As Kim and I wandered across the US to the Pacific and back to Vermont this summer, we made some interesting “finds.”  One of these “finds” happened when we rolled into the town of John Day, Oregon.  We’d seen many road signs indicating the mileage to John Day.  It seemed, at least in the minds of the road sign makers, that John Day was an important city.

John Day, Oregon

And when we reached the border, we found a tiny town by today’s standards.  I later found out that about 1,720 souls lived within the town’s limits.  So as we approached the town’s small center, we decided to stop at a seemingly out-of-place craft brewery for lunch.

But as we waited for our food, my interest in the naming of this tiny town grew.  I had to know who John Day was and why a town was named after him.  And this is the origin of this installment of Oddities Uncovered.

I asked our server who John Day was and how the town came to be named after him.  She wasn’t certain about either question, so I decided to do a bit of my own sleuthing to discover the answers.

Does the town have the answer?

Luckily, the town of John Day has a website.  And there must be more people like me because the town had dedicated a webpage to the man.  And according to the town of John Day, the story of its namesake is quite remarkable if somewhat confusing.  So here goes…

The town says that little is known for certain about John Day, a man for whom a river, dam, and two towns (John Day and Dayville) are named.  Although they have some data, some of it conflicting.  So the town says that only parts of the following may be true.

Multiple lives

John Day was a hunter from the backwoods of Virginia.  He had been employed by a fur trader named Ramsay Crooks for several years when he arrived in Oregon, at about 40 years of age.  Descriptions of the man put him at six feet two inches tall, a rather lofty height for the 1800s. Author Washington Irving wrote that “Day was tall with a “handsome, open, manly countenance.” At 40 years old, he was “a prime woodsman, and an almost unerring shot” with “an elastic step as if he trod on springs.”

Ramsay Crooks

Ramsay Crooks hired John Day as a hunter.  Image credit: Wikiwand

Day boasted that in his younger days that nothing could hurt him or scare him.  But he also said that his lifestyle of excesses had changed his countenance and abilities.

In the Fall of 1810, Day was hired as a hunter by Wilson Price Hunt, a.k.a. the “Overland Expedition” of the Pacific Fur Company.  The plan was to cross the Plains and Rocky Mountains during 1811 and arrive at Fort Astoria in Oregon during the winter of 1811 or early spring of 1812.

Pacific Fur Company John Day

Emblem of the Pacific Fur Company, which hired John Day.

The cost of excesses

But as Day had said, his previous excesses incapacitated him for the extreme conditions experienced during the expedition.  In December 1811, Day fell gravely ill.  Ramsay Crooks decided to remain behind with Day at an Indian camp near Weiser, Idaho.  It was Crooks’ decision to stay with Day that saved Day’s life.

Eventually, Day recovered, and the following spring, Crooks and Day made their way across the Blue Mountains to the Columbia River.  There, they were attacked by Indians, robbed, and left naked near the mouth of the Mau Mau River, thirty miles east of The Dalles.

John Day Fort Astoria

An old picture of Fort Astoria, John Day’s Oregon destination. Image Photo credit: Oregon Encyclopedia

Left with nothing, the two men headed back towards the friendly Walla Walla country when they met Robert Stuart’s party going to Astoria, their original destination.  Both joined Stuart’s party and reached Astoria in early May 1812.

Things get interesting

And here’s where things get interesting…

The people started calling the Mau Mau River “John Day River” because he was attacked there.  Within a very few years, the maps changed the name to John Day, and then a valley, two cities, fossil beds, and a dam took on the woodsman’s name.   However, it is likely that John Day never actually visited the areas that now use his name.  (Author’s note: the fossil beds are located in a canyon that splits a mountain.  The sight is right out of a biblical novel.)

The canyon leading to the John Day Fossil Beds. Photo credit: Roamingbarbara

Day’s death

Not much later, in June of 1812, Day was assigned to accompany Robert Stuart back across the plains to St. Louis carrying mail.  But it is said that on the night of July 12, 1812, while camping near Wapato Island, Day became deranged and attempted suicide.  He ran away from the camp and wandered in the woods until he died.  Apparently.

Second death

It seems that there are other recordings of Day’s death, so no one is really sure when he died.  But other documents from the fur trading company say that the Wapato incident resulted in Day returning to Astoria, a broken man who died within a year. So this is his second recorded death.

Third death

Although no other official records mention Day’s death, statements from various sources say that Day retired and ultimately died in a small hunter’s cabin on the banks of a large creek that empties into the Columbia River.  This story results in his third reported death.

Still, Day’s multiple lives continued.  There are no mentions of Day until 1814.  It was then that a “bridge” of 10 canoes carrying nearly 80 men left Fort Astoria, Oregon.  The names of all the passengers were recorded by Alex Henry in his journal.  And you guessed it; the manifest listed the name Joshua Day.  Since there was no such person among the fur trader’s employees, it was assumed that Joshua Day and John Day were the same.  So at this time, it seems John Day is still alive.

Fourth and final death?

The last mention of John Day is contained in the journal of Alex Ross of the Hudson Bay Company.  It records: “Went up the Headwaters of the river.  This is the defile where in 1819 died John Day.”  Day’s defile is a mountain valley that heads in the Salmon River Mountains in Central Idaho. Many believe that this fourth recorded death is the correct one.

Although history does not record it, the town of John Day believes that Day must have been an outstanding man.  They say wherever he went, a creek, valley, or river was named after him.

And this is how John Day is one of America’s Oddities Uncovered.  A man whose sheer countenance became an Oregon legend.



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