Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 20/News and Comment from Number 2

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Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume 20  (1919) 
News and Comment from Number 2 by Leslie M. Scott


By Leslie M. Scott


Casual discovery of lumps of yellow metal, in the fall of 1845, in Central or Eastern Oregon by members of the "Meek's Cut-off Party," gave rise to the idea, after discovery of California gold three years later, that the lumps were of the precious metal, and ever since that time the place of the discovery has been a subject of discussion. A quantity of the lumps, gathered in a blue bucket, gave rise to the name. This was probably the earliest discovery of gold on the Pacific Coast.

In March, 1919, Tyra Allen, of Pendleton, started discussion of the subject by asking "Where was Blue Bucket?" in a letter printed in the Canyon City Eagle. Numerous responses came forth in several newspapers, especially in the Portland Oregonian. George Irvin, of Monument, Grant County, said in an article quoted in The Oregonian of April 23, 1919, that the discovery was made in Spanish Gulch of the John Day country. "Son of a Pioneer," writing in that newspaper of April 25, 1919, said the discovery occurred probably on a tributary of John Day River. He wrote:

"The party proceeded for a number of days, crossing a divide separating the valley of the Malheur from either the Silvies or the John Day River, and somewhere near the end of this digression encampment was made on a small stream (more probably a tributary of the John Day River). Either while fishing in this stream or while taking water therefrom for camp purposes, numerous pieces of yellow metal were found in the stream bed or grass roots, the character of which was debated and tests made by hammering the nuggets into different forms on the wagon tires."

The father of this writer was a member of the pioneer party. Mrs. Ruth Herren Leonard, of Dayton, Washington, whose father was also a member of the party, quoted him, in The Oregonian of April 26, 1919, as giving the place as in Tygh Valley, but this explanation lacks credence because the party seems not to have entered Tygh Valley but to have turned northward to the Columbia River without crossing the Deschutes River. W. W. Oglesby, of Cottage Grove, Oregon, wrote in The Oregonian, May 1, 1919, that the place of discovery was in the waters of John Day River. After the discovery, wrote Mr. Oglesby, the party spent two days reaching Farewell Bend of the Deschutes River, whence the party turned north to the Columbia. O. C. Applegate, writing from Klamath Falls, in The Oregonian of May 6, 1919, leaned to the belief that the discovery was made in the region of Stein Mountain.

The place of the Blue Bucket is scattered over a wide variety of opinions, and may never be known. Fifteen years later the placer diggings of Eastern Oregon began an activity that produced large findings of gold, especially in the John Day country. The frequency of gold nuggets in the beds of streams makes the Blue Bucket story not merely credible, but in connection with the many authentic versions of the story, places it beyond question of doubt.

NOTE.—It is not easy to fix the date when the phrase "Blue Bucket Mines" came into use. It certainly was as early as 1868, for it is positively known that Stephen H. Meek, the leader of the party of immigrants in 1845 over the route afterwards referred to as "Meek's Cut-off," conducted thirty men that year along that trail in search of the mine of that name, without success.

According to a statement given me by William F. Helm many years ago, whose father, mother, five brothers and one sister and himself were members of the Meek party, the term "Blue Bucket" originated in this way: The Helm wagons, yokes, and many of the camp utensils, including several buckets, were painted blue. At one camp on a tributary of the John Day River numerous small yellow pebbles were found along the water's edge and among the grass roots. An attempt was made to catch some fish, but the current being very swift, the effort failed. Then Col. W. G. T'Vault, Thomas R. Cornelius and James Terwilliger, the latter a blacksmith, conceived the idea of pounding one of the bright pebbles, and, finding it soft, pounded it thin and used it as a sinker on their fish lines. Others did the same. At one of the camps where an experience occurred of the kind here related two blue buckets were left, the Helm family having no further use for them.

None of the company had any idea of gold at this time. Their minds were fully occupied by the effort to get out of the wilderness, as their situation was a very serious one. At length the party reached The Dalles and went down the Columbia River on rafts, all settling in the Willamette Valley.

It will be remembered that gold was discovered in California January 24, 1848, by James W. Marshall, an Oregon pioneer of 1844. News of this discovery reached the Willamette Valley in July following. Soon afterwards a number of the adults of the Meek party of 1845 went to the California mines, and then they became aware that the "pebbles" that had been seen and used as sinkers on fish lines were gold.

Mr. Helm went to the vicinity of Canyon City in 1863, soon after the gold discovery of that year, and always insisted that there or in the region near there was the locality where the gold was found in 1845. That was the opinion of Thomas R. Cornelius also, who at the time of my first acquaintance with him in 1866 was one of the substantial citizens of Washington County, Oregon.—George M. Himes, Curator and Assistant Secretary.