The Grande Ronde Valley lies at the central core of Union County, and is the largest and most populated region. It is an oval shaped fertile plain some 35 miles long and 15 miles wide. The Blue and Wallowa Mountains rise up dramatically on either side of the valley.
In 1811 Wilson Price Hunt and members of the Astor fur trading heading west overland to Astoria became the first recorded Euro- Americans to enter the Grande Ronde Valley. The following is Hunt’s recollection of the events of December 28-31 of 1811 as recorded in Washington Irving’s Astoria, published in 1836. The passage begins in the Powder River basin south of present day Union County
Finding that little river entered the mountains, they abandoned it, an turned off for a few miles among hills. Here another Canadian, named La Bonte, gave out, and had to be helped on horseback. As the horse was too weak to bear both him and his pack, Mr. Hunt took the later upon his own shoulders. thus, with difficulties augmenting at every step, they urged their toilsome way among the hills, half famished and faint at heart, when they came to where a fair valley spread out before them, of great extent and several leagues in width, with a beautiful stream meandering through it. A genial climate seemed to prevail here, for though the snow lay upon all the mountains within sight, there was none to be seen in the valley. The travellers gazed with delight upon this serene, sunny landscape, but their joy was complete on beholding six lodges of Shoshonies pitched upon the borders of the stream, with a number of horses and dogs about them. They all pressed forward with eagerness and soon reached a camp. Here their first attention was to obtain provisions. A rifle, an old musket, a tomahawk, a tin kettle and a small quantity of ammunition soon procured them four horses, three dogs, and some roots. Part of the livestock was immediately killed, cooked with all expedition, and as promptly devoured. A hearty meal restored everyone to good spirits. In the course of the following morning the Dorion family made its reappearance. Pierre came trudging in the advance, followed by his valued, though skeleton steed, on which was mounted his squaw with her new-born infant in her arms, and her boy of two years old wrapped in a blanket and slung at her side. the mother looked as unconcerned as if nothing had happened to her; so easy is nature in her operations in the wilderness, when free from the enfeebling refinements of luxury, and the tamperings and appliances of art.
The next morning ushered in the new year (1812). Mr. Hunt was about to resume his march, when his men requested permission to celebrate the day. This was particularly urged by the Canadian voyageurs, with whom New-Year’s day is a favorite festival; and who never willingly give up a holiday, under any circumstances. There was no resisting such an application; so the day was passed in repose and all their hardships; and there was a sumptuous New-Year’s banquet of dog’s meat and horse flesh.
[From: Irving’s Astoria; or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains, Chapter XXXVVII, published 1832]
Native Americans long used the resources of the valley and its mild climate. First to hunt, gather camus and other plants, and pasture their horses; later, upon the coming of the migrants, to raise crops and livestock to sell to the emigrant parties heading to the Willamette Valley. Nez perce, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Cayuse, Shoshone and other people co-existed in the Valley of Peace.
From 1840 through the 1870’s, more than 300,000 emigrants passed eastward through the Grande Ronde Valley, so called because of its oval shape, on what became known around the world as the Oregon Trail. In 1861, settlers arrived in the valley to stay, many of them returning eastward from their homesteads in the Willamette Valley.
The coming of the railroad in 1884 rearranged the location of towns, populations, industries and roads, some towns, most notable La Grande, flourished. Today Union County has a population of 25,110 of which 11,904 encompass the labor force.
With a diversified economic base consisting of manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade, and education and health services, Union County is poised for continued business growth. In addition, the boundaries of Union County include acres of fertile soil, timbered slopes, grazing land, and snow-capped mountain peaks.
The Union County/ Northeastern Oregon Area has more public land available for recreational purposes than almost anywhere in the United States. Lots of Snow Skiing is available nearby at the Spout Springs, Anthony Lakes, or Bluewood Ski Resorts. There is also outstanding Trout, Salmon, and Steelhead fishing nearby in the Grande Ronde, Wallowa, or Minam Rivers, each of which is less than 45 minutes away. There is also Sturgeon, Bass, Crappie, and Walleye fishing in the nearby Columbia and the Snake Rivers, for warm water fishermen. One hour to the Northwest, over Tollgate Mountain, are the world famous Wineries of the Walla Walla Valley.
Contact information:Union County 1106 K Avenue La Grande, OR 97850 541.963.1106 www.union-county.org