Few know it, but the first white settlers who entered the Rogue Valley on the Applegate Trail spent their first night camped on Hersey Street by Ashland Creek, about where the new Ashland Creek Park is.
They chose that spot because it was level and had good water and grass for their oxen. They were met by friendly Indians and traded with them, then moved north the next morning, historians say.
This seemingly routine event had momentous consequences for Southern Oregon, but there’s no monument or marker on site. This will change at 11:30 a.m. Friday when the nonprofit Trails West historical organization of Emigrant Trail enthusiasts cuts the ribbon on a historic marker next to Hersey Street.
The 6-foot-tall marker, with an aluminum plaque and secured in concrete, quotes from a pioneer journal and says, “Applegate Trail — Ashland Creek. Make 10 miles and camp at a considerable sized creek, the best camp we have had for several days. Road very good. High mountains around. — Virgil K. Pringle, Oct. 11, 1846.”
The next campsite marker going north is in Gold Hill along the Rogue River. The volunteer organization has placed more than 700 markers on the 2,000-mile trail, which goes through Idaho, Nevada, California and Southern Oregon.
Bob Black, director of Trails West and co-author of “A Guide to the Applegate Trail,” says about 300 people in the wagon train were headed for Cottage Grove, where free land in the Willamette Valley was available for the claiming. That land would soon be gone, and future Applegate Trail trekkers would look at the beautiful Rogue Valley and “wonder why they should keep going.”
The Applegate Trail — or so-called South Road — had been blazed earlier in the year by brothers Lindsay and Jesse Applegate as an alternative to the Oregon Trail, where they’d lost sons trying to raft the hazardous Columbia River. They persuaded immigrants at Fort Hall in Idaho and led them back.
“This was the very first time the trail brought pioneers here," says Black. "The Indian village was where the Ashland Plaza is now. Jesse Applegate came back here later and claimed the entire Railroad District. By 1852, all the arable land in the Rogue Valley was claimed. The first flour mill was built (on the Plaza) in 1851. The Rogue Indian wars started in 1853.”
The 1846 pioneers were not the first whites in the valley, says Black, a resident of Grants Pass. Trappers of the Hudson's Bay Co. at Fort Vancouver blazed trails through here to California, starting with Peter Skene Ogden in 1826. They found good beaver trapping in California and drove cattle north.
“The trappers were friendly with the Indians and would talk and trade. So were the early settlers, but with more coming in each year, conflicts started,” he says.
While most people think pioneers rode in their wagons, the fact is most walked across the whole country, and only the very sick or women in childbirth got in the wagons, says Black.
“It was easier to walk. The wagon train would make about 2 mph, and it was very rough to be in a wagon,” says Black, who has walked, researched and photographed most of the trail. “They would send scouts on ahead to look for a campsite by water and feed.”
The guidebook is available through Trails West, P.O. Box 12045, Reno, Nevada. The website is www.emigranttrailswest.org. It produces driving guides to trails in Southern Oregon and California, with directions and GPS data to follow routes.
— John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.