson Bay Company into the Harney Basin. The fur trappers were looking for beaver, river otter and other fur bearing animals in rivers and wetlands in the Basin. Ogden and his company of trappers remained on the north side of Malheur, Mud and Harney Lakes. However, had they gone to the south side of Malheur Lake, they would have found fresh water at the spring near today’s refuge headquarters and the abundant plant and animal resource of the Blitzen Valley.

During their late fall arrival, they encountered Paiute Indians camped along the shore of the lakes. The Hudson Bay Company frequently expected local tribes to supply food for their large expedition groups. Unfortunately, the Paiutes were entering winter after a very unproductive summer and were unable to help the explorers with food. On November 3rd Ogden documents his company’s hardships and provides a description of the Paiutes and their small villages. He also describes the hardships the Indians were enduring because of a lack of food:

“From 4 a.m. snow has fallen. This will make it difficult for my 2 express men from Ft. Vancouver to find our tracks though every precaution was taken making marks at different camps; if only the Indians do not destroy these marks. It is incredible the number of Indians in this quarter. We cannot go 10 yds, without finding them. Huts generally of grass of a size to hold 6 or 8 persons. No Indian nation so numerous as these in all North America. I include both Upper and Lower Snakes.... They lead a most wandering life. An old woman camped with us the other night; and her information I have found most correct. From the severe weather last year, her people were reduced for want of food... Unfortunate creatures what privations you are doomed to endure; what an example for us at present reduced to one meal a day, how loudly and grievously we complain; when I consider the Snake sufferings compared to our own! Many a day they pass without food and without a murmur. Had they arms and ammunition they might resort to buffalo; but without this region the war tribes would soon destroy them. This country is bare of beaver to enable them to procure arms. Indian traders cannot afford to supply them free. Before this happens a wonderful change must happen. One of Mr. McKay’s party was sent back to request us to raise camp and follow his tracks. A chain of lakes [most likely the springs in the Double-O area] was all they had seen, no game. Truly, gloomy are our prospects.”

Prospects did not improve for the company and Ogden recounts on November 4th: “Raised camp taking west course and soon reached the end of Salt Lake [Malheur lake] not near so long as I expected, in some parts nearly 5 miles wide and deep, its borders flat and sandy. At evening we camped near three small lakes [east side of Malheur Lake ]. Swans numerous. Tho’ 100 shots fired, not one killed. Nothing but worm wood this day. Salt (?) Lake may be 10 miles in length. Mr. McKay and party arrived with the following accounts – no beaver, same level country a chain of lakes of fresh water. This adds to the general gloom prevailing in camp, with all in a starving condition, so that plots are forming (among) the Freemen to separate. Should we not find animals our horses will fall to the kettle. I am at a loss how to act.”

On November 5th a decision is made to abandon trapping in the area and proceed westward: “Bad as prospects were yesterday they are worse to-day. It snowed all night and day. If this snow does not disappear our express men will never reach us. I hope they will not fall a prey to the Snakes. I intend to take the nearest route I can discover to the Clammiitte [Klamath] Country. My provisions are fast decreasing. The hunters are discouraged. Day after day from morning to night in quest of animals; but not one track do they see.”

The lack of available food and a scarcity of fur bearing animals around the lakes led Ogden to write the name “Malheur” the French word misfortune on his maps of the area. From that time on the area would be identified it as Malheur Lake. Ogden mistakenly believed the lake was connected with the Malheur River, thus providing the river with its name. It would be nearly 20 years before the next significant presence of Euro-Americans in the Basin.


Springs near the old wagon tails at the Double-)

Wagons Ho!

The 1845 Meeks Wagon Train was the next major presence of non-natives in the area. Convinced by Stephen Meek that he knew a shorter route to the Willamette Valley, nearly 800 pioneers followed him across Oregon’s high desert. As the wagon train entered the Harney Basin, their primary concerns were water and feed for their livestock. Water and grass had not been particularly abundant since the wagon train turned off the established Oregon Trail and the livestock were beginning to suffer. Under the direction of Meek they arrived in the northern portion of the Harney Basin and then, in search of water, detoured south to the lakes. They camped along Malheur and Harney lakes but found the water, because of its alkaline nature, was not fit for humans or animals. The ill-fated wagon train eventually made their way to The Dalles, but not before suffering from the deprivations of the high desert. In his diary, Eli Casey Cooley tells about the wagon train’s entrance into the Harney Basin and their travels along the north side of the lakes to Silver Creek.

“Sept Thu 4. Weather fine to day and the road has been broken for a pease and then first rate. Crossed the main divide [Stinkingwater Pass] to day which is about 7 mile from whare wee camped and about 3 miles further to a valley. This far the road is very broken and rough and some seder and pine timber. After wee got in to the valley the road was first rate to whare wee camped which was on a small drean [Malheur Slough] about 4 miles from whare wee struck the valley. Some willow and plenty of grass. Here as wee come over the divide wee saw the Cascade Mountains at a considerable distance. Here the valley appears to b perfectly level as far as the eye can reach. Saw some Indians here. The corse is about South West to day.
14 miles”


“Sept Sat 6. The road to day is first rate. Weather fine. Come about 3 miles and crossed a small creek [a branch of the Silvies river]. Plenty of grass and willow here on the creek. In about 1 mile further passed the point of a ridge [Wrights Point] leaving it to the rite and in about 14 miles further camped by a lake [Malheur Lake]. Leaving it to the left the creek runs to the left. Plenty of grass, no wood, some sage here. The corse has been a little West of South.
18 miles”

“Sept Sun7. The road to day has been good. Weather fine. Come about 10 miles and struck a creek [Silver Creek] and camped. Plenty of grass and willow here. The creek runs to the left and thrugh (through) the lake [Harney Lake] and then round to the rite in to Jays river [Meek was confusing the John Day river to the north with this area] round the mountains. Wee left holes? to the rite and left. The corse has been about South West or near so. Traveled allmost towards a high point or peak [Wagontire Mountain] and to the rite is and other some distance off. Crossed a small drean just befor it.”


In September 1853 the “Lost Wagon Train” led by Elijah Elliot seeking a shorter route to the Willamette Valley followed the route of the Meeks Wagon Train into the Harney Basin. Upon entering the basin, Elliot decided to detour around the south side of Malheur Lake, where they encountered marshy areas that were difficult to traverse. The train forded the Blitzen River and, in doing so, left behind one of the only reliable sources of fresh water in the area. The wagon train continued around Mud and Harney Lakes until they reached the springs in the Double-O area. Many members of the wagon train believed they were hopelessly lost, but riders from Central Oregon eventually located the wagon train many miles west of the Double-O area and led them to safety.

View of the spring at Refuge Headquarters around 1900

Military Expeditions

Various military expeditions ventured into the area in the late 1850s, and several military camps were established in the basin in the 1860s. Many local landmarks received their names during these expeditions. Harney Lake received its name in 1859 in honor of General William S. Harney after he ordered an expedition through the basin in search of a reliable route to the Snake River. Steens Mountain is named after Major Enoch Steen who led an expedition to survey a military road through the area in 1860.

Many early bird observations were recorded in military journals from these expeditions. The first published observations of waterfowl and wildlife in the area occurred in 1874, when Captain Charles Bendire wrote about the birds found in the vicinity of Malheur Lake. In May 1875, he recorded the following observation about pelicans fishing in the spring at Refuge Headquarters:

“Here is a large spring coming out from the hill, having a gravelly bed. It is the only place on the lake where the water is sweet and palatable. The shore here swarms with a species of sucker about eighteen inches long, and red on the sides. I camped a night there, and this kept the birds away in the day-time. At sun-down they began to collect, first by tens, then by fifties, and in a short while there was string of them one hundred and fifty yards long, at least, and from four to six deep... For so many birds they kept singularly quiet; an occasional grunt from one, resembling a doöe, was about all I could hear... forming a semicircle, gradually closing in towards the shore and driving the fish with them, and as soon as they had them in the shallow water about one and one-half feet deep and less, they all went for them, and such a splashing I have seldom heard.”

Bendire made additional observations about pelican nests on islands in the lake, as well as a large cormorant colony, and Western gull and Forster’s tern colonies. This information would later attract feather hunters to the area and eventually bring about establishment of the refuge.

Last Updated: Nov 19, 2014
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