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Keep your boots dry

Its dust trampled by centuries of Oregon history, a dirt road still plows through dried stalks of corn, just a few miles west of Grants Pass.

Long before it led to James Vannoy’s ferry across the Rogue River, this road had been an ancient American Indian trail, a trading route weaving its way down from the Columbia River, over the Siskiyou Mountains, and into the Shasta Valley of California.

To Hudson Bay Company explorers and trappers arriving along the Columbia in the early 1800s, the trail was a virtual highway to the natural riches of Southern Oregon.

When the United States and Great Britain agreed to a joint occupancy of the Oregon Territory in 1818, the mass migration of settlers over the Oregon Trail was still years away. The British dominated the few American settlers on the Columbia plains.

If they wanted cattle to pull a plow or wagon, the Americans and other settlers, including company employees, were forced to borrow from the Hudson company’s herd. They were forbidden to buy their own animals.

Navy Lieutenant William Slacum was sent by President Andrew Jackson’s government to look into the Oregon situation. In 1837, Slacum persuaded a group of investors to form a cattle company and bring their own herd to Oregon.

Chosen to lead the cattle drive was a 6-foot, 2-inch Tennessean of a rough and tumble character, Ewing Young.

Transported by naval ship to San Francisco Bay, Young bought 729 head at $3 each, and headed north through the Sacramento Valley.

“Little sleep, much fatigue!” wrote one of his drovers in a diary. “Hardly time to eat. Cattle breaking like so many evil spirits and scattering to the four winds!”

Over the Siskiyous, across the Rogue River and then on to Oregon City, the company arrived with 630 head of cattle, breaking the Hudson Bay monopoly.

Until the discovery of gold in California, traffic over the trail was light.

By 1850, with the stream of prospectors stampeding south, James Long made a business decision. He was sure that most of these men would pay good money to cross the Rogue River on a ferry, just to keep their boots dry. He was right.

When he sold the ferry business to two men, Long probably turned a good profit. Those two quickly sold it to James Vannoy. Vannoy just as quickly snapped up the land and then filed a claim on the surrounding land that straddled the Rogue River and the old pack trail.

Vannoy had arrived unmarried in Oregon in 1849 and, like most new arrivals, probably tried a bit of gold prospecting first, but a marriage in 1854 likely turned him to the more stable world of business.

Before he died in 1881, bridges replace his ferry, but Vannoy stayed on, watching the community grow around him.

His name went on a post office, a nearby creek, and the stockade that would house nearly a thousand volunteer soldiers and their families during the Rogue Indian Wars of the 1850s.

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

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