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‘We will christen this stream Bear Creek’

Most of us have heard a family story or two about the good, old days. How Grandpa Pete did this, Uncle Jim did that and Grandma Beth kept it all together. Sometimes the stories have been passed down so many times from one generation to another, it’s hard to know how true they actually are.

Often, the only difference between family history stories and the regular history we learn in school is verifiable facts. We want to believe what our relatives say, but rarely is there a way to prove it.

An example of one of those kinds of family stories came from the granddaughter of an early Oregon pioneer. The story made it into some 1913 newspapers and was a short tale recounting how our nearby Bear Creek got its name.

Of course, the creek already had a name long before the pioneers rolled through in the mid-1800s. The Shasta tribe called it “Ussoho” while the Upland Takelma knew it as “Sikuptat” — translated as “dirty water.”

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, prompting nearly a third of Oregon’s “get rich quick” male population to rush south, boots, horse hooves and wagon wheels quickly beat down a trail along the creek.

An 1851 skirmish between U.S. Army troops and local Indigenous people near today’s Shady Cove gave the creek its first known English name: Stuart Creek.

An arrow to his abdomen fatally injured Capt. James Stuart. He was taken to a camp beside the creek near today’s Phoenix. There, he died and was buried. Months later, Stuart’s body was sent home to South Carolina.

Although some began calling it Bear Creek, the name Stuart Creek held on into the 20th century. The 1884 creation of Medford School District designated its eastern edge as ending at Stuart Creek and continuing north, “thence up said creek.” In 1910, the U.S. Geological Survey designated Stuart Creek as a “principal tributary to the Rogue River.”

However, Stuart Creek’s time was almost over. That 1913 story about the naming of Bear Creek took hold and prevailed.

June McMillen Ordway, granddaughter of pioneer Joseph McMillen, told an Oregonian reporter her grandfather had named Bear Creek in the early 1850s.

Joseph McMillen was 55 when he arrived in Oregon City in 1852 after crossing the plains from Illinois. He settled near Forest Grove in the Willamette Valley.

According to June Ordway’s story, a band of men under command of her grandfather had loaded their ox-driven wagons with supplies in Yreka and were heading home.

Finally crossing over the Siskiyou Mountains and reaching the banks of the creek, they frightened three grizzly bears gnawing on the carcass of an oxen. One of the men fired his rifle and struck one bear in its shoulder. The bears ran into the nearby bushes.

Three dogs that accompanied the men were sent into the bushes to flush the bears out. Within moments of disappearing, they raced back, yelping in terror with the injured bear in hot pursuit. The bear saw Calvin Reed standing by a wagon and charged. Reed leveled his shotgun, fired and dropped the bear just a few feet away.

The McMillen party’s firepower soon conquered the remaining bears, and the men set off for home. For a moment, one man, perhaps McMillen, turned in his saddle and looked at the slain animals.

“We will christen this stream Bear Creek,” he said. And they did. Maybe.

The story seems to be more mythical family lore than factual, but perhaps it’s true. Sometimes the simplest story is the real story.

Stuart Creek had one last moment of glory and received an elevated potential new name when the “old Southern Oregon pioneers” held their 1926 reunion in Jacksonville. They unanimously urged the name Bear Creek be changed to Stuart River.

Nobody listened. Nobody cared.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of six books, including “Spanning the Defiant Sea: Women Pilots Dare Atlantic Air.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.