Peter Skene Ogden found himself in a bit of a pickle in 1821. The Hudson Bay Company had merged with Ogden’s employer, the North West Company, and his new bosses were a bit upset that he had butchered one of their men “in a most cruel manner” five years prior.
Ogden sailed to London to plead his case before the Hudson Bay Company’s top executives. He was reinstated and later put in charge of six consecutive Snake River Brigades that explored the Pacific Northwest through expeditions that left Fort Vancouver between 1824 and 1830. One of these trips took Ogden to Sunriver.
Six thousand years ago, the Lava Butte volcano erupted and dammed up part of the Deschutes River with one of its lava flows. This is how Lake Benham — a body of water that stretched out over 17 square miles of what is now Central Oregon — was born and ultimately, how it disappeared.
Over the millennia, Lake Benham’s water cut a channel through the lava rock that held it together and continued to flow down the Deschutes River to the Columbia River Gorge. It left behind three waterfalls — Benham Falls, Lava Island Falls, and Dillon Falls — that you can now visit with a quick trip down the Deschutes River Trail.
These waterfalls proved to be valuable assets to the Paleo-Indians — the first people to call Sunriver home — because they exposed obsidian rock that could be used to make spearheads and created a lush, moist area that was full of berries and fibrous plants. They also attracted game that people could hunt and use to make food or clothing.
The chain of Benham Falls, Lava Island Falls, and Dillon Falls also served as a landmark. It was where Native Americans could camp as they migrated up and down the Deschutes River. It was also something that Ogden and the explorers who followed him could point at and say, “Oh yes, I’ve been there.”
The fur trade
Ogden, whom many people thought was a cold-blooded killer, set out to create a “fur desert” across a wide-open territory known as Snake River Country. He wanted to discourage any American fur trappers from setting up shop there. His travels made him the first non-Native American to visit the Great Salt Lake, the first to document crossing the Siskiyou Pass, and the first to report seeing those three waterfalls just outside of Sunriver.
But the most interesting part about Ogden’s trip is that he came to Sunriver from the east, following the John Day Valley south from the Columbia Gorge to the Crooked River, past present-day Prineville, and eventually to the Deschutes River. You can look out over part of this route when riding the Peter Skene Ogden Mountain Biking Trail to Paulina Lake.
Nathaniel J. Wyeth took a more direct route when he traveled from the Columbia Gorge down the banks of the Deschutes River to Sunriver in 1834. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wyeth was an ice harvester turned inventor who thought that he could make a fortune in Oregon’s burgeoning fur industry. He didn’t have the best of luck in this quest.
For example, the friend who had piqued Wyeth’s interest in exploring the Oregon territory bailed on their first planned expedition right before it started. Wyeth also got caught at the Battle for Pierre’s Hole while leading a party of 60 men down what would become the Oregon Trail in 1832.
But probably nothing stung Wyeth more than when a group of Hawaiian laborers deserted him on an 1834 expedition to the Columbia Gorge. Wyeth worked closely with members of the Western Sahaptin and Northern Paiute tribes as he followed these men and the horses that they stole down the Deschutes River for two months.
The relationships that Wyeth built with these Native Americans would have come in handy if Wyeth had been able to realize his long-term goal of creating a permanent settlement in Oregon, where people could farm, trap fur, and trade with the natives. But the pattern of setbacks that plagued Wyeth’s earlier expeditions continued, and he went back to his Cambridge ice farm in 1834.
The next group of Americans to explore Sunriver were wearing uniforms.
Former Republican Presidential Candidate Col. John Charles Frémont explored Sunriver with a team of surveyors from the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1843. Not wanting to stay in The Dalles after he had mapped out the Oregon Trail, Frémont took his team down through Central and Eastern Oregon in search of a route linking the Oregon Trail with California.
Frémont spent the night at Shevlin Park when his team made camp along Tumalo Creek. He arrived at Dillon Falls the next day and was impressed by what he saw.
“In all our journeying,” Frémont wrote in one of his journals. “We had never traveled through a country where the rivers were so abounding in falls, and the name of this stream is singularly characteristic. At every place where we come in the neighborhood of the river is heard the roaring of falls.”
This passage about Dillon Falls played a huge role in settling the West because like the rest of Frémont’s writings, it went viral and was shared across the Eastern United States. People were excited by the stories that Frémont told of his explorations, and these made them want to visit Sunriver and call the area home.
But to get here, they needed infrastructure, and this was when Harry Larcom Abbot, a.k.a. the Abbot Road Abbot, and a team of engineers he led with the Pacific Railroad Survey stepped up to the plate.
Abbot and his team set up a base camp along the banks of the Deschutes River in present-day Sunriver during September 1855. They had just traveled north from Sacramento across Tule Lake and Upper Klamath Lake to the Deschutes River Basin in search of a potential railroad route that might be able to cross The Cascades.
Abbot sent one team of explorers east across the mountains from this camp while he ventured north to The Dalles for supplies. Later that month, Abbot headed east along the Columbia River to Cascade Locks, then south to Black Butte before returning to the Sunriver camp.
Though his search for a railroad route across The Cascades proved unsuccessful, Abbot made detailed notes regarding the bounty of resources and natural beauty that people could encounter when exploring Sunriver.
We invite you to stay at a Cascara Vacation Rentals property if you choose to follow in his footsteps on your next visit. Call one of our agents today.