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High Desert History: Southeastern Oregon

Compared to the rest of the state, southeastern Oregon's high-desert country is a harsh but compelling landscape. Historically, the region has remained a comparatively isolated and challenging place where the main currents of Oregon's development flowed more slowly than elsewhere. For thousands of years a home to Native peoples that had developed a "Desert Culture" way of life, Euro Americans arrived in the early-nineteenth century in modest but growing numbers. They came to trap beaver, to graze livestock and to homestead the sagebrush plains in an attempt to "dry-farm" wheat and other grains. By the late-twentieth century, southeastern Oregon has become a place of some cultural dissonance, a region where a traditional belief in American "rugged individualism" exists side-by-side with a landscape and resources controlled largely by the federal government. Jeff LaLande is an archaeologist and historian. A resident of the Rogue River valley for over 35 years, he has authored numerous publications on the ethnohistory and history of the southern portion of Oregon.">

compiled by Jeff LaLande

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The long-isolated southeastern quarter of Oregon possesses a challenging yet compelling environment; and this fact has helped to mold the high desert’s human history.

A Dynamic Landscape and Its First People

From the deep freshwater lakes and mammoth herds of the Ice Age to the vast bunchgrass-and-sagebrush steppe of recent memory, Native peoples adapted to southeastern Oregon’s changing climate and resources, from the first arrivals some 13,000 years ago, to the bands of Northern Paiute hunters-and-gatherers who inhabited southeastern Oregon for the past several centuries.

On the Far Fringes of Two Empires

Euro Americans penetrated southeastern Oregon in the 1820s when British fur-trapping brigades sought to trap out the streams and discourage American exploration. In the 1840s Americans followed the trappers’ trails, and an “unknown” region began to take shape on the map. During the 1840s and 1850s, the Northern Paiute struggled with white settlement. Hostile interactions between newcomers and Natives led the U.S. Army to the high desert and the ongoing “Snake Indian Wars” of the 1860s ended with the Natives’ defeat and their relocation to a short-lived reservation.

Settling Up the Country

Stockmen arrived in southeastern Oregon in the 1870s, including Spanish-speaking vaqueros from big California ranchos, transforming it into a vast livestock empire. The 1878 Bannock War proved disastrous for the Northern Paiute when the government abolished their Malheur Reservation and opened the land to cattlemen. During the 1870s and 1880s, the high desert sprouted a few small towns. As southeastern Oregon’s population grew, conflicts over water-rights, open range, and land ownership marked its history during the 1890s.

A New Century: Last Land Rush and Later Boom/Bust Times

“Dry farmers” homesteaded portions of southeastern Oregon after 1900 and ranchers benefited from World War I’s demand for beef and wool. In the 1920s, dams impounded water for irrigation and railroad connections brought large-scale logging to the forests and sawmills to Burns and Lakeview. The Depression of the 1930s devastated the region’s economy. Federal assistance lessened the sting and set the stage for later trends. The region remained largely an ethnically homogeneous area, most of its residents tracing their ancestry to Western Europe.

For Better and For Worse, Part of the Wider World

With World War II and the post-war boom, southeastern Oregon changed from an isolated hinterland into a region more integrated into the economy and society of Oregon and the nation. The federal government’s role grew during the last half of the twentieth century to both the delight and dismay of local residents. Oregon’s most sparsely populated region, the high desert, has barely begun to participate in the current “New West” boom. Many challenges, from economic transformation to increasing ethnic diversity, lay ahead.

Epilogue and Bibliography

As an arid region where much of its ranching heritage is shared closely with that of adjoining areas in southern Idaho and northern Nevada southeastern Oregon’s history is distinctive and different from that of the rest of the state.

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