Deschutes River Crossing


The Longed for Columbia RiverLong - looked for Columbia river

Early Oregon Trail emigrants floated down the Columbia River or followed its south bank from Fort Walla Walla. In the 1840s travelers established an alternate route from the Umatilla River to The Dalles across the Columbia Plateau. The new route, 4 to 12 miles south of the river, shortened the journey to the Willamette Valley, but as William J. Watson noted in ’49, emigrants found the road “very dusty” and traveled long distances “without water or wood,” Emigrants reached the Columbia River a few miles to the east near Biggs, and some were disappointed by what they found.

“About midnight we reached the longed for Columbia River, but alas! what a disappointment. We had thought that we would find the Promised Land, we had set our hopes on a new Eden! Not so! We found a dry and arid land where there was not a piece of wood, not even a stick, and where a violent wind carried clouds of dust with it. That was it, that was all we found there. We had to take shelter behind our waggons to avoid being buried in the sand that the wind hurled at us with unbelievable violence. We ate a few biscuits and slept as best we could.” 
Honore-Timothee Lempfrit;   September 21,1848


Truly HeartbreakingTruly Heart-Breaking!

Oregon Trail emigrants reached the Columbia River after an arduous trek across the dry and dusty Columbia Plateau, where Harriet A. Loughary, emigrant of 1864, noted “nothing indicates life except an occasional  Juniper tree.” Weary emigrants found little comfort on the plateau: water, firewood, and browse for livestock was scarce. Honore-Timothee Lempfrit, emigrant of 1848, descended the bluffs to the Columbia River and exclaimed, “Our poor animals were exhausted by fatigue and were at the point of collapse from inanition.” Some emigrants reached this site and were forced to lighten their loads before crossing the river.

” When we finally reached the Des Chutes region we were obliged to do exactly what those before us had done, doubtless with no lighter hearts than ours. We cast aside every article that we could  possibly spare. One wagon was shaved and whittled down as much as was consistent with strength and safety. All of our belongings were then put into this one, and the other perfectly good wagon left standing disconsolately beside the road. Oh, it was truly heart-breaking! But it had to be done. There was no use repining. Here, too, we parted with our cheery little sheet-iron cook stove, which had been a real Jov and comfort to us all the way across the plains. Words cannot tell how I felt about leaving all these good things of ours, especially the stove, after we had carried them so far.”  Esther M. Lockhart; emigrant of 1851 (Recollection)  


Friendships Not Easily SeveredFriendships Not Easily Severed

Oregon Trail emigrants traveling across the Columbia Plateau caught their first view of what William J. Watson, emigrant of 1849, called the “long – looked for Columbia” from the crest of a hill near Biggs. With Mt. Hood towering majestically to the southwest and the Columbia River below, the day was fast approaching when emigrants would part company to become settlers. Relief near journey’s end was surely offset by melancholy.

“this morning our party is separated after months of toil and hardships, dangers and difficulties freely helping to bear each others burden, begets a friendship not easily severed. All of the wagons go over the mountains except our own. We start alone toward The Dalles…”   Harriet A. Loughary; August 24, 1864


Deschutes River CrossingDeschutes River Crossing

River crossings were difficult for Oregon Trail emigrant and the Deschutes River was no exception. John McAllister, emigrant of 1852, warned “danger attends the crosage here.. many large rocks and at the same time a very rapid current.” Emigrants, wagons, and livestock all had to cross the river and casualties were common. Amelia Hadley, emigrant of 1851, noted a canoe “bottom side up, with a pair of boots tied in the capstern.” Early emigrants often hired local Indians to assist at this river crossing. During the 1850s pioneer entrepeneurs seized control of the ford and offered expensive ferry service. A toll bridge was established by 1864.

“…we drove four miles to Des Chutes River, a rapid stream heading in the mountain and one hundred fifty yards wide. the wind being high we could not ferry. We then concluded to ford it. The ferryman declared all would be lost, telling enormous lies to alarm us, but we employed an Indian guide who rode before each wagon, giving us the course to the island, the ford being very crooked; he then rode in front of one team, the rest following in a string, the course being nearly straight across the second channel. We paid him $2 for his services, all being across safe and dry. Our ferriage would have been $15; thus we saved $13 by fording.”
Basil Longworth,; September 17-18, 1853


Indians of the DeschutesIndians of the Deschutes

After crossing the Deschutes most Oregon  Trail emigrants traveled south of the Columbia and did not see the large Indian villages at nearby Celilo Falls. Indians were not scarce at this river crossing, however, Elizabeth Dixon Smith, emigrant of 1847 exclaimed “the Indians are as thick as hops here.” Although emigrants often found native people helpful, if not essential to survival, cultural diferences were vast and ignorance rarely overcome.
Indians of the Deschutes

That Indian, whose untutored mind
Sees God in the clouds, or hears him in the wind–
Whose soul, proud science never taught to stray
Far as the glittereing sun, or other orbs of day,

Lives far retird–a kanion deep, a solitary dell,
A gloomy shade–’tis there he deigns to dwell.
What is his food, when naught but rocks around
Are seen? No fields of plenty ther to clothe the ground.
His raiment, also scant, to shield his naked form,
No robes of beasts, nor pelts, nor furs, to guard from the storm.
And when with food he chance to break his fast,
He finds no wood to cook his limited repast.
Alas, what then? The salmon and the salmon trout,
In that mad stream are seen to gambol about.
By him prepared upon the rocks, or hung on slender poles,
Not far above, on steep decline, where furious water rolls,
He dries his food, and thus ’tis savd from future harm…”
Riley Root; September 2, 1848


Almost InsurmountableAlmost Insurmountable

The Deschutes River drains the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range and flows from Central Oregon to the Columbia River. Here, near its confluence with the Columbia, the Deschutes flows through a chasm that Riley Root, emigrant of 1848, compared to “the valley of Sinbad the sailor.” Oregon Trail emigrants usually arrived at this site in the late afternoon, and after a perilous river crossing they ascended the hill immediately to the west, camping at the summit. Amelia Hadley described this ascent in 1851 as “almost insurmountable.”The emigrant’s route is still visible across the river, particularly in early morning or late evening light.

The people were ready to face many challenges and explore new vistas to discover more opportunities. They trusted each other and travelled together. Today on the other hand, we feel scared to try an innovative opportunity, even if it is recommended by a friend because we are apprehensive about new schemes. Discover more here, a trustworthy and radically different trading system.


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“After we had got across the river we stopped for a few moments to debate whether we should push on further ahead. We were faced with a very steep hill to climb…the Captain was the first to get up the hill and to do so he had to use our four pairs of oxen as well as his own. Thus he had eight pairs and despite this long string of oxen he had the utmost difficulty in reaching the top of the hill. After this he came down for us and we managed to get up the hill quite well. When we arrived at thesummit we found a nice little spot to set up our camp.”
Honore-Timothee Lempfrit;   September 22,1848