Who Was John Day?
John Day, namesake of the river, two towns (John Day and Dayville), a dam on the Columbia and a national park, was about as good an example of a hard-luck case as will ever be found. He was a member of the Astor-Hunt Overland Party of 1811 that was trying to get to Astoria. The party was led by a New Jersey merchant who knew nothing of the wilderness. The men made it over the Rockies but ran out of food near the present site of Twin Falls, Idaho. Indians there gave them food and canoes, with which the party hoped to make up for lost time by taking down the Snake River. Soon the river was going faster and faster; what at first seemed like a salvation turned into a nightmare when
their canoes wrecked in the rapids of mile-deep Hell's Canyon.
Four men drowned in the
rapids and one went mad before the remainder managed to scale the icy rock walls,
leaving nearly all their gear behind. At this time, Day and another fellow fell behind.
Nearly starved and frozen, they struggled through the snow of the Blue Mountains and
spent the winter with friendly Indians near Walla Walla. These Indians aided Day and his
partner, and after they had regained their health sent them down the Columbia River.
On down the Columbia however, they encountered hostile Indians who robbed them of
everything, including their clothes. The two men were making their way back to Walla
Walla when they were rescued by trappers coming downstream. Another river emptied
into the Columbia near where Day and his partner were attacked and trappers started referring to it as John Day's River. It is probable that he never went up the river that gained his name.
©1998 Roxann Gess Smith
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