The Oregon Trail, as it wandered across our valley and what is now Malheur County, was not a narrow wagon rut. Taking many different paths, the wagon trains wandered across the valley created by the confluence of the Boise, Owyhee, Payette, Malheur, Weiser and Snake rivers. Ontario, Nyssa and Vale are all near or on routes of the Oregon Trail. Markers throughout the area commemorate that history.
The early pioneers were not impressed with the Snake River Valley. "The plains smoked with dust and death," remarked Thomas Farnham in 1839. "This is barren, God-forsaken country, fit for nothing but to receive the footprints of the savage and his universal associate, the coyote."
Today, Malheur County has much to offer the curious visitor. Ontario has grown to be the largest city in Malheur County with more than 1,000 retail and service-oriented businesses. Vale, the county seat, has murals depicting aspects of the great westward migration of the Oregon Trail. Nyssa is a major agricultural center.
The name Malheur was first given to the river by French trappers who had their furs stolen while camped along the river. "Riviere Au Malheur" means Unfortunate River.
Malheur County was established Feb. 17, 1887 by Gov. Sylvestor Pennoyer, and is the second largest county in Oregon. Ranking 22nd in population, Malheur County offers plenty of room to stretch and relax. Ninety-four percent of Malheur County is rangeland, two-thirds of which is managed by the United States Bureau of Land Management from its Vale District Office.
In 1883, the Oregon Short Line Railroad completed the tracks providing a siding for stock loading. A depot and inn were established and folks began to settle in the area. Ontario began as a cattle town - shipping cattle for the outlying ranches in Eastern Oregon and Idaho. The original depot still stands, and a restoration project was completed to return it to it's original condition and beauty.
In 1939, Owyhee Reservoir, the first of five manmade reservoirs in the area was completed, providing water to the sagebrush-covered bottomlands of the Snake River Valley. With an extensive canal and pipeline network to provide a dependable abundant source of water for crop irrigation. The Ontario-Nyssa area began to blossom into the most intensive, diversified, row-crop farming area in Oregon.
The settlers had first introduced wild horses in the early 1800s. Since then, the sage covered hills of Malheur County have been wild horse country. Periodically wild horse roundups held by the BLM provide horses for the National Adopt-A-Horse program. Malheur County is no longer the "barren God-forsaken country" Farnham described. This little oasis in the high desert ranks second in agriculture production in Oregon.
With the coming of sheep to Malheur County, Basque sheepherders from Spain moved into the southern part of the county, especially in and around Jordan Valley. Over the years, the Basque community in Malheur County has become integrated in the Oregon culture. Today descendants of the Basque pioneers are respected leaders in our community.
During World War II, Ontario was a relocation area for Americans of Japanese ancestry. In the long run this benefited Malheur County, because many of the Japanese families remained and settled in the Ontario area. Starting with little or nothing, they became an integral part of the community.
Today many Mexican-American migrant workers have made permanent homes in the Ontario area. They currently make up the bulk of our manual labor force. Like several places along the Oregon Trail, Ontario has became home to many ethnic cultures who have carved a prominent place for themselves in our society.
Four Rivers Cultural Center,
opened in 1997, honors the contributions of all the ethnic groups which have
made the Western Treasure Valley a great place to live. A visit to the FRCC
Museum allows visitors chronicles of the region's history and its people in an
enjoyable and educational way that will leave you looking forward to learning
more about the land and culture that is Malheur County.