The Dalles, Oregon

End of the Old Oregon Trail

French-Canadian trappers are responsible for giving the place its name, The Dalles, a French word for rapids of a river through a narrow gorge.

In 1906 Ezra Meeker and the people of Dalles City, Oregon, erected a monument near the city center proclaiming the “End of the Old Oregon Trail 1843-1906.” It is incorrect in dates, location, and facts.

Meeker had a policy of placing monuments at city centers or parks where they could get the best exposure. He is to be commended for this. If he had placed a plaque at Crates Point that said, “Temporary End of the Overland Portion of the Old Oregon Trail 1843-1845,” few people would have given it notice.

In April of 1806, Lewis and Clark stayed at a spot they called “rockfort” camp. As salmon ran up the swift water, Indians were spearing them from the rocks of Celilo Falls or scooping them out of the water with long handled nets. These Indians menaced the whites as they portaged the rapids, and Lewis and Clark as well as the 1811 Stuart Party paid them tribute. Despite this, the Indians stole what they could and so earned the reputation of being the worst thieves between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean. William Clark himself came near to shooting an Indian — any Indian — when his dog was stolen (happily for all concerned, he soon got it back).

James Birney of the North West Company established a short-lived fur trading fort here in 1820. His French-Canadian trappers are responsible for giving the place its name, The Dalles, a French word for rapids of a river through a narrow gorge. Despite the official name of “Dalles City,” most people, including the United States Post Office, called it “The Dalles.” In 1967, the municipal government changed the town’s name to the “City of The Dalles,” conforming to the popular custom.

In 1838, the Methodists built a branch mission named Wascopam at The Dalles. Jason Lee’s nephew, Daniel Lee, was put in charge. In 1840, Alvin Waller was transferred from Oregon City to assist in building the parish among the Indians. At first they seemed successful, but backsliders soon outnumbered converts.

Oregon Trail emigrants described the mission as two dwellings, a schoolhouse, stable, barn, garden, and cleared fields next to the wooden huts of an Indian village. The Applegate Party of 1843 was met with warm greetings and fresh food.

Wascopam Mission was abandoned in 1847 and sold to Dr. Marcus Whitman for $600. After the Whitman Massacre, the property was returned to the Methodists. Neither the Whitmans nor the Methodists attempted to keep up the property, and emigrants of 1849 found the mission in ruins and decay. After Fort Dalles was built, the old mission was burned and the U.S. government paid $24,000 to the Methodists for title to the land. Various lawsuits proved that the Methodists had never obtained legal title to the property, and $23,000 was returned to claimants.

At Crates Point, a protected harbor at the mouth of Chenowith Creek, the Oregon Trail pioneers put into the river. John McLoughlin, despite orders from his superiors, sent bateaux and food here to assist (and occasionally rescue) weary emigrants. Nearby were many pine trees to cut for building immense rafts that could hold up to six wagons. Writing in 1843, explorer John C. Fremont described them as “ark-like rafts, on which they had embarked their families and households, with their large wagons and other furniture, while their stock were driven along the shore.”

In 1845, Samuel K. Barlow and his family arrived in The Dalles and, finding no boats readily available at such a late date, set off to scout the route of what would become the Barlow Road around the south shoulder of Mount Hood. Sam Barlow’s road, originally called the Mount Hood Toll Road, began at what is now Third Street in The Dalles. With the Barlow Road open, it was no longer necessary to abandon the overland trail for crude rafts or overpriced HBC bateaux. Later travelers bypassed The Dalles entirely, leaving the Oregon Trail ten miles east to cut south to Barlow’s route. Still, the Barlow Road had its own dangers, and about one in every four emigrants would opt for the water route even after the Barlow Road was opened in 1846.

In 1847, Captain Nathan Olney established a store in a log hut only two blocks from the Oregon Trail and Barlow Road. Aside from the old fur trading posts, it was the first business concern east of the Cascades in the Oregon Country.

Major H.A.G. Lee, of the Provisional Government’s Oregon Rifles, arrived in The Dalles during the 1847-48 Cayuse War. He built a stockade around the old mission buildings that became known as Fort Lee or Fort Wascopam. In 1849, Colonel Loring of Fort Leavenworth established several posts along the Oregon Trail to protect the emigrants, including Cantonment Loring near Fort Hall and Fort Drum at The Dalles. Starting in May, 1850, crude log buildings were constructed a short distance west of the old Wascopam mission. The fort was redesignated Fort Dalles.

Fort Dalles was the headquarters for Army operations during the 1855-56 Yakima Indian Wars. Eight companies were assigned to the garrison. The Surgeon’s Quarters that now serves as the Fort Dalles Museum was built at that time. In 1861, Fort Dalles was downgraded to a quartermaster’s depot before being abandoned in 1867.

With Army regulars to serve, a town began growing around the fort in 1852. It was incorporated in 1857 as Fort Dalles. The land claim was entered at the U.S. Land Office at Oregon City. The name was later changed officially to Dalles City.