There is a rich human history in the John Day basin. The oldest known human habitations date to more than 5,000 years ago. Their heritage includes rock shelters and pit houses near the John Day River.
Several Native American peoples hunted and fished here—it was a land that provided foods to Warm Springs, Bannock, Northern Piaute, Cayuse and Umatilla peoples. Today, the Warm Springs Tribes manage the Pine Creek Ranch, south of Fossil, where hiking is availble by permit year-round.
In 1862, gold was discovered in Canyon City, and mining towns, including Antone sprang up. The influx of miners led to establishment of several forts, including Fort Watson, near Mitchell, where several US cavalry soldiers were killed by Chief Paulina’s band in 1864 and a barracks at Antone. Established in 1868, The Dalles Military Road, from The Dalles, ran through Antelope, Mitchell, and Dayville (Camp Lincoln) to Canyon City, extending to Burns, and ultimately, Boise. The road allowed freight and military groups access to the John Day basin. In 1861, soldiers traveling from Boise to The Dalles discovered abundant fossils in the area, and the finds drew famous paleotologists O.C. March and Cope here, along with Thomas Condon, in 1876-1890.
Condon, Oregon’s first State Geologist, and a Congregational Minister, was based in The Dalles, and in later years, Eugene, but spent much time exploring the landscape of Wheeler County and the John Day basin for fossils. Beginning in 1865 while living in The Dalles, Condon was the first scientific investigator of the fossils of the John Day area. In 1872, Condon became Oregon’s first state geologist while teaching geology at Pacific University. When the University of Oregon was founded in 1876, he was appointed its first professor of geology and continued as professor and chair of Natural Sciences until 1907. the primary visitor center at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is named for him. The town of Condon in Gilliam County is named after his nephew.
Multiple “expeditions” to find fossils have explored the John Day basin from 1865 to the present. Some notable ones include the Yale expedition with O.C. March in 1873, which took an alleged 5 tons of fossils—not all from the John Day Basin—back to the Peabody Museum at Yale.
Miners established a market for agricultural products and timber leading to a rapid influx of settlers from 1866 until 1870. Andrew Clarno, a pioneer stockman, settled on Pine Creek. H.C. Paige and Henry Wheeler were attacked by Indians 5 miles east of Mitchell and escaped by riding dray horses to Mitchell. Chief Paulina’s raiders attacked and burned J.N. Clark’s ranch along the John Day River downstream from Twickenham, which is now known as Burnt Ranch because of this incident.
In 1867, Wheeler County’s first post office was built at Sutton Ranch at the foot of Sutton Mountain. In the same year, I.N. Sargent built the first house on the site of Mitchell. The site would be incorporated as a town in 1876, with a burgeoning population of 50 people. Rancher Thomas Hoover established the town of Fossil in 1876, naming it for the fossils on his ranch. The historic Wheeler County Courthouse,second oldest in Oregon, and now completely modernized, was completed in 1901.
In 1909 E.D. Wetmore began purchase of forested land and in 1927 his timber operation, Kinzua Pine Mills Company, established a mill and the town of Kinzua, 8 miles east of Fossil with a mill and a rail line to Condon. The mill at Kinzua closed in 1976 and a fire destroyed the town in 1978; but a fine, classic 6-hole “meadow” public golf course still operates there today.
Kinzua Pine Mills and Condon, Kinzua & Southern Railroad: