John Day – Stranger than Fiction
Reprint from the Oregonian March 23, 1959
Written by Judith Keyes Kenny
Native east Oregonians have always been nurtured on the epic story of the frontiersman, John Day. So integral is their knowledge of him, it is somewhat of a shock to find someone who isn’t familiar with his experiences in Oregon. Though generally claimed by the people living along the John Day river, Umatilla County also has a basis to claim part of his adventures as their historical heritage.
John Day was a man whom fiction writers would shun. His story is so unusual as to be hardly credible. His and Ramey Crook’s survival is reminiscent of the incredulous survival of the mountain man, Hugh Glass, after his encounter with a grizzly bear.
While he visited at the winter camp of the Astor Overland Expedition at the mouth of the Nodaway river, near the present St. Joseph, Missouri, he was persuaded to join the expedition as a hunter. Since 1806 he had been trapping and hunting for Crooks and other St. Louis traders. The expedition was his “cup of tea” and probably little persuasion was needed. John Day was a man who needed no preparation for such adventure.
Again that year of 1811, the old scout Daniel Boone watched another expedition head westward as he had earlier watched Lewis and Clark. Possibly his inclination to join was stronger this time for it has been said that Boone was responsible for John Day’s coming to Missouri from his native Virginia. Days did live in the area frequented by the Boone family.
Tall, 6ft 2″, with an exceptional physique and reddish hair, Day has been described quite vividly by Washington Irving in “Astoria”. He had the build and carriage of an outdoor man. General concepts seem to be that he had “lived to excess” in his youth and was no longer the man he had once been. He often boasted that in his youth nothing could hurt or daunt him. Even yet he was an exceptional rifle shot. His age at the time he joined the party has been given as 42. He has been described as older, and one contemporary spoke of the old hunter John Day.
Led by Wilson Price Hunt the expedition faced many privations in finding their way across the continent, particularly along the Snake river. Near the present town of Weiser, Idaho, John Day became ill and was unable to proceed with the party. Crooks elected to stay behind with him, a loyalty which saved his life. Four Canadians also stayed with them but joined the Shoshone Indians before the other two started the Columbia.
Crossing the Blue Mts. as soon as travel was possible they followed the Umatilla River to the Columbia. On the Umatilla they met Yeck-a-tap-am, who proved a valuable friend. The white-haired old Indian fed them while they rested a few days. It must have been heartening to find such a friendship for there were no white men closer than Astoria.
Moving down the Columbia, near the mouth of the John Day river, they encountered a different Indian band. These, after a cat-and-mouse play, treacherously stripped them of all their belongings, their guns, their food and their clothing. These rogues, except for the intervention of the older men, would have killed them.
This time faced with complete privation, Crooks and Day retraced their trail up the trail to the friendly Yeck-a-tap-am. Anyone familiar with the barren sandy stretches between the mouths of the John Day and Umatilla rivers will appreciate the difficulty of traveling this stretch without shoes as protection against the thorns and rocks and clothes to protect against the alternate temperature changes. This too was without food or means of obtaining it. They lived on vegetation and what could be found along the ground.
Yeck-a-tap-am fed and clothed them. They were fortunate that the Indians were still to be found in that spot. It must also be remembered that the two men had just survived a winter with little food or shelter after both had recovered from serious illness.
In May near the mouth of the Umatilla river, an expedition of the Pacific Fur Company returning to Astoria, were startled to be hailed from the shore in English. As they approached the river bank, the two emaciated men standing there in skins weren’t recognizable at first. The Astorians had believed that the two had perished during the winter.
John Day suffered mental strain from his experiences. Both Crooks and Day a short time later elected to return to the east with the Stuart party the end of June. However, only three days journey from Astoria, while camping on Wapato Island, Day experienced a return of the mental strain and became violently insane. The next morning he attempted to commit suicide. The retracing of his westward journey had reconstructed in his mind the horrible experience suffered by Crooks and himself. He was placed in the hands of friendly Indians and escorted back to Astoria. Washington Irving in “Astoria” wrote that Day lived the rest of his life near Astoria and died a year later. Tradition sometimes states that he lived in a hunter’s cabin on John Day creek, just east of Tongue Point, where he died. Neither of these assertions are correct.
Credulity to the story was gained by the fact that the man dropped from sight and only after many years was his true end discovered. In 1814 Northwest Fur Co. Journals tell of a Joshua Day who rode to the Athabasca Pass in one of their canoe brigades. There also was a John Day listed on their roll of employees. To prove that the two John Days were one and the same was a historian’s dilemma not easily solved.
A definite entry was made in a Hudson Bay Journal of a trading expedition which camped in a fefile in the Salmon River country where John Day died in 1819. No definite proof was offered until Day’s will was found in Mayville, New York, where it was filed in 183- by Donald McKenzie. The will, however, was not discovered until yrs. later. Donald Mackenzie, the Northwest Fur Company man, was named executor of the will and swore during probate proceedings that John Day had died Feb. 12, 1820 on the south bank of the Columbia river. The will was not admitted to probate until such a late date as MacKenzie waited until he returned to the States to live.
John Day was born in Culpepper Co., Virginia, the son of Ambrose Day. He had two known brothers, Lewis and Willis. Two John Days served in the Revolutionary War and owing to the age of this Day, some authorities say that one of these may well have been the “Oregon Day”. The Day family was a very old one in America, a JOhn Day living in Virginia in 1623 was no doubt an ancestor.
There are several speculations on Day’s beginnings. One which has already been mentioned was that he went to Missouri with Boone. On March 28, 1798 he petitioned the Spanish govt in St. Louis and received 250 arpens (about an acre) of land to be used as a plantation. Later he petitioned and received an additional 700 arpens. From time to time he attempted to cultivate the land. From his life it is easy to understand why he wasn’t wholehearted in his farming efforts. When not living in his small cabin on the land, he rented the land to several persons. In 1802 Day had a large corn field but was forced to abandon it due to Indian hostility. As a Musick in 1804 was engaged to cultivate the land and allowed the use of the cabin. Musick planted trees, built a new house, and generally improving the land. The next year Day sold or mortgaged the land and went to the Boone’ Lick country. From then until he joined the Hunt party he was hunting and trapping or working in partnership with two others in the saltpeter mine which he had discovered. In 1809 he was in St. Louis and disposed of some of his property.
MacKenzie received Day’s interest in the saltpeter mines and the remaining land of the Spanish grants. To MacKenzie’s daughter, daughter, Rachel, he bequeathed all his cash and money owed him plus the interest, by Astor. After some controversy, Astor finally paid the debt.
An appendage was added to the will by the two witnesses, which said that Day apparently died the death of a good man. They further stated that Day left his property to MacKenzie, who had been so good to him, rather than his brothers, as Day thought his estate was too inconsequential to divide among them. He did ask that MacKenzie notify his family of his death.
Further records seem to show that John Day had spent the last years of his life as a free hunter for the Northwest Fur Company in the basin touched by the Green River. Cause of his death is unknown. His will was dated the day before his death, and as he states at that time, he was of sound mind but infirm body. It might be quite correctly surmised, therefore, that his death was not unexpected or sudden, possibly the result of increasingly poor health.
This man, whose activities spanned a continent and the end and beginning of two important eras in U.S. History, is remembered by several geographic designations. The eastern Oregon John Day river, named Lepage by Lewis and Clark, was called the John Day river as early as 1825 by the Hudson Bay personnel.
Day was an adventurer of the Boone tradition, a frontiersman who never left the frontier, and was among the first to follow its western advance. John Day’s adventures were numerous, but the greatest challenge of his life was met in Oregon, between the mouths of the John Day and Umatilla rivers.