Sherman County Historical Society and Museum
Open Daily 10 until 5 May through October
The Story of Sherman County
Group Tour Magazine
Summer, 1999

The story of Sherman County, Oregon, is closely linked with the story of the Oregon Trail. After traveling from Missouri with wagons and livestock, emigrants faced a fork in the road in what would become Sherman County.

Hundreds of thousands of people headed West during the Great Migration, which started in 1843 and began the settlement process in the Pacific Northwest. "Oregon Fever" swept the growing nation, and individuals and families sold their homes and belongings in order to travel to the mild climate and rich soil of the Willamette Valley.

Near the end of their journey, the now seasoned travelers reached the John Day River. Here they descended to a shallow ford, then began the steep, rocky ascent to the rolling bunchgrass hills of what is now Sherman County. This portion of the trip was described by many as the worst yet encountered. Once the pioneers finished their ascent, two choices lay before them.

The right fork led emigrants to the Columbia River near Biggs, and the crossing of the Deschutes River at its mouth, and finally to The Dalles, where supplies and another major decision awaited. Pioneers could either load their belongings on a raft for a dangerous float down the Columbia or choose the difficult Barlow Road across the south slope of Mt. Hood.

The left fork led emigrants southwest along Grass Valley Canyon to the rushing, rocky Deschutes River. They reached the river near what is now Sherar's Bridge. By taking this Cutoff to the Barlow Road, pioneers saved 100 miles and a week of travel.

Sherman County's agricultural possibilities were barely mentioned in travelers' diaries, and not one emigrant from 1843-1858 chose to settle in the area. However, in the 1880s, the children and grandchildren of the early pioneers came to Sherman County in search of land. Settlers arrived by the hundreds, coming from all directions: by steamboat up the Columbia, by stage and rail routes from the east and west, and in wagons from the south.

Within a decade, a farming community emerged as settlers developed the area, surviving terrible winters, heat, dust, wind, isolation, and drought in the process. They learned to raise wheat on the fertile land with little rainfall and much hard work.

Sherman County [was formed from Wasco County] in 1889. Today, modern highways and roads criss-cross the grain fields of the county, but the past can still be found in preserved sites along the Oregon Trail. To trace the pioneers' paths, begin at the edge of Sherman and Gilliam Counties, at the John Day River Crossing where an Oregon Trail monument with interpretive information overlooks the trail. A six-foot inscribed basalt column is nearby.

Most travelers chose to take the right fork. Following the path today, visitors pass Webfoot; Emigrant Springs where pioneers camped and watered their stock; the headwaters of China Hollow; Wasco, filled with historic landmarks; Spanish Hollow, so named because a Spanish ox died there; Mud Hollow; the Columbia River where ruts are still visible; and the Deschutes River Crossing.

Taking the left fork, travelers will pass the Klondike School near the Cutoff to the Barlow Road; Nish; Hay Canyon; DeMoss Springs Memorial Park; Moro, home of the Sherman County Historical Museum; Grass Valley, on the Cutoff road; Buckley; Hollenbeck Point, the ridge that emigrants descended to the Deschutes River; and the Deschutes River near Sherar's Bridge and Falls.

On the Columbia River, visitors can visit LePage Park [at the mouth of the John Day River], named after a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition; Giles French Park and John Day Dam, Rufus, Biggs and Deschutes State Park and Information Kiosk.


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