Share story of old blockhouse
May 27, 2014
By Elaine Rohse
When school is out for the summer, when grandkids, perhaps, arrive for a considerable visit, when entertainment possibilities reach a dangerous low, head for the city of Dayton. There, in its Courthouse Square Park, is a treasure that smacks of the untamed west and could leave your visiting kids with awe-filled eyes.
The treasure: Dayton’s venerable blockhouse.
It’s practically in your backyard. No long drive. Easy to find. No admission charge — nor can you go inside the blockhouse, or crawl up a ladder to its upper level. But, oh, the story you can tell your grandkids about this hand-hewn log building.
There, on land donated by Gen. Joel Palmer, it’s about the first thing you see as you enter Dayton.
Start your once-upon-a-time story by explaining to your grandson that Gen. Palmer had been superintendent of Indian affairs for the Oregon Territory and was the one negotiating nine of 15 treaties of cessation, along with addressing problems pertaining to the Yakama Indian War.
And next, tell your grandson that this fort is old — older even than his grandad telling the story. The story of the fort started in about 1855-56, when by Army order, the Territory of Oregon and Eastern Washington had been closed to settlers because of Indian wars.
But a considerable number of pioneers already had arrived in Oregon by wagon train, as in the Great Migration of 1843, and the safety of those in Oregon Country was of much concern.
Now, tell your grandson he needn’t worry about the safety of those pioneers because the Army determined that several protective measures should be taken. In l856, it commissioned the building of several forts, including the blockhouse at the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation near Valley Junction. With such a structure, settlers could “fort up,” a term used by pioneers to denote a method of self-protection at times of alarm. The Grand Ronde blockhouse later became part of what was Fort Yamhill.
A similar blockhouse at Fort Hoskins in Benton County was built about the same time because of the “concentration”of Indians on the Siletz Reservation. At Auburn, the booming gold town in eastern Oregon, a similar fortification was built.
Fortunately, the Yamhill County blockhouse never had to be used for the purpose for which it was built. But what then does one do with a blockhouse?
After about l0 years, Fort Yamhill was abandoned and its government property auctioned off. For a personal bid of $2.50, Gilbert Litchfield, the last post sutler, became the owner of the old blockhouse. Apparently, he didn’t exactly know what to do with his own blockhouse and, after a few years, passed on the building to the Indian Agency at Grand Ronde. The fort was taken apart and hauled two and a quarter miles, east-northeast to the Agency.
For a time, it served as a jail for disorderly Indians. Then it became a storage shed. Then it sheltered stock.
Next, a strange thing happened. Almost 40 years later, everyone seemed to want it. John Lewis, Dayton pioneer, apparently was the first to ignite that desire when he suggested bringing the blockhouse to Dayton’s city square as a memorial to Joel Palmer. And in December l910, by act of the secretary of the Interior, the blockhouse was given to Dayton — a gift said to have been due to the influence of then-U.S. Sen. George Earle Chamberlain, governor of Oregon from 1903 to 1909.
Once Dayton was gifted with what was suddenly perceived to be an historic treasure, residents of Sheridan, Willamina and the Grand Ronde Tribe protested. They wanted it. For a time, it appeared they might use force to get it.
According to “All Quiet on the Yamhill”: “Townsfolk of Sheridan and Willamina, and the Indians of Grand Ronde, now became concerned about the ‘treasure’ but were too late. A large procession of teamsters carried the dismantled relic into Dayton on June 9, 1911, unmolested by citizens of Sheridan, who a few weeks earlier were determined to prevent that disgrace.”
A gala formal dedication of the blockhouse in Dayton on Aug. 23, 1912, featured Judge M. C. George as speaker.
At the time that Dayton received the structure, it was said to be in very poor shape. Much of it needed to be replaced. Dayton was up to the task. Some of its older citizens had earlier learned the skills now called upon to hew new timbers and shakes to replace those decomposed.
Although the blockhouse received by Dayton was in considerable disrepair, it was indeed a historic plum — and unique among blockhouses on the Pacific Coast because of its unusual structure. Whereas most blockhouses had upper walls parallel to those below and widely overhanging, the upper part of the Dayton blockhouse is the same size as that of the lower, but the upper story is placed on a true diagonal to the lower. It features small hipped roofs on three corners of the lower level, with entrance platform and retractable ladder on the fourth. Rifles were placed on each of the eight walls providing a line of fire attack at 45 degree intervals, instead of the 90 degree spacing in most blockhouses.
It seems only proper that Gen. Palmer, cofounder with Andrew Smith of the city of Dayton, should be memorialized with the blockhouse in Courthouse Square Park, for which he gave the land. He also gave land for Dayton’s Brookside Cemetery. His daughter, Sarah, married Andrew Smith, and when two of the Smiths’ young children died of tuberculosis, Palmer donated land for the cemetery as a public burial place — and a resting place for his grandchildren.
Palmer also was a statesman of note: speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives in 1862; state senator from l864 through 1866; candidate for Oregon governor in 1870, although defeated. The home he built in Dayton, now a restaurant, is still a treasured landmark. He wrote “Journal of Travels over the Rocky Mountains,” published in 1847, making the rugged trip across the Plains a bit easier for those who came later.
And that is the end of the story to tell your wide-eyed grandson.
But perhaps not. Perhaps your grandson, will plead, “Tell me the story again, Grandpapa.”
Elaine Rohse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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