Nila & Bob Tales of the Oregon Trail travel blog

John Day Fossil Beds

It dawned a beautiful day with t he sun peeking through the trees. We had some coffee while I did my stretches and then Bob went running and I went walking. After hooking up, we drove west along the John Day River. It is a pretty valley with farm buildings, pastures and hay fields nestled below the mountains. We drove to the John Day Fossil Beds.

The beds are some of the largest and most comprehensive in the United States. The changes in mammals and plants over 40 million years are documented in the layers from 54 to 6 million years ago. The bottom layer they have so far uncovered, from 54 to 37 million years ago reveals a tropical to subtropical environment with huge grazing mammals and strong-jawed scavengers. Many of these have no modern descendants, but there are rhinos, tapirs and cats with present-day descendants in areas other than North America. The next layer above that, the John Day formations are the result of many volcanic events that left ash called tuff with many diverse species preserved. The environment revealed is deciduous forest with many early mammals such as dogs, cats, horses, pigs, camels, rhinos and rodents.

Between 16 and 15 million years ago huge flows of basaltic lava repeatedly leveled and denuded the terrain. This basaltic flow covers Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The climate after that was much like Eastern U.S. today with grasslands and forests and the animals represented are many mammals we would recognize today, as well as early elephants and bear-dogs. The top layer reveals a dryer, cooler climate with grasslands and grazing animals. The John Day River has eroded through these layers.

We just found this fascinating, but if you don't just skip over the details I outlined above. This site was first brought to scientific notice by Thomas Condon, a young minister by the Columbia River. It is interesting to note that he felt this scientific study of the past did not conflict with his religious beliefs, but rather shed more light on the glorious work of God.

Who is John Day? He had nothing to do with the finding of the fossil beds and was never near the site or the town of John Day. He was a fur trader from Virginia, who in 1810 came west with a party to set up a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. Day and a few others were separated from their main party and after misadventures, the two remaining were on a tributary of the Columbia, the Mah-hah River. They were robbed by the Indians of all their possessions and even their clothes. Day and his companion were eventually rescued and made their way to Astoria, a fur trading post near the mouth of the Columbia. As boats went up and down the Columbia, this story was told over and over when they came to the mouth of the Mah-hah River. By 1850 the name had been changed to the John Day River.

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