Long before the California gold rush in 1845, and long before most people had even seen what raw gold looks like was a event that would change history. A wagon train heading west on the Oregon Trail somehow got off the trail and found itself lost. The lost wagon train camped by a creek or river. Some children found shiny yellow rocks at the water’s edge. One version says that they thought they were pretty so they placed some of them in a blue bucket. Another version says that when they reached their destination in The Dalles that a Mrs. Fisher had kept one sizable nugget and when asked if there was more, she replied “enough to fill this blue bucket.” This all up-heaved many of an adventurer who had made up their minds to find this cache and get rich. The migration eastward is said to have started the gold rush in the area of modern-day Baker City.
To add to this legend here is a reproduction of a article written by Clay Luce in 1919 of handed down reports:
Sheep Rock in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The blue bucket deposit is thought to be near the John Day River.
“I was born in California and I came to Canyon Creek, Grant County, in June 1863. There were then about 5,000 miners and prospectors on Canyon Creek and vicinity. I was reared among these men, and time and time again have heard the discussions about the Blue Bucket Mine and also the Lost Cabin Mine. These men believed that there was a Blue Bucket Mine and many parties in those early days, left Canyon City to search for the lost treasure. I have seen them leave; I have seen them return. I have searched for it myself. I am now 63 and spent most of my life prospecting and mining.
The best information that I got regarding the Blue Bucket Mine was from my grandmother, Mrs. Fisher, who was with the train that found the gold. She died and was buried in the Canyon City Cemetery 1911 at the age of 94. Her name was Mrs. Rapalee at the time of her death.
DRAMATIS PERSONAE —
My father crossed the plains between 1845 and 1847. The next year after he left, a train was organized in Iowa. There were about 400 in the train. I never heard them speak of horses, but always referred to their cattle, and evidently they used oxen entirely.
In this train was my grandmother, Mrs. Fisher, and her father, Dr. Fisher. My mother was also in the train. My grandfather on my father’s side was in the train. His name was Jacob Luce. His wife and family were with John C. Luce, who was a Populace candidate of Oregon in the early ’90s. Isaac Luce, Jane Luce (who was Mrs. C.A. Belshaw and who died here two years ago), and Polly Luce. I also had an uncle, Frank Fisher, and there was a man by the name of Samuel Parker. He was the father of Mrs. Dolly Bonham and Mrs. Elizabeth Birge, now living here.
I might also say that in so much as this story is weaved around the grave of a woman, that her name was Chambers and the first wife of Jack Chambers father. Jack Chambers now lives in Canyon City.
“Show me her grave and I will show you the Blue Bucket” was the slogan of the early and pioneer prospector. I heard my Grandmother Fisher tell this story many times, and as it was full of adventure, privation, and the romance of birth, death, courtship, and marriage with the thrills that come with Indian stories, and finally ending with buckets of gold, I was an attentive listener. From her description I mapped the route. I drew a pencil sketch of hills, mountain, streams, and valleys, until I had a mental picture of that immigrant train fixed in my mind. I heard many stories from other sources, but the one my grandmother and mother told me, later corroborated by Samuel Parker, was to me the correct version.
The story really begins with the death of my grandfather, Dr. Fisher. The cattle were taken sick and some died. They acted as if they had been poisoned. My grandfather made an examination of a carcus and in some way infected his hand and died the next day of blood poisoning. There was a Dr. Johnson in the train and he administered to my grandfather. More than anything else, the pioneers dreaded a coyote. They held them in complete abhorence, and so, to protect the death, they burned two old wagons and put scrap iron in the grave of my grandfather Fisher. This grave is 13 miles east of Vale and with Samuel Parker I found it and was able to identify it by the scrap iron.
After this incident nothing happened until the Malheur River was reached. This camp was about a mile below the present site of Vale. It was identified from the Hot Springs. These Hot Springs now mark an opoch in Oregon history for they marked a place about which there can be no controversy and tell the story of the parting of the ways. Here the first dissention arose and here it was that friends parted never to meet again. The train stayed here for some four or five days and grandmother and mother with many of the other women of the party spent much of the time at the Hot Springs washing and cleaning up the clothes of the party in the natural hot water.
Yes, there was a villain in this story, and he was Joe Meeks. Joe Meek or Meeks joined the train somewhere in Montana or Idaho. He claimed to have been to Oregon and knew a short cut. Somewhere in Idaho some of the men began to distrust Meek. This feeling grew and when stakes were pulled and the train got ready to move from the Hot Springs on the Malheur, it divided into three sections.
THE TRAIN DIVIDES —
It might have been that Steve Meek fell in with the train here. At any rate the feeling grew so tense that the life of one of the Meeks was threatened, and it was only because there were some in the party who stood by Meek that he was saved from hanging. Dr. Fisher was buried on August 12th so it was getting late in the season and provisions running low. Meek did not know the way. Some wanted to turn south and some to swing up the Malheur. With Meek, one section of the train swung to the south and toward the Stein Mt. country in southern Harney. Meek abandoned this train after about a week, and from then on my grandmother never heard of them. It was reported they were lost. And in Mason Valley in after years was found the remains of about 100 skeletons with the skulls scattered over the ground. I visited this place in 1877. Local tradition says it was an Indian massacre, and another story told how an immigrant train had been lost, and some believe that it was the first section of the immigrant train that met discord at the Hot Springs below Vale on the Malheur River.
The rest of the party traveled about 16 miles up the Malheur River. Here the river makes a horseshoe bend, and so the train, rather than follow the river, turned over the divide and passed Castle Rock as the pioneers knew it, H.C. Mt. The Hot Springs was a place that could not be confused and was remembered, and so far as the story is concerned is point one about which there is no confusion. Point two is H.C. Mt. It’s peculiar shape and situation made it conspicuous in memory. Descending from this peculiar mountain they again struck the big river, or the Malheur. Of course, none of these mountains, streams or valleys were named at that time, and it was only by some peculiar characteristic that they were described and in later years identified by the description. At any rate these two points were fixed.
Going down off of this divide they struck the Malheur River again, and followed it until they came to another divide and this is where Willow Creek heads. There are a number of little streams in this vicinity and gold has been found here in a number of places, and much of it was coarse, heavy gold.
From this point another epoch in Oregon’s history unfolds. Dissention started at the Hot Springs on the Malheur and one section went south. The contention never ended and at the head of Willow Creek the train split in twain, one section going down Willow Creek to Huntington, out by way of Baker, Grande Ronde Valley, Pendleton, and down the Columbia. This is now known as the “Old Oregon Trail”. My grandfather, Jacob Luce, and his family, went with this train. They never reported the discovery of any gold, nor did they find any. Their story is full of interest, but as it now ceases to have any part in this story of the Blue Bucket we will bid them goodbye and wave to them a wish of good luck as they disappear down the slope of Willow Creek and leave them where the old Oregon trail begins.
DEATH MARKS THE BLUE BUCKET —
“Show me the grave of a woman and I will show you buckets of gold” …., Sounds uncanny. Like the voice of the dead coming from away out yonder and from the divide that all old prospectors cross over. And yet, in fact, this has to do with the story of the Blue Bucket.
This train which had started out from Iowa with four hundred, had met with death and it’s numbers cut down. But away out there on the prairie a little stranger struck camp so nature’s compensation of life and death kept the number of this party about the same. It was discord that now left the party a small third of those who left Iowa to seek the land that beckoned from a way out yonder. The third and last section passed on and after parting with friends at the headwaters of Willow Creek, they descended onto the waters of the Little Malheur and struck it about where the old Lockhart place is, which is now owned by William Tureman, and on which gold has been found. The river makes another bend in here and the train cut up and over the mountain here. When they came down again onto the Malheur it was at a point where the Crane Creek empties. It was stated that 5 or 6 miles before this stream was struck, death visited the train. Mrs. Mary or Sarah E. Chambers was stricken with a fever and died. She was the first wife of the father of Jack Chambers of Canyon City.
To find the Blue Bucket we will have to return to this grave. For the present let us pass on with this train, which, like the children of Israel, were wandering in the wilderness. They went up Crain Creek about a mile and then swung to the southwest and continued their slow progress until they reached the middle fork of the Malheur about six miles above the present site of Drewsey. From here the exact route is a mystery except from a description of crowcamp in Harney County. They might have passed in above the head of Trout Creek, and here gold has been found, but this is about 100 miles from the grave and to find the Blue Bucket it is important that we remain close to this mound of earth where slumbers the dust of one of those who brough civilization across the continent. The big lakes they saw and described, and these were without doubt Harney and Malheur Lakes.
The story of their wanderings is a romance. How they finally crossed the Deschutes, and then over the mountains read like fiction. Some of this party settled near Eugene and some went to California. But after we leave the big lakes, we have passed all of the points that have to do with the story of the Blue Bucket, and so we will pass back along the trail.
Twenty five years passed. I had heard much and as a boy had searched for this famous mine. Samuel Parker, who was with the party, returned to Canyon Creek. He visited at my home. He discussed their trip with my mother and grandmother. He was then a man of 65 or 70 years of age. We mapped the country and the folks agreed on most of the points passed and many of the incidents of the long journey. But there was one point of difference. It was the grave; the grave of Sarah E. Chambers. Mrs. Fisher maintained that the gold was found three days before the death of Mrs. Chambers, and Parker argued that it was three days after. Three days before would put the party at the head of Willow Creek, a gold district; three days after would put the party near Drewsey or beyond and there has never been any gold found along the trail here until the head of Trout Creek and this is 100 miles, too far for a three days journey of ox teams.
THE BLUE BUCKET FOUND —
The grave is six miles east of the mouth of Crane Creek. Three days before that the mysterious gold mine was found and lost. But why do these people remember that it was three days before? The gloom of death was cast over the train. Two reasons: first, a member of the party was stricken with a fever; secondly, the cattle were lost. Three of the young men went out in search of the stock. They walked all day in their search and well along in the late afternoon came to a small stream. In the shade they lay down; in the cool waters of the stream they quenched their thirst. These men knew nothing of gold, yet with instinct that seems born in man they were attracted by the virgin metal that like pebbles lined the creek. For it’s peculiarity they gathered it with the same interest we pick up an unusual stone and admire its singular beauty or oddness of shape or color. When they left, they turned their backs on the Blue Bucket Mine, and it is not recorded, although we hope that when they lost the Blue Bucket Mine, they found their oxen.
BUT WHY BLUE BUCKET? —
On their return they exhibited their find in a careless way and the wise ones pronounced it “copper”. As they hammered it out on the wagontire someone spoke out and asked, “Was there much of it?” “We could have filled one of these blue buckets”. There were no tin buckets then, they all carried wooden buckets and they were painted to preserve them and all pioneers will remember that they were painted a bright blue as were most of the wagons.
Mrs. Fisher says the boys had 15 or 20 pieces. This incident was forgotten by Mrs. Fisher until she arrived in California and during the years of 1848 and 1849 she was reminded of the incident that occurred that day Mrs. Chambers was stricken with a fever, and the oxen strayed. She had kept a piece of this “copper” and in the light of her California experience, this “copper” had turned to gold. How much was there of it? Buckets of it, blue buckets. Is that not enough to start the prospector? And was it not the California prospector who came to this part of Oregon – whole trains of them – and through the years the search has gone on and will continue until some old prospector, weary of foot, tired of life, drinks out of the same pool where copper, that turned to gold, was found. And that place is a three days ox journey from the grave of Sarah E. Chambers. Find the mound that covers her dust and turn your face to the east and within two are to be found “buckets of copper that turn to gold.”
NOR IS THIS ALL –
Look on the head of Willow Creek. Yes, it is on the head of Willow Creek, or some small stream where the oxen strayed. “I’ll tell you why”, says Mr. Luce. My mother, my grandmother, and Parker mapped the route of the Blue Bucket train, and they said “Show me the grave of a woman and we will show you the Blue Bucket Mine”. But how are we to know that this is a grave? Because the pioneer honored it’s dead and rather than permit coyotes to dig open a newly made mound, a wagon was burned as it were for a burnt offering, and it’s scrap iron mixed with the consecrated soil inside. Clue enough. I was then a lad of 18; Mr. Parker about 65. He knew; I believed; we started. Our pack was sufficient for a month’s trip. We started and connected our story with the grave of Dr. Fisher some 13 miles east of Vale. Mr. Parker recognized the Hot Springs and all the incidents connected with the parting of the ways of the villan Joe (not Steve) Meek. Yes, there was a love affair, a birth, a fight, suspicion, envy, jealousy was in this story, just like it is in every day life. But around the campfire where the old immigrant train had come to discord and friends who were never seen again turned south, he told me that if we could find the grave of a woman, we would find buckets of gold – blue buckets. We followed the old trail, H.C. or Castle Mt. was recognized and described before we came to it. On we passed. For 100 miles we followed that old trail but were out of the gold belt, so we retraced and to a point about 6 miles east of where Crane Creek meets the Malheur we found the grave of Mrs. Chambers. I have since been to the grave a number of times. Others have been there. A wagontire marks the boundaries of the grave, and there is scrap iron just below the sod. On the end gate of an old wagon is a name. It had been scratched into the wood. With my knife I followed the letter. The tooth of time had gnawed its way into this solid slab of oak until the letters were quite obliterated and from my own personal inspection I read the words either Mary or Sarah E. Chambers or Chamberlain. Three days before this woman died, gold was found, but where? We searched. We went back and forth on this trail, but maybe we missed it by a hundred yards – maybe a mile. Maybe nature uncovered those golden sands and gravel to the sight of the three whose only mission was oxen, and then with a water spout hid them from the quest of the old prospector who alone is content to hunt, and hunt, and pass on hoping, hoping, hoping. And really it would be cruel to find that which would forever still the hope that lures men on and on and even on until they come to the great divide yonder slopes which are paved with gold.
There are three mines in the United States that are named “Blue Bucket” including one in Grant County. None are the real Blue Bucket. It is believed to be somewhere near the John Day River system. It could be in fact, be a very exaggerated tale. If it does exists it is believed to be in a dry creek bed or canyon with pit-holes and deep cavities. It could also be that it was found already in a place like Canyon City or John Day. Forty thousand square miles is a huge area to search if you go looking for the Legend of the Lost Blue Bucket.