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An Illustrated History of Umatilla and Morrow Counties

by Colonel William Parsons and W. S. Shiach

Published 1902

(This book is available at the Morrow County Museum and the Oregon Trail Library in Heppner, Oregon.)

". . .The old emigrant road, the highway over which the great westward moving army of civilization wended its way to the Willamette Valley and the coast, passes through the northern part of Morrow County. It is, therefore, probably that the first white men aside from fur traders and explorers to look out upon this section viewed its bunchgrass hills while journeying resolutely toward the setting sun. . .the early pioneers doubtless considered it worthless, except for the luxuriant growth of bunchgrass which covered each hill from base to crest and spread out profusely over the valleys.

When, however, a couple of decades later, the Willamette country began to be well stocked with herds of cattle and sheep, many remembered the rich pastures on the eastern slope of the Cascades and beyond, and as early as 1862, or perhaps even before that, it became customary to drive cattle over into the valleys of Morrow County and leave them there to shift for themselves, the owners returning shortly to their homes further west. Mr. T. H. Bisbee, who passed through Morrow County in the spring of 1862, en route to the Salmon River mines, says that there was a man in one of the parties named Parker who claimed to have a number of cattle on Butter Creek and stated that the party to which Mr.Bisbee belonged were at liberty to kill one of these animals for the replenishment of their larder. . .it was executed with more despatch than ceremony."

Yesteryears of
Morrow County, Oregon

A history of Morrow County prepared by the Morrow County Extension Units and produced in
cooperation with the Morrow County Court in celebration of the Oregon Centennial year

When Oregon was first settled most of the newcomers went to the Willamette Valley, leaving only a few miners and stockmen in Eastern Oregon. Consequently it was not until years after Oregon became a state that Eastern Oregon was settled. When the valley was pretty well taken up, and the excitement over the California gold fields was dying down, people began to remember the rolling bunch grass covered hills of the land through which they had passed.

Morrow and Umatilla counties were once a part of Wasco County. Morrow County was formed from a part of Umatilla County on February 16, 1885 and Heppner was chosen the first county seat.

Morrow County extends from the Blue Mountains on the south to the Columbia River on the north and consists of 2059 square miles. The elevation varies from 250 feet on the Columbia River to 6000 feet in the Blue Mountains.

Through the years many ways for making a living have existed. In the Blue Mountains there were sawmills; opal, gold, silver and coal mines; and summer grazing for livestock. From the foothills Northward to the sands, grain, hay and livestock were raised. Along the river, truck gardens, orchards and dairies were numerous.

Morrow County reached its peak of population in 1920 with 5617 people. In 1958 there were 4875.

Early Settlers

History indicates that the earliest homesteader in Morrow County was George Vinson, who came from Iowa to Butter Creek in 1852. He was the first man to take a wagon up Butter Creek and filed a claim on land two miles below the present site of Lena. This farm has remained in the family up to the present time and is now being farmed by Delbert Vinson. Mostly stock raisers began coming to Morrow County.

There were a number of families that settled along Willow Creek near its Junction with Rhea Creek. In 1859, John Jordan, originally from Ohio, built the first house in Morrow County, a log cabin, about two miles above the present site of Ione. His nearest neighbor at that time was Thomas W. Ayers of Iowa, who settled at the forks of Butter Creek in 1862. Tom and his brother, William, arrived in Umatilla County and each established himself on Butter Creek. Tom not only operated a farm for four years, but drove a freight train from Umatilla landing to Granite and also Grande Ronde. He soon acquired cattle and horses in such numbers that he gave up his freight line. He sold his ranch in 1878, to the Vey Brothers and moved to Heppner. William Ayers raised sheep on the place now owned by the Hughes family.

Creeks have a way of being named after some person, animal or episode that took place on its banks. Butter Creek is no exception. One of the stories told claims that it received its name because some lowly privates of a Cavalry Detachment of U. S. Soldiers riding between Walla Walla and The Dalles, stole the Captain's butter and hid it in the creek. Thereafter, it was called Butter Creek.

The years of 1860 to 1870 found more settlers homesteading in Morrow County. In 1863 William Y. Cecil, who was born in England, built a home at the Oregon Trail crossing on Willow Creek. This was the beginning of a settlement that took on the name of Cecil and became the stopping place of the emigrants on their way to western Oregon. A Post Office was established here in 1867 and has continued on through the years.

Also in 1863, William Penland is reported to have brought the first band of sheep to Morrow County, making his headquarters at the mouth of what is now Black Horse canyon where it joined the Willow Creek valley. He was a native of Kentucky, very industrious and progressive, and realized the opportunity presented here. In a few years he succeeded in building up one of the finest ranches. He became known as the sheep king and one of the most wealthy men in his time.

Elijah W. Rhea, a native of Virginia, with his wife and three sons, Columbus A. ("Lum"), James and Thomas came to the valley, which was to become known by their name, in 1864. They settled on land about 12 miles from the point where Rhea Creek joins Willow Creek. They became prosperous cattle and sheep raisers.

Another very early pioneer sheepman on Rhea Creek was Albert Wright whose descendants, Orrian Wright and his son, Albert, still occupy the original homestead site. Crossing the plains from Indiana among the first wagon trains in 1852, Mr Wright farmed in Oregon City before coming to this area in 1864. The first winter was spent at the "Sunderlin Place", on Rock Creek near Chapin Creek, where he later operated a sawmill.

Amanuel C. Petteys, originally from the state of New York, came in 1868 from the Willamette Valley with a band of cattle and settled at the forks of Rhea and Willow Creek, three miles east of the present site of Ione.

Here he homesteaded, bought land and built a house. His place was one of the central stopping places for travelers. Here they could buy supplies for Mr. Petteys had about 50 acres of alfalfa which he sold for hay and 10 acres of orchard which produced an abundant supply of fruit. He also maintained a barn for the care of the stage and freighter teams. He became postmaster of Petteysville and held the post for fourteen years until the office was discontinued.

In 1869 Joseph Mason, of Portugal, came from Salem to the Rhea Creek valley where he bought 160 acres from William Hughes. On this tract of land the first brick house in Morrow County was built. His ten children were born there. Some of the house still stands and is in use as a modern kitchen. Mr. Mason planted the first orchard and berries on Rhea Creek. The early emigrants found this an ideal place to camp and rest and were happy to find a place to buy such fine food.

George W. Stansbury came to Morrow County and purchased land from a man named Estes in 1869. The meadow became known as Stansbury's Flats and until 1872 his cabin was the only building there. Stansbury's Flats was the later townsite of the city of Heppner.

Another colorful and interesting pioneer who took a homestead in 1870, at the present site of the Slocum ranch, was William (Uncle Billy) Gilliam. He crossed the plains in 1852 and engaged in the Indian Wars of 1855-56, including the battle for the Walla Walla valley. The Spring Hollow ranch was homesteaded by Frank Gilliam, his brother, also in 1870. He started a hardware store in Heppner. which is well known at the present day as Gilliam and Bisbee.

Henry Padberg with his family came to the Willamette Valley from Germany. He came to Morrow County in 1870 and settled about seven miles southeast of the present site of  Ione on Rhea Creek. He raised sheep mostly, but now the home place is in wheat and farmed by his grandson, Darrell Padberg.

Eli Summers with his family filed on a homestead two miles northwest of Lexington on Willow Creek in 1870. Here he built his home, raised hay, ran cattle and had a large orchard and garden. Settlers from surrounding dry lands came here for their yearly supply of fruits and vegetables. He made trips to the Willamette Valley for nursery stock. Mrs Summers ran the hotel in Lexington during the building of the railroad and for about 16 years in all.


Thursday, August 03, 2000