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A tale of two men and a butte

The Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of 1905 was still a year and a half away, yet already it was jogging memories, true and false, of climbing Wagner Butte, west of Talent.

Since leaving St. Louis to push across the unexplored western United States, it had taken the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery a year and a half to reach the Pacific Ocean. The 1905 exposition would commemorate that arrival.

On Christmas Day of 1903, the Medford Mail newspaper, predecessor to the Mail Tribune, revealed “evidence” of a Lewis and Clark visit to the Rogue Valley. According to an unnamed relative of one of the men, J.W. Smith, Andrew Welden and John Wells were traveling through the valley in 1875 when they decided to climb Wagner Butte. When they returned from their adventure, they said they had found a large rock on the summit with the names Lewis and Clark and the date 1805 carved into the stone.

“At that time,” the newspaper said, “there was not so much interest taken in the journeys of these famous men [Lewis and Clark], so the persons who discovered the marks paid but little attention to the names and would not have noticed them at all had it not been for the date — 1805.”

To the newspaper reporter, the story made perfect sense, because, “Traveling through an unknown and trackless country, the explorers would naturally seek the highest points in order to get a view of the surrounding country and to pick out the best route to pursue.”

But it never happened. Two points conclusively prove that Lewis and Clark never made it into our neighborhood. Their diaries never mention it, and they couldn’t have been here in 1805 because they didn’t even reach the Pacific Ocean in Northwest Oregon until Nov. 20, 1805.

If it happened, why had the story not made it into newspapers? The reporter tried to explain. “History had little attraction for the people in those days,” he said.

Apparently, even in 1903, there were a few people who, unlike the reporter, did find accurate history “attractive.” They complained, and the reporter took a more hesitant tone.

“Whether the men were mistaken is a matter which should be taken up and investigated. If the men who, first of the Anglo-Saxon race, penetrated the ‘Oregon Country,’ left a record of their visit here, it should be found and preserved.”

The controversy over the Lewis and Clark tale led to a follow-up column, a week later, revealing that settlers first reached the summit of Wagner Butte in May 1854.

Those young men, Samuel Robinson, 18, Albert Sturgis, 20, and Welborn Beeson, 17, had headed off on an early-morning prospecting climb of the peak. All three had arrived in the valley the previous year.

“We didn’t, any of us, know anything about mining,” Sturgis said, “but we carried the pick with us anyway. When we reached the summit, we cut our names with the pick on the southwest face of the rock which tops the hill. We found no other names there.”

“The mountains are calling and I must go,” wrote naturalist John Muir in 1873. It’s a calling men and women have heard and followed since the beginning of time. It’s also a perfect way to make up an interesting tale about what you found there.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.