Malheur, it seems, is French for creepy bad karma
We are new (transplanted) Oregonians and recently made a driving loop through Bend and Burns and back through Lakeview to Medford. Who knew there were such wide open spaces in our new state! We were intrigued by Malheur Lake. Where does it come from? Where does it go? Where did the name come from? Any information will be appreciated.
— Bill and Susie S., Medford.
Bill and Susie, meet Peter French. He was the cattle baron whose lands in part made up the Malheur National Wildlife when it was created in 1908 for the huge flocks of migrating bird that pass through twice a year.
Malheur Lake in the Harney Basin is basically a very wide, shallow puddle. It is fed mainly by the Donner und Blitzen River and also by the Silvies River. It has no outlet and water escapes through ground seepage and evaporation. On the rare occasion that the waters rise enough, the lake drains through the Narrows to Mud Lake and then into Harney Lake. But don't hold your breath — the last time that happened was in the 1980s.
Malheur Lake and the Malheur River got their name from the journal of pioneer trapper Peter Skene Ogden, who visited in 1825. His party cached some furs on the banks of the river, and when the goods disappeared, they took to calling the stream the "riviere au malheur," which means an unfortunate, creepy or bad karma kind of river.
For what it's worth, the naming committee at the Since You Asked Geography Institute is on record as favoring a name change. A majority of members recommends Riviere au Bonheur, or river of good luck. Let's just say we're an optimistic lot, much like the American Indians who likely found a big pile of free furs alongside a river nearly 200 years ago.
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