On September 20, 1853, a group of Upper Yakama Indians led by Owhi (d. 1858) hosts the Longmire-Byles wagon train at what will become known as as Owhi’s (or Ow-Hi’s) Gardens. The spot in the Wenas Valley in what is now northwest Yakima County will be named by later settlers for the thriving crop fields that the Yakamas have planted in the well-watered valley bottom using irrigation techniques recently learned from Oblate priests at their mission on Ahtanum Creek farther down the Yakima Valley. Owhi supplies the pioneers with produce from his gardens as they prepare to cross the Cascade Mountains at Naches Pass on their way to settle in the Puget Sound region. Not long after these first immigrants pass through the valley, the Yakamas and other Columbia Plateau tribes will endure years of conflict with other settlers and the American government that culminates in the loss of much of their land and their removal to reservations. Three decades later David Longmire (1844-1925), nine years old in 1853, will return to the Wenas Valley and purchase the site of Owhi’s Gardens, adding it to his farm.
Life in the Valley
Upper Yakama people have lived in the Wenas Valley for thousands of years. Archeological sites uncovered in the twentieth century document settlements on the Yakima River at the mouth of Wenas Creek and between the mouth of Wenas Creek and the mouth of the Naches River that have been occupied seasonally for generations. The Wenas Valley offered a route to the Cascade Mountains and Naches Pass, through which travelers could reach the western side of the mountains. The Wenas Valley included a wide range of habitats, from conifer forests to grasslands to sagebrush steppe. The lower elevations of the valley provided protected areas to combat the cold winters and the creek ran year round, fed by mountain snowmelt.
The valley also offered a route over the foothills north to the Kittitas Valley (as the upper valley of the Yakima River is known, after another name for the Upper Yakama people). From the Kittitas Valley, Upper Yakamas could travel easily to the Wenatchee area and over Snoqualmie or Stampede passes to the Puget Sound basin. These routes to the west side of the Cascades facilitated trade and social relations with Coast Salish tribes on Puget Sound.
Gardens Old and New
In the 1850s, when the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate came to the Yakima Valley, they established a mission on Ahtanum Creek, west of today’s Union Gap. The missionaries had gardens there and it is believed that they taught Owhi European agricultural practices when he overwintered at the mission in 1852-1853. According to anthropologist Helen H. Schuster, the Yakama got vegetable seeds from Hudson’s Bay Company farms at Fort Vancouver and Fort Nisqually. Owhi had traded for cattle at Fort Nisqually, on Puget Sound, in the 1840s, driving the animals over Naches Pass.
The new agricultural practices and crops on Wenas Creek were added to the Upper Yakamas’ traditional seasonal movement through the local valleys and mountains, where they maintained and utilized berry fields, camas beds, and numerous other native plants that supplied food, animal forage, and materials for making many articles of daily life, in addition to fishing, hunting, and (since acquiring horses in the 1730s) raising large horse herds. When the first westbound settlers arrived by wagon train in the Wenas Valley in September 1853, they found Owhi’s band taking advantage of the native grasses and farming land irrigated with water from Wenas Creek.
Surveys, Treaties, Homesteads, and Monuments
Earlier that summer, U.S. Army Captain George B. McClellan (1826-1885) and his party of military surveyors also camped alongside the Yakamas in Wenas Valley. They surveyed the area for a possible railroad route through the Cascades and were supposed to aid in improving the trail through Naches Pass to accommodate wagon trains. McClellan largely focused on surveying railroad routes and the wagon road was not improved east of the crest of the Cascades. On the western side, the road had been rudimentarily improved by local volunteers.
Despite the difficult road, after leaving Owhi’s Gardens, the Longmire-Byles wagon train made it through Naches Pass and arrived at Fort Steilacoom on October 13, 1853. The Naches Pass road would never be a popular route, but the wagon trains that did use it and the McClellan-led surveying party both boded ill for Yakamas and other Indians living in the Yakima River valley. Just two years later in 1855 territorial governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) commenced a rapid series of treaty councils with Washington Territory’s Indian tribes that divested them of most of their land and touched off several years of armed conflicts. Captured after a battle near Spokane in 1858, Owhi was killed by American soldiers while trying to escape.
The Upper Yakamas were removed from the Wenas Valley and it was opened to homesteading in 1858. Not many settlers claimed farmland in the valley until the 1870s because of its relative remoteness, but in 1871 David Longmire, who had been a nine-year-old boy in the Longmire-Byles wagon train, returned to the Wenas Valley and bought land there. In 1875 he purchased another 160 acres, which encompassed the land Owhi’s band had cultivated. A historical marker erected at the site in 1917 commemorates Owhi’s Gardens along with the wagon-train pioneers and army surveyors who both camped there in 1853.