Grande Ronde Valley: Oregon Trail’s Eden, used-ox dealership
The little pocket of temperate, well-watered land, tucked into some of the most inhospitable territory on the trail, was a real lifesaver for many an emigrant. But, that didn't stop them from griping about the prices they were charged ....
By Finn J.D. John — September 10, 2017
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in December 2009, which you’ll find here.
Driving through the Grande Ronde Valley today, you likely wouldn’t see it as a Garden of Eden.
It’s nice, of course; the scenery is beautiful, with the Wallowas looming to the northeast and the Blue Mountains to the west. In the spring, it’s lush and green and lovely. But still, you probably wouldn’t call it an Earthly paradise.
Unless, of course, it was 1845 and you were on the Oregon Trail.
The Grande Ronde Valley is, basically, an oasis, a tiny postage stamp of fertile green tucked into a very large expanse of relatively barren lands — lands that were very hard to live on back in the 1800s. The valley is only about 15 miles wide by 35 long, more or less centered around the modern towns of La Grande and Island City. It’s well watered by the Grande Ronde River, and in the 1840s it was covered with grasslands offering plentiful forage for grazing animals; so deer and “elk” (Wapati) were in particular abundance.
It must have been a truly welcome sight for parties of emigrants, more than one of which likely made it to the valley just in time to avoid starvation and disaster (as did the Astorian overland party in 1811, all of whom would surely have starved to death had the valley not existed). By the time an emigrant party had made it to the Grande Ronde Valley, it had straggled across hundreds of miles of the Great Plains, crossed the Continental Divide in Wyoming and thrashed through hundreds more miles of the Rocky Mountains and the blistering, arid Snake River Desert in Idaho — a total of some 1,800 miles if it started from Independence, Mo., as most early parties did. Depending on the year, it might also have had to fend off attacks by hostile groups of Native Americans.
So by the time a party got to this tiny, fertile valley, it was typically pretty played-out.
This was even more applicable to the animals than the people. After all, the people could rest when they needed to, sitting on the wagon while the oxen dragged it up yet another mountain pass. But those oxen — when they got skinny from lack of forage, unhealthy from lack of rest and exhausted from too much work, nothing the emigrants could give them on the trail would help them recover. What they needed was a month on good grass with no load. They needed to be pastured. They needed to rest.
And that’s where the Native Americans in the Grande Ronde Valley could help … for a fee.
The Nez Perce, Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes had no use for oxen, except maybe for the occasional bad winter when better meats were unavailable. But they quickly figured out that they could make a lot of money on them.
So when an emigrant party would straggle gratefully into the little valley, its members would find the friendly faces of tribe members there to greet them — with an offer they couldn’t really refuse: “Give us two of your underfed, exhausted, played-out oxen, and we’ll give you one of our fat, happy, well-fed, ready-to-work models. Then we’ll sell you a second healthy, well-fed ox for whatever we can shake you down for, and you’ll be ready to take on the next 300 mountainous miles between here and Oregon City.”
It was the Oregon Trail’s one and only used-oxen dealership. The tribe members would turn the two “trade-in” cows loose on the grasslands to graze and rest; by the time the next year’s emigrants arrived, they’d be tanned, rested and ready to finish their journey, pulling a new emigrant’s wagon.
Of course, nobody was forcing anyone to take this deal. Emigrants were free to keep their skinny, exhausted animals if they wanted, or to stay in the valley long enough to get them back into working order. But to do that, they’d have to plan a long stay in the valley — a month or more. And that would mean winter might catch them crossing the Blue Mountains or the Cascades, which was not a pleasant thing to contemplate.
It was a classic win-win situation. Emigrant parties whose livestock would never have pulled through got a fresh set, and tribes got a nice source of trade goods, plus a supply of emergency food for the winter.
With the demand for their inventory, the Native Americans could charge almost anything they liked for their fresh oxen; the wonder isn’t that they marked them up 100 percent, but that they didn’t mark them up more. Of course, that didn’t stop some of the emigrants grumbling about it.
“The Nez Pierce can beat a Yankee peddler in a trade,” one exasperated — and out-of-pocket — emigrant groused.
(Sources: Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1991; Anonymous. An Illustrated History of Union and Wallowa Counties. Spokane, WA: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1902; oregonhistoryproject.org)