Upper Columbia Route
Upper Columbia River Route
1841 - 1851
compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White
copyright 1998 ~ all rights reserved
Oregon Trails Coordinating Council
The Upper Columbia River Route was an early branch of the Oregon Trail. About a day's ride (on horseback) west of the Whitman Mission stood the Hudson's Bay Company post Fort Nez Perces. It was a supply post for trappers, traders, and American emigrants. Emigrants "put in" on the Columbia River at the HBC post and floated down river to The Dalles. The River Route was often treacherous, many lost their belongings, a few lost their lives. Some chose to follow the river along the southern shore. They avoided the water's danger, they found other difficulties along the rocky and narrow bank.
Today we traveled leisurely, crossed a small stream, and passed over some very rugged road, the pack trail is some places going along in the steep and almost perpendicular side of the bluffs 100 feet above the Columbia, and rock rising 100 feet almost hanging over the Trail.
James Nesmith, October 15, 1843
Although the route traveled by Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery in 1805 was unnamed, it can be easily argued that they were the first Anglo-Americans to travel the Upper Columbia River Route. The Corps of Discovery followed the Snake River to its confluence with the Columbia (at present Kennewick, Washington), a dozen or so miles upriver from the Walla Walla's confluence.
The river's currents carried the Corps of Discovery through the river's regions. They described in detail the flora and fauna and the tribes who made this area home. Their descriptions provided enough information to inspire others to follow their lead into the Pacific Northwest, first by English and American trappers and traders, then by overland emigrants.
In the 1810s, Wilson Price Hunt, an employee of the Pacific Fur Company (the Astorians), led an overland expedition which also passed through the area near the Walla Walla's confluence with the Columbia and proceeded on the river to the Pacific Fur Company's post, Fort Astoria.
The West's explorers and mountain men traveled over the route later known as the Upper Columbia Route, including Nathaniel Wyeth, Benjamin Bonneville, Joe Meek, and Robert Newell. The Americans claimed the route as their own from 1841 on.
The Hudson's Bay Company
The Hudson's Bay Company used the river corridor as a conduit from Fort Nez Perces to Fort Vancouver. Fort Nez Perces at the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla Rivers was a mud fort built in 1818 by the Northwest Company. When the Northwest Company was amalgamated into the HBC in 1821, the HBC assumed operation of the Fort Nez Perces and, in 1827, relocated the post from the Walla Walla's south side to the north bank.
The hub of the HBC's activity in the Oregon Country was Fort Vancouver, built in 1826. The HBC's Columbia River District boasted a trapping and trading system that encompassed all the land from the Fraser River south to Spain's border (California's northern boundary) and west from the summit of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. The land within these boundaries was the focus of a joint occupation agreement signed between the US and the British. Neither government controlled the area, but both had access to the land and its resources. The HBC established water routes and overland routes to move the precious furs from trapping sites through the system of posts and forts to the shipping point at Fort Vancouver. The outlying forts and trading posts (among them Fort Nez Perces) were supply stations, safe houses, and infirmaries as well as places where trappers and Indians could trade furs before returning to their trap lines. American entrepreneurs occasionally competed for furs and Indian trade goods in the region, but their influence was generally minimal. The dominant player in the West's fur trade was the Hudson's Bay Company.
HBC trappers and traders followed the Columbia River from Fort Nez Perces to Fort Vancouver. In many places, the Columbia's rough cataracts and waterfalls made travel too risky. Portages were established around the most dangerous areas, especially at Celilo and The Dalles, and the Cascades of the Columbia. The trip generally took six or seven days.
The established route worked well. In the 1830's, led by HBC guides, the first American missionaries, (Jason Lee, and shortly thereafter, the ill-fated Whitmans) followed the route as well. Narcissa Whitman recorded her first encounter in 1836 with the Upper Columbia River Route:
Sept 7th We set sail from [Fort Nez Perces] yesterday 2 o'clock P.M. Our boat is an open one, maned with six oars and the steersman. I enjoy it much, it is a very pleasant change in our manner of traveling. The Columbia is a beautiful [river]. Its waters are clear as crystal and smooth as a sea of glass, exceeding in beauty the Ohio of the east. But the scenery on each side of it is very different. No timber to be seen. High perpendicular banks or rocks in some places, ruged bluffs and plains of sand is all that greets the eye, as we pass down the waters of this Majestic river, we sailed untill near sunset landed piched our tents, supped on tea and bread and biter, boiled ham and potatoes, committed ourselves to the care of a kind Providence then retired to rest. This morn arrose before sunrise, embarked & have sailed untill nine o'clock & are now landed for breakfast. Mr Pambruns cook is preparing it while Husband and myself are seated by a little shrub in the sand writing...
8th Came last night to the Chutes, a fall in the river [Celilo Falls] not navigable where we slept & this morning before breakfast made portage. All were obliged to land, unload, carry our baggage & even the boat for a half mile. I had frequently seen the picture representing the Indians carrying their canoes, but now I saw the reality. We found plenty of Indians here to assist in the portage. After loading several with our baggage and sending them on, the boat was capsized and placed on the head of about twenty Indians, who marched off with it with perfect ease. Below the main fall of water are rocks, deep narrow channels, many frightful precipices, all this distance. We walked deliberately among the rocks viewing the scene with astonishment, for this once beautiful river seems to be cut up and destroyed by these huge masses of rock. Indeed it is difficult to find where the main body of water passes. In high water we are told these rocks are all covered, the water rising to such an astonishing height. After paying the Indians for their assistance (which was a twist of tobacco each the length of the finger) reloaded went on board, sailed about two miles, then stopped for breakfast. ...
9th We came to the Dalls yesterday just before noon. Here our way was stopped by two rocks, of immense size and height, all the waters of the river passing between them, in a very narrow channel, & with great rapidity. Here we were obliged to land make a portage of two and a half miles carrying the boat also. The Dalls is a great resort of Indians of many tribes for taking fish, we did not see many however for they had just left. ... Curiosity would lead up to the top of [a] rock to see the course of the river through its narrow channel... Took with me a handful of hazel nuts, thought I would divert myself with cracking and eating them, had just seated myself in the shade of the rock, ready to commence work, when feeling something unusual on my neck, put my hand under my cape & took from thence two insects, which I soon discovered to be to he fleas. Immediately I cast my eyes upon my dress before & to my astonishment found it was black with these creatures, making all possible speed to lay siege to my neck and ears... On opening the gathers in my dress around my waist, every plait was lined with them. Thus they had already laid themselves in ambush against a fresh attack... I was not the only sufferer, everyone in the boat was alike troubled both crew & passengers. ...We made fine progress this morning until nine o'clock when we were met with a wind & obliged to make shore. The wind that works against us will assist others that are going up the stream. We met Mr. Cowee last night with the Montreal express. This express goes from and returns to Vancouver twice a year.
When the Whitmans built their mission adjacent to the Walla Walla River, the Upper Columbia River Route became part of the main road to Oregon's Willamette Valley.
The sparse population of non-Natives worked together to survive and the HBC forts were critical. The HBC had deep and well established ties to the region's Indian population. The traders often intervened on behalf of the American emigrants and, to the chagrin and frustration of some HBC officers, the Americans bought goods and services at the posts. These were, in turn, used to set up farms and homesteads, the foundation for the American wave that settled in the Pacific Northwest.
The River Route
Through the 1840s, the number of Americans migrating across the overland trails (often referred to as the Oregon Trail) grew steadily. For several years, the Upper Columbia River Route was the only option for emigrants en route to the Willamette Valley.
William T. Newby traveled the Upper Columbia River route by water from Fort Nez Perces:
October 19. We lanched our canoes a bout 2 clock & went a bout 25 miles to the Youtilley Fawls. We had some difficulty...
October 20. We continued down the river, passing sevrl rapids &c. Incamping with some wagons &c.
October 22. We continued on & passed 5 verry sevire rapids & encamped at Fawl [Deschutes] River, with more waggeons 12 miles a bove the Meth[od]ist mishion.
William T. Newby, 1843
In 1846, Overton Johnson and William Winter recalled their experience on the river in 1843:
On the first day after leaving the Fort [Nez Perces], one of our canoes, in which there were three persons, one of whom was a lady, in passing through a narrow shoot in the Grand Rapids, struck a rock, upset, and filled instantly. The lady and her husband succeeded in gaining the rock; which was about three feet across the top, and just under the surface of the water. Our pilot succeeded in taking them off in safety, and regained most of their property. We passed on the what is called the Chutes, through many dangerous Rapids; to have accomplished which, would have been very impracticable, without skillful guidance. Here the river is wide, full of large rocks standing out of the water, and falls several feet. We were compelled to make a portage of nearly a mile, over the rocks and sand, carrying our canoes and baggage on our shoulders. Three miles below the Chutes, are the Little Dales; where the River runs three hundred yards through a narrow chanel, between high rocks. Here we made another portage of our baggage, and smaller canoe, and with some difficulty hired the Indians to run the others through the rugged canion. A few miles further, and we came to the Great Dales; where we were compelled to leave our smallest canoe and again make a portage of our baggage, a distance of one and a half miles.
O. Johnson and W. Winter, 1846
The Applegate family traveled late in 1843. Jesse Applegate captured the hope and despair of emigrants traveling the Upper Columbia Route:
At Fort Nez Perces, on the banks of the Columbia River, with our teams about exhausted, we were advised to leave our wagons and animals over winter at that place in care of the Hudson's Bay Company. A portion of the immigrants, including my two bothers' families and my own, accepted the proposition, providing we could secure boats in which to descend the river, as it was supposed we might secure them from the Hudson's Bay Company. Under these considerations we made arrangements with the said company for the care of the latter through winter. We failed in our efforts to obtain boats; having whipsaw and other tools with us, we hunted logs from he masses of driftwood lodged along the river banks, hewed them out, sawed them into lumber and built boats, and with our families and the contents of our wagons, commenced the descent of the river. Dr. Whitman procured us the service of two Indians to act as pilots to The Dalles. From there we thought we would have but little trouble by making a portage at the Cascades. We did well until we reached The Dalles, a series of falls and cataracts. Just above the Cascade mountains one of our boats, containing six persons was caught in one of those terrible whirlpools and upset. My son, ten years old, my brother's son, Edward, same age, and a man by the name of McClellan, who was a member of my family, were lost. the other three who escaped were left to struggle the best they could until we made the land with the other boats. Leaving the women and children on shore while we rushed to the rescue, it was only with the greatest effort that we were able to keep our boats from sharing the same fate. William Doake, a young man who could not swim, held onto a feather bed until overtaken and rescued. W. Parker and my son Elisha, then twelve years old, after drifting through whirlpools among cragged rocks for more than a mile, rescued themselves by catching hold of a large rock a few feet above water at the head of Rock Island. At the time of the disaster it was utterly impossible to render them any assistance, for it was only with the greatest skill that we succeeded in saving the women and children from the same fate... The bodies of the drowned were never recovered... We reached the Cascades without any other incidents worth relating. ... Oh, how we could have enjoyed our [new home] if we could have looked around the family circle and beheld the bright faces that accompanied us on our toilsome journey almost to the end! Alas, they were not there! That long and dreary winter, with its pelting rains and howling winds brought sadness to us.
Along the Shore
Other lives were lost, no doubt, in the Columbia. Many emigrants, those less inclined to test the river or traveling with herds of livestock, followed the river bank to The Dalles. The rough trail was used by emigrants as early as 1842. It was difficult work negotiating the steep cliffs and rocky shorelines with footsore teams and cumbersome wagons. Oregon Trail diarists recorded different experiences along the river' shore, but all were struck by the unique qualities of the landscape and climate.
September 16, 1842 Started at 8 o'clock kept down the Walawala River and camped at 1 o'clock within 3 miles of the Fort. Travlied 12 miles. Visited the Fort saw Esqr Crocker, Doct. White had left before noon in the Companies Boat.
All the foremost company had gone by land except Esqr. & Moss who started this evening to overtake them. I had an introduction to Mr. McKenly who is in charge at the fort. The Fort is rebuilding now having lately been burnt. It is situated on a miserable sandy barren place where the sand drifts with the wind like snow. The Walla Walla River emties in and forms the Columbia here.
17. Sept. Saturday started at 9 o'clock drove to the Fort found Mr. McKenly from home not to return until evening could not get the Doct's Things. Drove down the river and camped, traviled four miles. The rest of the company went on. The Banks of the River on each side present tremendous pinnacles of rock mostly perpendicular. We find considerable amounts of sage yet in places.
Sept. 18 Sunday. Went to the Fort before breakfast and got our things. Started at [9:30] o'clock lost two animals went back and found [them] and kept down the river, the most of time a steep bluff of rocks was on our left with occasional spots of grass sufficient for camping purposes stoped three hours for dinner, much sand and frequently in large drifts camped near sunset, traviled 12 m.
Sept. 19. Started at 8 o'clock drove on at a good pace verry warm day camped in a good spot on the river traviled 15 m.
Sept. 20. Started at 8 o'clock kept down the river very sandy barren country destitute of timber (crossed the Unadilla). Cold wind and a little rain. Mr. Spalding and Lady overtook us at noon rain increased. Camped at 4 o'clock, trailed 18 miles. Considerable rain. Cleared off before bed time. Mr. Gray called at camp on his return from Vancouver.
21. Started at 10 o'clock and parted with Mr. & Mrs. Spalding who in consequence of some intelligence from Mr. Gray resolved to return. Cold wind. Camped at 5 o'clock, trailed 20 miles.
22. Started late, cold wind bad road, trailed 18 miles.
23. Started later, tremendous west wind, lost my horse last night, Indians brought him into camp this morning, very rocky road over steep sidling places, crossed a large creek about noon. Camped at 4 o'clock. Trailed 11 miles.
24th Sept. Started very late, tremendous west wind & sand drifting snow in our faces, passed over some large drifts. came to a tremendous rapid Creek, obliged to take all of our effects over in a canoe which was dangerous. Passed tremendous rocky falls in the River. Large Indian town, traviled 6 m.
25 Sept. Sunday, I feel bad this morning in consequence of getting wet yesterday and my eyes are much affected by the flying sand. Started at 11 o'clock trailed over hills & sidling places, saw a snowy peak which we understood to be Mt. Hood. Passed the Dalls or rapids of the river which is a singular sight.
Medorem Crawford, 1842
James Nesmith and two companions traveled overland with several head of livestock as fall settled over the Columbia Plateau. He described the stretch between the Walla Walla River and the John Day River in his journal.
Wednesday, October 11. We packed all our effects on two mules and started about eight o'clock. Travel leisurely until evening down the [Columbia] river a distance of twelve miles. The river varies from one-half to one mile in width, has bars in the middle frequently; the water is quite clear and beautiful. High bluffs on both sides, not a tree in sight all day. Found a little green grass where we encamped at night near Windmill [Hat] Rock.
Thursday, October 12. Started in good season, traveled all day over a poor, sandy country. Not a tree in sight all day. Met Mr. McDonald and a small party from Fort Vancouver on his way to Fort Hall. He advises us to be on our guard for the Indians, as there are only three of us, and they are very saucy, having three days ago robbed five men of all they had, at the same time drawing their bows and arrows, and threatening to use them if the men did not give up the property. We traveled at least twenty-five miles to-day and encamped a little before sunset, but with little grass for our jaded animals...We passed some rocky rapids to-day in several places, but at our camp the river is beautiful, broad, clear and placid, but the barrenness of the surrounding country affords but a dreary prospect to a man from the Western States.
Friday, October 13. Packed up and started about eight o'clock. Traveled down the river over sandy plains. The surrounding country still retains an arid, barren appearance, without timber or grass, but the river itself is most beautiful. Weather fine. Warm days and cool, moonlight nights. Traveled about twenty miles. Camped early in a little ravine, where there is good grass, and is entirely surrounded by willows, in a quiet retire place, hopping that the Indians will not find us...
Saturday, October 14. ... Started early and traveled until late, probably twenty-five miles, which is a hard day's ride over this country of sand and stone.
Sunday, October 15. ... Today we traveled leisurely, crossed a small stream, and passed over some very rugged road, the pack trail is some places going along in the steep and almost perpendicular side of the bluffs 100 feet above the Columbia, and rock rising 100 feet almost hanging over the Trail. In fact, it was rather disagreeable riding along the in some places to look down. In the event of your horse making a misstep, himself and rider would be thrown down an awful precipice and buried in the gulf below....
James Nesmith, 1843
The shore trail along the Columbia was especially useful to emigrants with livestock. In November, 1844, facing winter, night-time frosts, and overgrazed trails, Edward Evans Parrish wrote:
Monday, Nov 4. A fine morning... Drove down the river and came to an uncommonly bad sand hill. We put twelve yoke of oxen to one wagon, and so on until all were up, then camped on a hill. Fine grass here, so we brought the water up from the river.
Thursday, Nov. 7 Made a good day's drive and camped on the river. Rained a shower and cleared off, then had a white frost.
Fri. Nov. 8. Had a fine, clear day. After a good day's drive camped again on the river. Indians swarm around again to trade. Some have salmon skins, rabbits and one a mink. yesterday one had a weasel. An iron spoon, an old pair of scissors, a pen knife, butcher knife, a sausage cutter and a roundabout were included in their stock and trade, which they had bought of the companies before. The road down the river is generally sandy, though some of it is solid. No timber of any kind. Small willows and cow chips are the chief fuel we have to burn.
Monday, Nov 11. A cool cloudy morning. Looks like snow. Hope it will be stayed a little longer until we poor emigrants get through... It did not snow.
E. E. Parrish, 1844
In 1844, emigrants along the Oregon Trail's route began to straighten the path, bypassing the Whitman Mission and following the Umatilla River to its junction with the Columbia River, saving several days' travel. Joel Palmer was among those emigrants who, in 1845, traveled the Umatilla River to the Columbia River. He captured the landscape, its beauty and challenges, in his journal:
September 20. This day we traveled about fifteen miles. For the first eight miles the soil was remarkably rich in appearance, an admixture of sand and loam, and covered with good grass; the stream is lined with timber, in common with many of those that we have passed; the last seven miles was sandy and heavy traveling. The Columbia River presents itself on our right, at a distance of about four miles. The river is in view for miles along this road. The prickly pear is found in abundance. It was our intention to have reached the Columbia before encamping, but from the difficult traveling, were compelled to encamp on the sandy plain, deprived of water, wood, and grass.
September 21. This morning at daylight we started for the Columbia, distance three and a half miles. The river at this place is from a half to three-fourths of a mile in width. It is a beautiful stream; its waters are clear and course gently over a pebbly bottom. Along the Columbia, is a strip of barren country about twelve miles in width; a little dry grass in bunches, prickly pear, and grease wood, dot its surface. With this exception, its appearance was wild and solitary to a great degree; but sterile as it is in appearance, the view is immediately relieved by the majesty of the river that flows by it. Immediately along the bank of the Columbia is a narrow bottom, covered with green grass, cocklebur, wild sunflower, pig weed, and several other kinds of weeds, all of which were in full bloom. There was something inspiriting and animating in beholding this. A feeling of pleasure would animate our breasts akin to that filling the breast of a mariner, when after years of absence, the shores of his native land appear to view....
September 22. This day we remained in camp, engaged in traffic with the Indians. Some of our party were in want of horses, and took this occasion to supply themselves.
September 23. This day we traveled about twenty miles. The first eight miles, the road is heavy traveling; the remaining portion however is much better, with the exception of the last five miles, which proved to be quite rocky. There is an occasional green spot to be found, but the whole distance we traveled since we first struck the river cannot be regarded as more than a barren sandy plain. In our route today we passed several Indian villages; they are but temporary establishments, as their migratory disposition will not justify more permanent structures.
September 24. This day we traveled but sixteen miles. After a march of seven miles, we arrived at a small creek, a good situation for encamping; nine miles more brought us to Dry Branch [Willow Creek], from whence we proceeded down the bluff to the river; a great portion of the road traveled was sandy and heavy.
September 25. This day we traveled about fourteen miles. The road was quite hilly; sometimes it followed the bank of the river, at others pursued its course along the high bluff. The river is confined to a very narrow channel; country very barren, and the bluffs of a great height.
September 26. This day we traveled about three miles. The road ascends the bluff; is very difficult in ascent from its steepness, requiring twice the force to impel the wagons usually employed; after effecting the ascent, the sinuosity if the road led us among the rocks to the bluff on John Days' river; here we had another obstacle to surmount, that of going down a hill very precipitous in its descent, but we accomplished it without loss or injury to our teams. This stream comes tumbling through kanyons and rolling over rocks at a violent rate. It is very difficult to cross, on account of the stone forming the bed of the creek; its width, however, does not exceed ten years. The grazing is indifferent, the grass being completely dried.
September 28. This day we traveled about twelve miles. Two miles brought us to the crossing of the Deschutes or Falls river. ... The mouth of the De Shutes river is near fifteen miles east of the Dalles...the river is about one hundred yards wide, and the current very rapid; the stream is enclosed by lofty cliffs of basaltic rock. Four hundred yards from the Columbia is a rapid or cascade. Within the distance of thirty yards its descent is from fifteen to twenty feet. The current of this stream was so rapid and violent and withal such depth, as to require us to ferry it. Some of the companies behind us, however drove over at its mouth by crossing a bar. Preparatory to ferrying, we unloaded our wagons, and taking them apart, put them aboard some Indian canoes, which were in waiting, and crossed in safety; after putting our wagons in order of travel, and preparing to start, we discovered ourselves minus a quantity of powder and shot, two pairs of pantaloons, which the Indians had appropriated to their own use, doubtless to pay the trouble of ferriage.
In the morning a quarrel ensued among the Indians respecting their canoes, closing in a melee, and such a fight I have never before witnessed; stones and missiles of every description that were at hand were used with freedom. We did not interfere with them, and when they were tired of fighting, the effects of the battle were visible in numerous instances, such as bloody noses and battered, bleeding heads.
We ascended the bluff and traveled along the brink for several miles, then crossed over the ridge to a small creek; after crossing it, we took up a dry run for one or two miles, thence over a ridge to a running branch, and there encamped. The country through which we traveled this day was extremely rough; all prairie, and covered with grass, but dry.
September 29. This day we traveled about five miles, which brought us to the Dalles or Methodist Missions. Here was the end of our road as no wagons had ever gone below this place. We found some sixty families waiting for passage down the river; and as there were but two small boats running to the Cascade falls, our prospect for a speedy passage was not overly flattering.
Joel Palmer, 1845
As early as 1845, the Oregon Trail's route began to shorten and as other suppliers (emigrant and Indian) were established on the route, the need for the Whitman's services declined. The mission was bypassed except by those in desperate need. After the Whitman Massacre in 1847, the mission was closed and use of the Upper Columbia Route declined. The Upper Columbia River Route was replaced in the late 1840s by the Columbia Plateau Route, which led emigrants over the desert far south of the river.
In the 1930's, hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River began flooding the Upper Columbia, inundating landmarks such as Celilo Falls and the narrows at The Dalles. The dams at last transformed the Columbia River into an efficient regional trade artery -- the elusive "River of the West" that inspired so many early explorers.
Today, most travelers entering Oregon from the east travel on Interstate 84, which might be considered a modern-day Columbia River route.