Owyhee River History
When Europeans first traveled into the Owyhee country they found the Northern Paiute people living a nomadic life in the region. Food was so scarce that families spent most of their time traveling from place to place, searching for what little the desert offered. Plants were vital to Paiute survival. During Spring they sought fresh green thistle or squaw cabbage around streams and lakes. As plants ripened and produced seeds during summer, Paiute families might travel up to 40 miles to gather seeds at a particularly productive location. Grass seeds — fescue, wheatgrass, and Indian rice — were collected, winnowed, and ground into flour. Adding water to the flower, a mush was produced. Seeds were stored in baskets, pits, or caves for use during the long winters. Late in the Summer, Paiute families traveled to moist areas where bulbs of camas, lily, arrowroot, and wild onion were harvested. With the onset of Winter, Paiute bands moved to semi permanent villages near their stored-food sites, where they stayed until the following Spring.
In 1819, Donald McKenzie of the North West Fur Company traveled through the Owyhee region. His job was to discourage competition in the Snake River watershed by exterminating the region’s fur bearing mammals. In his search for these animals, McKenzie sent three employees — Hawaiian Islanders, as it happens — to explore a river they had encountered. They never returned, and the river — the Owyhee — was named in their honor, after their homeland.
The first passable east-west road through the region, known as the Oregon Central Military Road, crossed the Owyhee near Rome. (Rome was so named because white cliffs found near town reminded visitors of pillars in Rome, Italy.) Local gold miners, faced with rising prices for basic supplies, had hopes that improved transportation would drive down prices. Instead, prices continued to rise: to $ 3.00 for a dozen eggs, and $ 12.00 for a pair of boots.
Traffic was so heavy along the roadway that Sam Skinner, Mike Jordan, and Peter Donnelly — the road’s builders — had to inspect the route constantly for damage. During these tours of inspection the partners had to be on the lookout for the Paiute, who were determined to keep the encroaching outsiders away. During one such inspection tour, Jordan and his brother were killed.
But the Paiute did not succeed in protecting their land from the outsiders. By 1896 an increased military presence in the Owyhee region had compelled the northern Paiute to surrender. The Paiute were placed on the Malheur Indian Reservation, created in 1871 by President Grant. Not happy as reservation farmers, a way of life alien to them, the Paiute left the reservation in protest in 1878. The catalyst for their departure was trouble on another reservation. A clerical error opened the Camas Prairie Reservation in Idaho to white settlers — a mistake that precipitated the Bannock War, last Indian uprising in the Northwest.
Prehistoric evidence left by the Indians who lived in the Owyhee region is scarce. Petroglyphs are found in the Owyhee canyon near Hole-in-the-Ground. Designs found there include human figures, bird tracks, ladders, rain symbols, and circles. To the south, along Jordan Creek, several sites display a series of petroglyphs on canyon walls and on boulders near springs. The drawings found on boulders, however, have been exposed to the elements, and the patterns are greatly faded.