The Salmon River Trail (1979)

Horner Museum Tour Guide Series

The Salmon River Trail

By Kenneth Munford

(Originally published in the Horner Museum Tour Guide Series, 1979)

"Elk made the first trails on the Oregon Coast large enough for men to follow ... Both elk and Indians migrated with the seasons from shore toward the interior." (S.N. Dicken, Pioneer Trails of the Oregon Coast.)

The path up the Salmon River, called the Old Elk Trail, on the north border of Lincoln County, crossed the Coast Range through the Yamhill Gap to enter the Willamette Valley. In times of early white settlement it seems to have been almost forgotten by both elk and Indians.

Hunters and trappers from the fur-trading posts at Astoria and Fort Vancouver explored the Willamette Valley side of the Coast Range searching for beaver and may have followed the Old Elk Trail into the mountains, perhaps all the way to the coast. One of these early French-Canadian voyageurs felt well enough acquainted with it to guide the first party of white honeymooners to vacation on the Oregon Coast.

The first three recorded journeys over this trail were made by men who came to Oregon with Nathaniel Wyeth, the Yankee merchant who made two unsuccessful attempts, in 1832 and 1834, to set up American trading posts on the lower Columbia in competition with the British Hudson's Bay Company (HBC).

On his first trip west, Wyeth left Boston with 24 men, but when he reached Oregon he had only 8 left. At Fort Vancouver they learned that the vessel Wyeth had sent around Cape Horn with trading goods and equipment had been lost en route. The company broke up and the men had the privilege of remaining in Oregon as settlers or returning home. Wyeth himself went back to Boston to prepare for a repeat performance.

Among those who decided to stay were two well-educated men from New Hampshire: John Ball, 38, a Dartmouth College graduate who had taught school and practiced law, and Solomon Howard Smith, 23, who had attended Norwich Academy in Vermont. Calvin Tibbetts, age unknown, a stone mason from Massachusetts, also decided to stay.

At Fort Vancouver, Dr. McLoughlin received the visitors with gracious hospitality but gave them no encouragement concerning a rival commercial enterprise. Rather than sponging on this hospitality, through the winter of 1832-33, Ball suggested that he make himself useful as a teacher for the many children around the Fort. McLoughlin also hired Smith, by some accounts paying him $80 a month, to teach children and wives of HBC employees.

After the first winter in this first school in the Pacific Northwest, Ball decided to try his hand at farming and moved to French Prairie near Champoeg. Smith stayed at the Fort another year.

Solomon Smith and Celiast, wife of Basile Poirier, one of the bakers at the Fort, developed a fondness for each other. She may have been one of his pupils. When it was discovered that Poirier had another wife in Canada, her relationship with the French-Canadian was broken off. McLoughlin sternly enforced monogamy among his employees.

Free to leave and to remarry if she wanted to, Celiast packed up her three children and moved to French Prairie to the home of her younger sister, Yi-a-must, wife of Joseph Gervais. Solomon Smith went along.

These Indian princesses and their older sister, Kil-a-ko-tah, wife of Louis LaBonte, were daughters of the Clatsop chief Coboway, who had befriended Lewis & Clark in the winter of 1805-06. L & C gave Fort Clatsop, their winter quarters, to Coboway when they left to return to the United States.

The ancestral home of the Clatsops extended from the mouth of the Columbia west of Astoria south to present Seaside at the foot of Tillamook Head.

In early 1834, Solomon Smith began teaching the Gervais children and possibly others. He had this first "school" in what is now the state of Oregon started before the arrival of Jason Lee, Daniel Lee, P.L. Edwards, and Courtney Walker, four of the five Methodist missionaries who had come west with Wyeth's second overland expedition. The fifth, Cyrus Shepard, had remained at Vancouver to regain his health and to teach the school started by Ball and Smith.

When the missionaries started their Indian school a few miles upriver from the Gervais place, Solomon and Celiast helped them.

On February 11, 1837, Celiast (under the English name Ellen or Helen) and Solomon Smith were married by Rev. Jason Lee. In the words of one biographer, "Under the zeal of the fiery preaching of David Leslie," the Smiths were later converted to Christianity--Methodist style. (Dobbs, p. 33.)

A few months after the Smith wedding, the first reinforcement for the Willamette mission arrived by ship. It included five women, the first white women to enter the Willamette Valley. Among them were two wives of mission members and three single women.

Miss Susan Downing was engaged to marry Rev. Shepard. Miss Anna Maria Pitman, matchmakers hoped, would marry Jason Lee. Fulfilling these hopes, a double wedding took place on Sunday, July 16, 1837.

The newlyweds postponed a honeymoon trip for a month. Then on Monday, August 14, 1837, guided by the retired French-Canadian voyageur, Joe Gervais, they set out on horseback for the Oregon coast. They forded the Willamette (possibly where the Wheatland ferry now operates) and camped on the Yamhill.

They passed through "beautiful country" on Tuesday, crossed the mountains on the Old Elk Trail on Wednesday and Thursday, and on Friday "arrived thoroughly drenched at a beautiful encampment in a small grove of Cypress and Pines ... soon dry and comfortable by aid of a good fire."

These may or may not have been the first whites over the Salmon River Trail, but certainly were the first white women and first white honeymooners to pass this way. On their way home, Lee says, the "way over the mountains was very rough, large trees having fallen across our path." They arrived back at their home on Mission Bottom on August 30, after four days on the trail.

Unfortunately, these newlyweds did not live happily ever afterwards. Anna Maria Lee died in childbirth the next year while her husband was on a trip to the United States. Rev. Shepard died in 1840 after the mission had been moved to Salem. His wife and two daughters survived him.

About the time that Yi-a-must died in late 1839 or early 1840, Celiast and Solomon Smith moved to the lower Chehalem valley (Newberg), where Solomon helped Ewing Young build a sawmill and a grist mill.

In May 1840, Rev. Daniel Lee, Jason's nephew, who had opened a mission at The Dalles, came to the Smith home and persuaded Solomon to accompany him to the mouth of the Columbia to meet his fiancee, Maria Ware, who was arriving with the Great Reinforcement on the Lausanne. Homesick for the rolling, sandy plains of her girlhood home, Celiast insisted on going along and taking the children. Her children by Poirier had been returned to their father, but she and Solomon had three of their own: Josephine, 5, Helene, 3, and Silas B., a babe in arms. In later years, Silas proved to be one of the best sources of information about the Smith family. Solomon had heard so much about the Clatsop Plains, where no whites had yet settled, that he wanted to see them, with the possibility of moving there.

Among the missionaries on the Lausanne was Rev. J.H. Frost, his wife, and young son. Frost's assignment was to open a mission among the Clatsops. The Smiths volunteered to join the Frosts. In fact, Celiast's enthusiasm for the area appears to have influenced Jason Lee in sending a mission to the Clatsops.

Calvin Tibbetts, from Wyeth's 1832 overlanders, also joined them. In the interim, he had gone to California with Ewing Young in 1837 and driven cattle back to the Willamette Valley. (Holmes, chapter 7.)

With Tibbetts was a black man named Wallace who helped open the first farms west of the Coast Range.

The second recorded use of the Old Elk Trail came in 1841. The Clatsop Plains settlers found the manual labor of hauling supplies, equipment, and logs for buildings excessive. Hired Indians helped some, but draft animals were needed. Solomon Smith went back to the Chehalem Valley, bought two horses from Ewing Young, and drove them over the old pack trail to Scappoose and St. Helens. He put them on a makeshift boat--two canoes lashed together and covered with planking--for a hazardous trip down the Columbia.

There must be an easier way, said Frost, Smith, and Tibbetts, to get stock from the Willamette Valley to Clatsop Plains. They needed not only horses or oxen for draft animals but also cattle for milk and beef.

In August 1841, Frost and Smith, a sailor named Taylor who had left his ship the Wave, one Indian, and one of Smith's horses started south along the coast in search of a trail over the Coast Range.

Occasionally along open beaches but usually through dense underbrush, across streams and marshes, and over such obstacles as Tillamook Head, Arch Cape, Cape Falcon, Neahkahnie Mountain, Cape Lookout, and Cape Kiwanda, they hacked their way southward. Anyone doubting the difficulty of this undertaking should read Frost's diary. (See list of readings.)

The Indian guides they used along the way could not help much in finding a way across the mountains, but after seven days they found the little-used trail up the Salmon River to the headwaters of the Yamhill. In another week they reached the mission at Salem. After resting for eight days and buying stock, they started the return trip with 55 head of horses and cattle. Despite the almost insurmountable obstacles they completed the drive back to Clatsop Plains in two more weeks and arrived with 50 of the 55 head they had started out with.

The third recorded trip over the Salmon River Trail came the next year, 1842, when Calvin Tibbetts put to use the knowledge he had gained as a drover for Ewing Young's 1837 cattle drive from California. He took the Old Elk Trail to the Willamette and brought back more stock for the settlement. Smith's son Silas recalled many years later that "This route was subsequently used by all immigrants bringing cattle or stock for some 10 or 15 years afterwards."

According to Leslie M. Scott, "James Quick, the Tillamook pioneer, was probably the first white man to lead his family over this trail. That was in 1852."

An army lieutenant, Theodore Talbot, who had been with Fremont in central Oregon in 1843, came in August 1849 with eight men to explore what is now Lincoln County and to look for coal. They crossed the Coast Range from Kings Valley to the Siletz and Yaquina and went as far south as the Alsea. They learned that the Indians considered the mountains impenetrable and that they had made no effort to cut trails through the dense vegetation. The only semblance of a trail they found was along the Salmon River. They took the Old Elk Trail back to the Willamette Valley.

Talbot later reported that west of Kings Valley, "the mountains were enveloped with ... a dense mass of smoke [from] large fires to the south ... These fires are a frequent occurrence in the forests of Oregon, raging with violence for months." Along the coast and estuaries of the rivers, Talbot found heavy stands of timber but many other parts of the area were denuded by forest fires.

In the last 150 years nearly all of Lincoln County has been burned off at one time or another--some of it several times. Only in protected pockets or islands have trees older than 150 years been found in recent years.

Early accounts depict the devastation caused by fires. Botanist David Douglas complained that the charred stubs of brush made his feet sore and that there was no grass for his horse. A great fire around Nestucca Bay in 1845 had started in the Willamette Valley and, fanned by dry east winds, had swept over the mountains. It created such dense smoke along the coast that ships could not enter the Columbia.

In 1846 fires again raged from Tillamook to Coos Bay. Between 1848 and 1852, most of the timber west of Marys Peak, Burnt Woods, and Summit went up in flames. Dense smoke in the Willamette Valley forced settlers to eat noonday meals by candlelight.

In 1868 and 1902, particularly bad fires swept through sections of western Oregon and Washington. Ashes fell in the Valley and thick smoke caused lights to be turned on in stores and offices in mid-afternoon.

After every devastating fire--and other onslaughts, such as careless logging by man--the amazing regenerative power of this region brings new life to obliterate the scars. Not overnight, of course, but within a few decades. Grass and brush, succeeded by the hardwood alder, ash, and maples, are followed by the evergreen hemlock, spruce, Douglas-fir, and cedar. Through millennia of the burn/growth cycles, Coast Range species have adapted themselves to the unique conditions of topography, soil, rainfall, and climate, making this one of the great timber- and wood-fiber-producing areas.

The first white visitors to the north Oregon Coast found few Indians. The same white-man's diseases--measles, smallpox, fevers, etc.--which had depopulated the Willamette Valley had spread to this area also.

"It had been reported that the Kilemooks [Tillamooks] were a numerous tribe of Indians," Frost wrote in an account of the 1841 cattle drive, "but they are like most of the other 'numerous tribes' in the country, very 'few and far between;' these were so much so that we found, after passing through their entire country and seeing all their wigwams, that their number would not exceed two hundred men, women, and children."

He added, "We saw no land, worth mentioning, that was fit for cultivation ... from the Clatsop Plains ... [to] the Walamet Valley."

A coast survey in 1850 proclaimed, "The face of the country is too uneven to permit ... general agriculture, still it will and must soon become a great agricultural and stock raising country."

To officials who had to find a place to relocate tribes from all over western Oregon who were being crowded out of their ancestral homelands by wars and treaties, it seemed a suitable place for Indians to live. It had abundant shellfish, a variety of game, and salmon and berries in season. Level places, the officials thought, could be cleared for farming.

In 1853, the smoldering strife between the Rogue River Indians and the settlers, miners, and travelers broke out into open warfare. Local volunteers were reinforced by 40 more from the Willamette Valley led by James Nesmith. Vancouver Barracks sent an Army lieutenant, six artillerymen, and a howitzer. Former Governor Lane came with a dozen men from the Umpqua, and Governor Curry appointed him brigadier general in charge of the operation.

Joel Palmer represented the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lane's "army" of two or three hundred men opposed a force of about 700 Rogue River and Shasta Indians who were armed with rifles and revolvers they had bought or stolen from miners and settlers. After a running battle in which 3 whites and 8 Indians were killed and 5 whites (including Lane) and 20 Indians were wounded, the Indians asked for a truce.

Lane and Palmer, with an unarmed party that included Nesmith as an interpreter and 8 others, met with the chiefs at Table Rock and agreed on a treaty in September 1853. Later ratified by the U.S. Senate, this treaty gave $60,000 in merchandise and reparations to settlers who had suffered losses in return for title to 2,500 square miles of the upper Rogue River Valley, much of which is now covered by the Medford pear orchards. The Indians reserved 100 square miles for their own use.

Peace lasted two years, but as Palmer wrote in 1854, "These miscreants [white settlers and miners] regardless of age or sex, assail and slaughter these poor, weak, defenceless Indians with impunity, as there are no means in the hands of the agents to prevent these outrages or bring the perpetrators to justice." Warfare broke out again and the agents clearly saw that something had to be done to separate the races to protect them from each other.

Palmer bought land in the upper Yamhill Valley at Grand Ronde on which to resettle dispossessed tribes. The federal government later expanded it to a reserve of nearly 60,000 acres. A second reserve of more than a million acres along the coast from Tillamook to Lane counties and inland 20 miles was also established with the upper Siletz Valley its central location.

Making the long, hard trek to this alien environment, the demoralized tribes left behind their tools, their houses, and their well-known hunting grounds and arrived tired, weak, sick, hungry, poorly clothed, and poorly shod.

The 1857 census shows at Grand Ronde 922 members of Willamette and Umpqua Valley tribes and at Siletz, the concentration camp for the coast reserve had 1,495 from southern Oregon and northern California. Although the death rate was very high, more were sent in so that by 1861 Siletz had 2,025, the most densely settled area in the Territory. (For the long, sad story of these reservations, read Beckham, chapters 9 & 10.)

Because of the proximity of once-warlike natives to the white settlements, the War Department decided forts must be built to provide protection. As it turned out, the troops at these forts spent more time aiding the Indians and protecting them from the whites than in protecting white settlements.

Fort Yamhill was established in March 1856 on the eastern edge of the Grand Ronde Reservation by Lt. Wm. B. Hazen, Company B, 4th Infantry. It lay along the only wagon road into this part of the reservation.

Lt. Philip H. Sheridan was stationed at this fort at various times between April 1856 and September 1861. He was quartermaster at Fort Hoskins for 9 months in 1856-57. After being promoted to captain, he left in September 1861 for Civil War duty in the east, where he swiftly rose to rank of major general. (Barth, p. 201.)

For ten years the rough-hewn logs of the blockhouse Lt. Hazen had built presented a striking contrast to the whitewashed cottages at Fort Yamhill. When the last troops left, the subtler, Gilbert Litchfield, auctioned off the government property. He himself bought the blockhouse for $2.50. A few years later he passed it on to the Grand Ronde Agency. It was taken apart and moved 2.5 miles to the Agency and rebuilt. It served as a jail and later as a storehouse, then fell into disuse. In 1910 the citizens of Dayton on the lower Yamhill obtained title to it from the Secretary of the Interior and in June 1911 took it apart again and moved it to their city park, where since it has been kept in repair and left on public display. (Barth, App. III.)

Fort Hoskins was established by Capt. C.C. Augur, Company G, 4th Infantry, in July 1856. It was in Kings Valley near a pass in the Coast Range between the upper Luckiamute and Siletz Rivers.

In the fall of 1856, Lt. Sheridan supervised construction of a "road" through the burned-over mountains and valley between Hoskins and Siletz. Because of the difficult terrain and weather, only one wagon pulled by six oxen passed over it, one way, but it became a much-used pack trail connecting the forts with a blockhouse built at Siletz.

The Old Elk Trail appears to have been little used by troops at Fort Yamhill. Bensell (p. 21) mentions a party of miners coming through the gates of the fort on their way to hunt gold on the Salmon River, but the soldiers had no occasion to go to the coast that way. To deliver mail and supplies from Salem and Lafayette to Siletz and the sub-post on the Alsea and to chase down Indians who had escaped to the southern coast they went from Yamhill to Hoskins, then over "Sheridan's Trail" to Siletz and down Depot Slough to the Yaquina.

Wallis Nash, the English lawyer who visited Benton County in 1877, traveled on horseback over sections of the trails we follow on this tour. He went from Corvallis to Kings Valley and passed the site of Fort Hoskins. He found the "old trail made by General Phil Sheridan ... overgrown; some beavers had thrown their dams across the little stream that ran close by ... and turned it into a reedy swamp." He followed the trail through Little Rock Creek Valley, where two years later as an immigrant to Oregon he homesteaded and built his country home. He devotes a chapter in his book to his visit to the Siletz Reservation.

Pressure on the part of white settlers and entrepreneurs brought successive reductions in the lands allotted to the Indians until only a fraction of the 59,759 acres of the Grand Ronde Reservation and 1,382,400 acres of the Coast Reserve remained. Poachers from California who raided the Indians' oyster beds on the Yaquina had friends in high places who made it possible for them to continue their "business."

A wagon road was being built from Corvallis to Elk City and before long the banks of the Yaquina were thrown open to settlement. By 1892 the Siletz Reserve had been reduced to 47,000 acres. In the early years of this century the lands where Indian families were living were deeded to them and "surplus" land sold or returned to the federal government. The agencies closed in 1925, but the predominantly Indian communities continued in both locations.

The first wagon road from the Yamhill to Tillamook, now Highway 22, did not use the Old Elk Trail. It went northwest 25 miles from Grand Ronde Agency to Hebo. Motorists of the 1920s driving to Taft and the Lincoln County beaches had to go 45 miles to reach Otis on the lower Salmon River, whereas the old trail and toll road down the Salmon was only 22.

John and Julia Boyer, who settled and opened a post office in the upper Salmon Valley, saw the advantages of the old trail. In 1908 they opened a rough wagon road and charged toll to maintain it until 1920. They kept urging that it be made into a state highway, and finally with the counties, Forest Service, and state and federal governments cooperating, their toll road became a state highway.

The Salmon River Cut-Off was dedicated as a state highway at a ceremony at New Grand Ronde on July 19, 1930. Julia Boyer had died before seeing their dream come true, but John was there to receive recognition for his foresight and enterprise. B.F. Irvine, blind editor of the Oregon Journal, gave the principal address. Governor A.W. Norblad and the daughter of James Quick, early Tillamook settler, took part in the program. Bands from Albany and elsewhere played. Indians paraded in full regalia. Local people put up Oregon Trail type camps and exhibits along the graveled road as a stream of cars used it for the first time.

In this way the Old Elk Trail became the Salmon River Highway (18) connecting the Willamette Valley with the Oregon Coast Highway (U.S. 101) at Otis.

Readings and Sources

All Quiet on the Yamhill, Diary of Royal Bensell, ed. by Gunter Barth. Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1959.

A Webfoot Volunteer, Diary of Wm. M. Hilleary, ed. by H.B. Nelson and P.E. Onstad. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1965.

Stephen Dow Beckham, The Indians of Western Oregon. Coos Bay: Arago Books, 1977.

Caroline C. Dobbs, Men of Champoeg. Portland: Metropolitan Press, 1932.

Kenneth L. Holmes, Ewing Young: Master Trapper. Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1967.

Oscar W. Hoop, "History of Fort Hoskins," Oregon Historical Quarterly, XXX, 361.

D. Lee and J.H. Frost, Ten Years in Oregon [1844]. Fairfield, WA.: Ye Galleon, 1968.

William G. Morris, "Forest Fires in Oregon and Washington." Oregon Historical Quarterly, XXXV, 313.

Wallis Nash, Oregon: There and Back in 1877 [1878]. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1976.

Preston E. Onstad, "The Fort on the Luckiamute: A Resurvey of Fort Hoskins." Oregon Historical Quarterly, LXV, 173.

Nellie B. Pipes, ed. "Journal of J.H. Frost 1840-43. Oregon Historical Quarterly, XXXV, March-December issues

Leslie M. Scott, "Military Beginnings of Salmon River Highway." Oregon Historical Quarterly, XXXV, 228.

Horner Museum Historical Tour #12


0   -  Corvallis. Take 99W north passing Adair Village, Helmick Park, and Monmouth.

27 -  Polk County Fair Grounds. Right at "Nesmith Park" sign. View memorial to James W. Nesmith, a man all Oregon history buffs should know.

Beyond Rickreall, left on Highway 22.

5     -  Salt Creek valley, early home of Applegate brothers.

7     -  Buell's Mill site and store on Upper Mill Creek South.

5     -  Santiam River. Left on Highway 18.

3     -  Fort Hill. Old road ran over hill on right behind sawmill. Right on 22 toward Tillamook & Hebo.

0.7  -  Fort Yamhill was on right across Cosper Creek on a hillside now covered with brush and farm land. Not open to the public. Nothing of fort remains.

2.3  -  Grand Ronde Agency, which served as headquarters of Reservation from 1856 to 1925. Left.

1.5  -  (New) Grand Ronde. Right on 18.

2.5  -  At a creek called Rogue River enter the Van Duzer Forest Corridor, a state park along the highway for most of the next 10 miles.

2     -  Summit between Yamhill and Nestucca rivers, 769 ft.

1.5  -  Pheasant Creek Valley. Boyer second home and gate for Salmon River toll road were on left on southwest side of the little valley.

0.5  -  Summit between Nestucca & Salmon Rivers, 661 ft.

5     -  State Park rest areas on right and left. Site of Boyers? first home and 1910 post office.

4.5  -  Rose Lodge, named by Julia Dodson, first postmistress (1908) for rose bower over her front gate.

5     -  Otis Junction. Right on U. S. 101.

1     -  "Three Rocks Road." Left 3 miles to parking area boat ramp. A good place for a picnic lunch and short hikes at the mouth of the Salmon River.

3     -  Back to U.S. 101. Right toward Lincoln City.

3     -  Neotsu. Left on East Devils Lake Road.

2.5  -  Delake. Left on U.S. 101.

5     -  Kernville. Left on 229 along Siletz River through Pikes Camp, Sunset Landing, The Maples, etc.

24   -  Siletz, agency for Coast Reservation 1856-1925. Left in center of town toward Logsden.

1     -  Paul Washington Cemetery (Indian), half mile off highway.

8     -  Logsden. Upper Farm where Agency had agriculture school for Indian youth is 2 miles on road to left beyond bridge. Continue toward Nashville.

10   -  Little Rock Creek Valley. Here Wallis Nash homesteaded 100 years ago. Now tree farm for Publishers' Paper Co. (Los Angeles Times).

5     -  Nashville. Station on Corvallis & Eastern R.R. named for the Nashes. Left on road to Summit, climbing 490 feet in 2 miles.

2.5  -  Summit. Just beyond turn left on county road.

2.5  -  Road to "Hoskins." Right.

8     -  Hoskins. Site of Fort Hoskins 1856-65 on left of hillside behind Fort Tavern. Fort site not open to the public.

2     -  Kings Valley road 223. Right.

7     -  Wren, where we cross Corvallis & Eastern again.

5     -  Philomath, named for college located there before the town was built.

5     -  Corvallis, Horner Museum Parking lot.