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Abandoned Homsteads of the High desert
History around here.....that is anglo, non-aboriginal history....begins in 1850 with the arrival of the Oregon Trail pioneers. Although the main target of the Trail was the Willamette Valley, there was the inevitable diffusion that began as outposts even in the high desert of eastern Oregon. But the real migration into the desert was the socio-cultural experiment of the Homestead Act in 1862. Homesteading, the process of settling upon, "improving" in terms of farming or fencing, and claiming outright title to up to 160 acres of public land continued up until 1976. The best and most fertile lands went fast. By 1900 what remained of "public" lands were the vast, open tracts of arid western desert. During subsequent periods of either public inspiration or economic stress there were waves of emigration of people trying to settle and claim land ownership.

Many of the settlers were poorly prepared to cope with the realities of the high desert. Water was, of course, the key. The obvious water sources in terms of creeks and springs were claimed first. But there still remained all that free land if one could just deal with the water issue. Since the Columbia plateau is surrounded by high, water and snow rich mountains, there is underground water nearly everywhere. But digging a well, with crude equipment, was a daunting task. The first 2 feet was powdery, alkaline topsoil. Then one hit the gritty reality of solid volcanic basalt 2 miles THICK. Tantalizingly, there are numerous fissures and layers in the basalt that connect in spider-web fashion enormous underground acquifers, but that fissure might be 100 - 300 feet down through solid basalt. Or not there at all. Often, the entire homsteading attempt rested on one single, savings-depleting attempt at dropping a well near to where the homesite was imagined. And often, when the money and energy were depleted, the poor and now poorer would-be settler limped away from his dream of being a land owner.

And for some the failed well was not enough to deter them. With a horse and wagon, one "could" haul in enough water to sustain a household, water livestock, grow a modest garden. So houses were built on "dry" homsteads. Then the people, the family, the attempt at economic independence was exposed to the spirit-draining effects of continuous hard labor, brutally harsh winters, constant wind, and unimagineable isolation. But water was the absolute, immutable minus sign in the energy equation. Not one "dry" homesteading attempt succeeded. Not one. After one year, five years, ten years living on the high desert, without water at hand, everyone gave up and crawled away. Their remains, the skeleton of their dreams, are the abandoned homesteads that dot the high desert, preserved by the aridness that doomed them. Every one of them is fascinating, speaking to a human spirit brave enough to try.

These unnamed, abandoned homesteads are starkly beautiful and fascinating: a study in history, anthropology, sociology, and biology. If you can walk around them without your imagination racing to fill out the skeletal clues then we have nothing in common and these pictures will not interest you.

Here are two. More to come.