Oregon Trail emigrants, eager to ease travel or gain mileage, often
attempted cutoffs and shortcuts. While many of these alternate routes
proved successful, others did not--they became roads to ruin for
some and the end of the trail for others.
1853, Elijah Elliott, a Willamette Valley settler, convinced over
1,000 people to attempt a shortcut over the Cascade Range. Following
Meeks route to Harney Valley, Elliotts party diverged
around the south shores of Harney and Malheur Lakes. Continuing
westward, the party became disoriented. As the emigrants became
increasingly desperate, scouts searched ahead for water and a route
over the mountains. Eventually, scouts located a crude road over
the Willamette Pass. One year later, William Macy led 121 wagons
along a similar route without serious difficulty.
1845, frontiersman Stephen Meek persuaded over 1,000 people to leave
the trail at present-day Vale and trek across the desert toward
the upper Willamette Valley. Blazing a wagon road up the Malheur
River they entered Harney Valley, near this site. Hunger, thirst,
illness, and death stalked the wagon train as it wandered west and
ultimately north toward the Columbia River. Bitterness against Meek
became so intense that he was compelled to travel beyond rifle range.
Meek eventually forged ahead to The Dalles, where a rescue party
was organized, but relief arrived too late for more than twenty
emigrants who were buried in lonely graves along the way.