If you know where to look, Oregon’s history books come to life in the great outdoors –– including one of the oldest and more controversial chapters that even pre-dates Oregon statehood.
(Courtesy: Grand Rohnde Tribes)
It is history that’s open for you to explore at a military outpost that’s also one of Oregon’s newest state parks – a trail to new understanding about Oregon's past at Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area near Grand Ronde, Oregon.
A stroll across the Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area with Oregon State Park’s Ranger, Ryan Sparks, is a bit like time travel – back 150 years to the time of pioneers, Native Americans and U.S. Soldiers.
Sparks says Fort Yamhill was the "blue line" provided by more than 100 US Soldiers above the Grand Ronde Valley.
The soldiers provided protection for five hundred Native Americans from 30 different tribes who were forced to the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1856.
“The soldiers would have congregated on the large grassy area - drilling in formation all of the time,” said Sparks. “There were 6 officers quarters at the highest end of the fort – white washed buildings with wide porches. The officers would sit out on the front porch and watch the soldiers down below on the parade grounds.”
Today, you can still see signs from those times inside one of the original and intact officer's homes. Although undergoing a painstaking restoration, the old home is remarkably well preserved.
“There are original hand hewn beams,” noted Sparks. “Upstairs, the roof has no nails, but wooden pins that hold the rafters together. Actually, the weight of the roof holds it all in place.”
(Courtesy:Oregon State Parks)
Oregon State Parks considers the house a "treasure chest" because it may have been the residence for then Lt Phil Sheridan (seated center above) who was fresh from West Point Academy and commanded Fort Yamhill years before the Civil War led him to fame and glory.
Fort Yamhill's story isn't always pleasant. After all, the US Army was there for a purpose: in the 1850’s as new emigrants arrived from back east, westward expansion approached a peak and more land was developed by Oregon pioneers.
The Army was there to protect the remaining Native Americans in the wilderness - but it was a symbol of the government's "big stick" of power and authority.
That power was specifically symbolized by the heavy timbered “blockhouse:” a military defensive structure and a presence that couldn’t be denied.
“I am not a Native American,” said Sparks. “So, I can only imagine that if you lived on the reservation, and looked up at the blockhouse each day, it would be intimidating; it definitely had a dominant position on this side of the hill facing the reservation.”
The original blockhouse survives in Dayton, Oregon where it’s being restored as centerpiece of a city park and you can visit it anytime.
Even three generations later, Confederated Tribal Spokesman Eirik Thorsgard said Fort Yamhill provides a memory that remains strong.
“The Fort is not just a place of subtle hostility for us, but it was also a line of protection.”
Thorsgard said that the irony of Fort Yamhill is that the military presence was despised and yet without it, the people who were brought so long ago might not have survived.
“Reservations are probably the biggest detriment to the Indian people,” noted Thorsdgard. “But they were also our saving grace for if we hadn’t been placed on reservations we may have gone the way of the dinosaurs.”
In fact, the Grand Ronde Tribes partnered with Oregon State Parks so that al of the stories from those days will be told at historic parkland that connects you with enduring Oregon history.
“The history of Fort Yamhill is not just the tribe’s history,” said Thorsgard. “It is the state of Oregon and really part of the nation’s history, so it is important for everyone who calls Oregon home to fully understand and appreciate the past.”