The Lost River of John Day

by Francis Haines, Jr.  --

One of the most interesting studies in the field of history is the study of the folk hero. Each region has its own collection of them. Generally they can be placed in two categories; either the hero was a creature of imagination, or he was a real man. The distinction is occasionally a fine one, since the real man may be lost in the lore, as Mike Fink has been.

What are the attributes necessary for election to the ranks of the folk hero? We don't know. Such disparate figures as Davy Crockett and Abraham Lincoln have become folk heroes. Some of them epitomize an era; others an aspiration. No analysis has yet revealed the basis for election. Marcus Whitman undoubtedly owes his position to the manner of his death. The legend of the descendants of the pioneers who stole his property.

Southern Idaho has two folk heroes. One of them is Captain Bonneville, An Army officer with pedilection for evading  active service. The other is John Day, an obscure fur trapper. The two have little in common other than that they were both immortalized by Washington Irving and that both have left their names on the land.

Irving's book based on Bonneville journals seems to be the only basis for the Captain's election. His career was not exceptional and his trip to the Rockies is aptly described by Irving as "adventures" rather than  "explorations". He is credited with the origin of the name Boise though he himself made no such claim; the river was known before he reached the region.

John Day has a much better right to election to the ranks of the folk hero- at least he was among the first whites to enter southern Idaho. Aside from that, he was not notable. A Virginian, he was a mountain man much like many others. Before he signed on with Wilson Price Hunt, we know only enough of his life to make his story intriguing, His career here in the Pacific Northwest was certainly  not outstanding successful nor does it provide good raw material for legends.

Despite the fact that he and Ramsey Crooks seem to have been the first several of the places bearing Day's name, it is debatable that he deserves much credit for that, for he was lost at the time. I suspect that his name was used rather than Crook's because it was more euphonious; for the two certainly have equal claim to the discovery of the John Day River.

The legend of John Day, however, has not grown up on the basis of these facts. The central place in the legend has been his grave and its location. Holy relics have been searched for with less zeal that has been used in the hunt for the bones of tthis man. Why? No one knows.

The circumstances of his death are not noteworthy. He died, probably of old age, at Donald MacKenzie's winter camp on February 16, 1820. William Kittson refers to Day as " an honest old American." The only item of interest connected with the event is a minor historical "first." He seems to have made out the first will ever drawn up in what is now Idaho.

This fact does not seem to justify the efforts made to locate the grave of John Day nor the controversy over its location. Why should  be, of all of the mountain men who died in southern Idaho, be singled out for this special attention?

The mystery of the location seems to be the answer. Like other facts of John Day's career, we know enough about the place to be able to guess where his grave was with reasonable accuracy, but not enough to be positive. We know that Day was buried near the stream where he died, the stream on which Donald MacKenzie made his winter camp. Trappers knew the stream as Day's River after this. The portion of the river where the burial took place was known specifically as "Day's Defile". As such, it was frequently mentioned in the journals which have survived from the later fur trade era.

Unfortunately, the name was lost in a later period. The trapping industry was long since dead, as were most of the trappers, when this part of Southern Idaho was permanently settled. Day's River was renamed by persons unaware of the older name.

To assist in creating an air of mystery, the accounts known to those in quest of the grave have been tantalizingly brief. There are no unique characteristics mentioned which would make identification positive. For this reason, no identification of the stream has been generally accepted.

The two candidates for the honor which have been most widely accepted are Birch Creek and the Little Lost River, with the former receiving the majority of the votes. We can safely disregard one editor who, evidently guided by whimsy, has located the stream in western Wyoming.

Two sources of information have now come to light which have a direct bearing on the question. With the evidence from these accounts, I believe that we can conclusively settle the question of the identity of Day's River.

The first of these is a map drawn by William Kittson which has been reproduced and published with the Ogden Sanke Country journal of 1824-26. This map is from the archives of Hudson's Bay Company and is of the southern Idaho area.

Why is William Kittson an authority? He was present when  John Day died. This is proved by John Day's will, which was drawn up at  the time. William Kittson is one of the witness signing the will.

Kittson's map shows Dau's River to be the stream we know today as the little Lost River. The map, surprisingly accurate for a free had sketch, Leaves no room for doubt.

The Wood River was known to the Ogden party as the Malad or Sickly River, from the fact that most of the party suffered
severely from poisoning thought to have been occasioned by eating beaver trapped in the stream. This stream is clearly delineated on the map.

The next stream to the east of Wood River is designated by Kittson as Goddin's River. There is no doubt that this stream is the one now known as the Big Lost River. No other stream in the area fits the location given by Kittson or the specific descriptions of the river given in many journals of the period.

The next stream to the east on the map is called Day's River by Kittson. This is, obviously, the Little Lost River. There is no possibility that Kittson omitted this stream from his map.

If there is any doubt remaining, however, the map clearly resolves it. The next stream to the east is labeled " Burch Forks".
This is the stream we know no as Birch Creek.

The location and the course of the stream as shown on the map leave no doubt. there is no other stream in the area that might qualify.

The drawing of Birch Creek is inaccurate in several respects. We have no evidence to indicate that Kittson ever saw the stream. His information concerning "Burch Forks" must have been obtained from his trappers. This would account for any inaccuracy in a map otherwise so well drawn.

In history, as in law, it is desirable to have more than one witness, so we shall present another. He is John Work, the Irishman who was such a notable figure in Hudson's Bay Company operations here in the Pacific Northwest.

John Work did not see the Snake Country until he took command of the expedition of 1830-31. By the time the rivers had names which Work recorded as he crossed the country. For this reason, his journal contains a more thorough descrpition of the country than any other we have.

Work's chief source of information on the country was the colorful Francois Payette. We do not know when Payette first came to the Sanke Country, but it must have been early, since the river which bears his name is one of the first that was trapped by the expeditions. We know that he was with Finan MacDonald on the expedition of 1823, and there is good reason for believing that he was the man mentioned by Peter Skene Ogden as the only survivor of the expedition pf 1819 expedition was Charles Plante, and he was a member of the 1830-31 party, too.

From frequent references in the journal, it is apparent that Work is relying  completely on his men for information to identify his route and for place names. He describes a place as being "where Mr. Ogden passed last year" or as "where Mr. Ogden wintered."  Where alternate names had been used, Work usually gives all of them. For example, he refers to "Reed's river also known as the Grand Wood river"-- this latter obviously a literal translation from the French.

Leaving the Boise River, Work crossed Camas Prairie to the Sickly River. He gives the origin of the name, and his account tallies closely with the Ogden account (this is not strange, as a number of his party had been among those poisoned). He correctly ascribes the poisoning to water hemlock, though he did not notice the difference between the cicuta douglasi of this region and the cicuta maculata of his native Ireland.

From here, the party crossed to Goddin's River. His journal entry for October 20, 1830 gives the first definite evidence of the indetity of Day's Defile. At this time, Work was camped at thousand Springs. He writes: " here there is a road to the Northward through a cut in the mountain leading to Day's Defile. Also a road falls in from the Southward from the head of Sickly river."
It is unlikely that Work would have spoken of the pass to the north as "leading to Day's Defile" if by Day's Defile he meant Birch Creek, for in that case the road would have had to cross the Little Lost River before getting to Birch Creek. Though Work would not have been aware of this, Payette would surely have explained it. Furthermore, Wood River, which can be reached as Work described, is the only stream on the north bank of the Snake that  was known as the Sicly or Malad River to the trappers.

On November 2, 1830 Work was proceeding along the Salmon River. He mentions passing the junction of the Pahsimeroi River and states further that "This branch lies down a fine valley and the heads of it are separated from Day's river by a little height of land . . . "  This description could not apply to Birch Creek but it does fit the Little Lost River perfectly.

Work actually arrived on Day's River on December 2, 1830. He describes his journey as having been eighteen miles south through a pass in the mountains. As he had started from from headwaters of the Lemhi, this description would fit Pass Creek pass. More interesting is his statement that they camped at "Mr. McKenzie's camp in Day's Defile"

It is probable that this refers to the camp at which John Day died. Work identifies the camp, and unusual procedure, because he has been told the story of the naming of the stream.
The definiteness of his statement is significant. The Irishman was a careful and conscientious reporter and this report was destined for his superiors. Due for promotion ( he had in fact been promoted, though he did not know it) he would be doubly careful.

The following descriptions are conclusive. On December 9, he marched down the river to "where it terminates in that plain."
From this point, he went "eight miles across the plains to a dry branch of Goddin's river . . ." His route from here was to the Pilot Knobs.

John Work made no further mention of Day's Defile in this journal. He wintered near Pocatello and traveled south into
the Salt Lake basin in the spring. From there he went to the Humboldt and back to Fort Nez Perce.

There are other accounts which might be cited. Inasmuch as I have mentioned Captain Bonneville above, I shall cite only his.
The Captain's description, a second- hand report from Matthieu, agree with this identification of Day's Defile.

The final proof would be the finding of the grave of a John Day and some identification of the remains that would be positive. Although there is little hope of this, stranger things have happened. It would appear that the place to begin the search is on the Little Lost River near or below the mouth of Pass Creek. But even without the grave, it is evident that Day's River and
the Little Lost River are one and the same.

It seems appropriate that the lost river of John Day should, in fact, turn out to be the Little Lost River, since for many a year it has been only  "a little lost."

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