Think Out Loud

Who was John Day?

By Dave Miller (OPB)
May 22, 2023 4:58 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, May 22

Grant County is one of Oregon’s smallest by population, with a little over 7,000 people. Its largest city is John Day, with about 1,700 residents. However, John Day – the man – was never among that number. A hapless hunter from Virginia, Day never got particularly close to the region whose rivers and cities bear his name. But his story does tell us something about European-American settlement in the Pacific Northwest.


Greg Shine is a historian and writer based in Portland. He wrote about John Day for the Oregon Encyclopedia, and joins us with details of his story.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We are in Grant County all this week. It’s one of Oregon’s smaller counties, population-wise, with a little over 7,000 people. John Day is the largest city here with about 1,700 people. The man it’s named after never got particularly close to this part of what’s now Oregon. He was a hapless hunter from Virginia. His name graces cities and rivers here now largely because of bad luck. But his story, nevertheless, tells us something important about European American settlement in the Northwest.

Greg Shine is a historian and writer in Portland. I talked to him recently about the man, John Day. I started by asking him how much we know about Day’s life before he came to present day Oregon.

Greg Shine: We don’t know a lot about John Day’s early life at all. We know he was born around 1770 but little is known about those early days. There are fleeting references that are really interesting where he is recorded as talking about - because we don’t have a lot in his voice, from his pen - but he talks about having these, earlier in his youth, a lot of youthful indiscretions and he sounds like almost a falstaffian character in the first years of his life.

He starts out in Virginia. As many Americans at the time were doing, they were moving west. So he comes into the Kentucky area and then he’s in Missouri near the turn of the century. Then he is engaged in different activities trying to make a buck, right? Trying to survive. So he tries farming, tries to get a saltpeter mining operation going, [and] various things. But it seems like hunting really was the thing that he was the best at.

Miller: Why did he head even further west at that point from Missouri all the way to the Northwest?

Shine: Well, we don’t really know but looking at the push and pull factors of history you can imagine that there was something that was drawing him west, right? It’s possible it was that financial issue, which was the issue that a lot of people had. There was the opportunity for making some money and for adventure possibly as well, that could have factored in. So he chooses to join with a couple of people he knew in the area. He then joins the Pacific Fur Company of John Jacob Astor.

Miller: What was that? I mean, this is a hugely consequential corporate plan by John Jacob Astor. What was it?

Shine: Well, it was a huge corporate plan and the idea was to set up this fur trading operation that is centered in Astoria, so centered on the Pacific Coast. Because John Jacob Aster, being an astute businessman, was aware of the wealth that was the opportunity that was there in the fur trade. He was aware of the Northwest Company, which was the Canadian company up to the north that was trapping, [and] somewhat was aware of some of their efficiencies and inefficiencies. He saw an opportunity. He saw the opportunity of setting up this hub in Astoria which could connect this vast empire to throughout the world.

Miller: You have some fun quotes in your Oregon Encyclopedia entry about John Day from the writer Washington Irving, who wrote a book about Astoria where he described John Day as having a quote, ‘handsome, open, manly countenance and being a prime woodsman and an almost unerring shot, with an elastic step as if he trod on springs.’ So, he’s a handsome woodsy bouncy-stepped hunter. But Washington Irving, he also wrote “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” How much stock do you put in his description of John Day?

Shine: Well, that’s tough. Because there’s not really a lot to compare it to. We do know that he did draw on primary source materials that he had collected. So there are comparisons. In some of his descriptions, it’s almost word for word from some of his source materials. So he did use source materials. But then again, you know what part is fact and what is fiction?

He also says that Day boasted that he had lived too fast in his younger days and had injured his constitution through these excesses of his youth. Right? But is that the case, or does that set up for the later the character in his story and the story of John Day going mad?

Miller: Ok. Well, let’s get to that. But, even before John Day set foot in what’s now Oregon, he had some problems. What happened in present day Idaho?

Shine: Yes. So he was part of this expedition that was coming overland because there were two. There was an expedition by sea to set up the floor to the story and then an overland expedition.

So the overland expedition met all kinds of challenges and to get to John Day’s part, basically, it broke off into pieces. John Day and Ramsay Crooks, one of the partners, become sick, right? It’s almost like an ‘every man for himself’ situation. They are in Idaho and destitute. They are trying to make their way west, the two of them. And it’s almost like a Laurel and Hardy kind of episode, you think, where they’re unfamiliar with the area. They decide to dig up some roots. Because they saw some of the Native peoples do it, but they dig the wrong ones up and almost poison themselves. If it’s not for the support of some of the Native peoples in the area on several occasions, they would have been dead.

Miller: What happened as they made their way further into Oregon?

Shine: As they moved their way further into Oregon, they became more and more destitute, more and more hungry, more and more challenged by the elements, and not sure what they wanted to do. But they did fall in, in several places, several key spots, probably around the Blue Mountains. They get out of the Blue Mountains and they’re headed down to the Columbia River. The idea being [that] they can follow the flow of the Columbia River down to Astoria and meet up with the rest of the group.

So they get around the Umatilla area and one of the Native peoples that is actually named Yeck-a-tap-am is a village elder in that area who takes them in. Clothes them, feeds them, and really keeps them alive enough so that they can reconstitute themselves a bit and then begin their way down the Columbia River. Then we get to the mouth of what’s known today as the John Day River.

Miller: What happened there?


Shine: So as they’re working their way west along the Columbia River and they encounter some Native tribes people there and they begin talking with them. But they sense that something is wrong and indeed something was wrong. Because, unbeknownst to them, some of their fellow Pacific Fur Company fellow employees had murdered one of the Native peoples there as they were headed up to visit Fort Okanagan. So they left in their trail this murdered family member of the local Native American community. Because there was a practice of ‘a life for life’ in many cases, right?

So John Day and Ramsey Crooks make their way down, unbeknownst to them, they encounter this group of tribal members. They take John Day and Ramsey Crooks’ weapons and then basically strip them down of everything they have. According to Ramsey Crooks, there seems to be discussion about whether or not to kill them. An elder intervenes and decides to let them go. So they are sent off with their lives. But as they, as Ramsey Crook said, ‘naked is the day we were born.’

Miller: Which in a sense, it’s a kind of death sentence, potentially, but a slower one, right? I mean they don’t know this land. They don’t have their weapons, they don’t have their clothes and they’re as far as they’re concerned - obviously, this is a very peopled place for thousands of years, but for these European Americans, they’re lost. And then just by chance, a couple of days later, some members of the Pacific Fur Company found them?

Shine: Yes. It was rather by chance, because the group that had gone up and gone through the narrows in the area there, and where the murder had taken place. They had gone up on up to Fort Okanagan and they were now coming back down the Columbia River and they’re just before the Umatilla River, right around in that area. They’re coming down river and they hear people yelling out to them in English. They’re thinking, ‘This is odd because we don’t know of other people that are out here except for our colleagues.’ So they called out again and then the boats, the flotilla came over and stopped and met them and they heard them, this harrowing tale of their travels there to the west.

Miller: That is how the John Day River and then eventually cities of John Day and Dayville got their name. But I can’t help thinking that naming the river after John Day, that it’s not an honorific. It’s not a sort of a title of honor. I mean, he was this hapless guy who along with his buddy was just naked and hungry and in trouble. It just seems like more of a joke among coworkers like, ‘Oh man, here’s John Day’s River, remember that crazy day?’ But the name has stuck.

Shine: Yeah. I think that that’s exactly what it was if you look back at some of the place names in the period, certainly there are those honorific titles, but you also have those that are tied to a specific incident. So for instance, the Owyhee River, right? Why is the Owyhee River named that when it’s nowhere close to Hawaii or the Pacific Islands. But it’s because there was a party of Hawaiian fur trappers that were killed there in that area. Because of that, that was enough of an incident, a landmark to associate that name -- Sandwich Island River and later Owyhee River. So you have instances of naming places, not only because of honorific titles, but also because of interesting or terrible or horrific incidents that happened near there enough to really influence that name.

So you have the mouth of this river that is where this incident took place, then becoming known as John Day’s River. Lewis and Clark had given it a name too, right? They had named it after… a few years earlier, they had called it was La Page River, honorific after one of their voyageurs. That obviously didn’t stick and I’m sure there were other…David Thompson had a different name for it as well. Certainly, it was known to the Native peoples for millennia.

Miller: So let’s go back to John Day’s story. He eventually recovered and then he got into the business of hunting. The whole reason he was there hunting for Astoria’s company. What happened after that?

Shine: Well, he resumed hunting there in the Astoria area and became very familiar with those grounds there. Then at some point decides, after a couple of months - there’s a group that’s going back to Saint Louis and is ready to cash out, they’re done with their time in the Pacific Fur Company. So he decides that he’s gonna be one of those folks. And so he’s in one of the boats then that begins the journey upriver, and then they would follow the trail the rest of the way back to St. Louis, ostensibly, but that’s not what happened.

Miller: What did happen?

Shine: Well, from the reports, it seemed like a day or so up into the trip, as they’re going up river, John Day begins to exhibit these very strange behaviors. To the point of, some described it as like a babbling, a threatening, and also suicidal actions. And to one point where on one of the evenings he’s like, ‘Ok, sorry, sorry, everyone, I apologize. I was just a little out of it or whatever,’ and they kind of relax and then he grabs a brace of pistols and supposedly fires them off trying to kill himself. So obviously something’s not right there, but a hunter, not being able to shoot himself in the head with one of the pistols… that also raises interesting points as well.

Miller: In what I’ve read, including your entry. it seems possible that he was suffering from serious trauma. I mean, maybe now what we’d call PTSD and especially heading back to the place of that trauma. Or it’s possible that he was faking this to get out of a work situation that he didn’t like? Is it a case that historians just… this question can’t be answered definitively?

Shine: It can’t be answered definitively and it could be all of the above as well, right? When the party had gone up the river earlier where the murder took place, the person who was responsible for that murder, Robert McClellan, was someone that John Day knew and he was right there with John Day in those boats heading back to St. Louis. There could be a slew of different things. We really don’t know, but we do know that he didn’t continue.

Miller: How much do we know about his final years?

Shine: Well, we know even less about his final years. He ends up not going to St. Louis, he’s set back. He is there, there’s no indication of any mental illness or ill behavior at all. He apologizes for that and then he begins hunting again and hunts for the next few years.

In fact, he’s trusted so much that he then accompanies the party down to set up a Wallace House, which is the first Euro-American structure in the Willamette Valley a couple of winters later. But then he ends up becoming a free trapper and ended up being in the Snake River area. Which is kind of the area from the Eastern Oregon Blue Mountains down into the Snake River area down into Utah, Nevada. So he’s trapping there for several years.

Then he dies in 1820, while on a beaver trapping expedition and presumably the night before he pens this will, giving everything that he has to one of his colleagues. That’s the last that we hear of him outside of the place where he was buried therein, and Idaho becomes kind of one of those landmark things, right? It becomes one of those things that is pointed to, is known, as they pass by. It’s a landmark in the area.

Miller: What do you think John Day’s life says about the early European American arrivals to the Northwest?

Shine: I think it could be looked at as an example of the American movement West in a way. Here, you have blundering Americans, maybe, who have specialties in certain areas - he’s a hunter, for instance - but he’s barely able to keep himself alive. He’s kept alive by the Native peoples [and] the system that he is setting up is largely displacing and ending the life ways of. So, I think it’s in a way, it’s a representation of that in that movement.

Miller: Greg Shine, thanks very much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

Shine: Hey, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Miller: Greg Shine is a historian and writer in Portland.

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