The Barlow Road

Packhorses on Athabasca Portage

This is image na-3934-16, from Glenbow Archives, and is used with their permission. The packhorses that the HBC men used were probably smaller than these horses, but the scene would be very similar to this.

THIS POST IS UPDATED with more information of interest to Washington State historians — see below.

The Barlow Road was a historic wagon road built in 1846 by some American pioneers. When completed, this eighty-mile-long road led from The Dalles, on the Columbia River, to the Willamette Valley and the American settlement at Oregon City. The two men who first began looking for a trail were wagon train leaders who arrived at The Dalles from the east, to find the new town overrun with emigrant parties who were unable to make their way downriver with their wagons. Frustrated by the delays, Sam Barlow and H. M. Knighton set out to find a route through the mountains by an Indian trail. At Tygh Creek (Wasco Country) they left their families with the wagons and scouted ahead to determine if there was a possible route. When they returned to camp they discovered another wagon train leader there, a man named Joel Palmer. Barlow and Palmer joined forces, and together began cutting and burning a trail through the thick bush toward the west. Amazingly, they succeeded in their task and found a route that led them to the Willamette Valley. For more detailed information on this trail, read: 

A long while ago I started a new but short thread, promising to take you on Thomas Lowe’s August 1849 journey to Fort Nez Percés (Walla Walla) and then onward to Fort Colvile. While I swear Lowe made the journey to Fort Colvile, my memory has proven faulty: he did not, but returned home by a newly built trail to Oregon City and, eventually, Fort Vancouver. If you want to see the beginning of this journey, then go here: 

Never fear: there are lots more journals that will take us from Fort Nez Percés to Fort Colvile, where I will connect with interesting journals that will take us over the Rocky Mountains with the outgoing Express. But in the meantime, let us follow Thomas Lowe back to the Willamette Valley and Fort Vancouver, by the Barlow Road. 

So we left Thomas Lowe at Point Yes, still on his way up the Columbia River to Walla Walla, but well past The Dalles and the Chutes. That date was Monday, September 3: 

4th Tuesday. Had a light favourable breeze until breakfast time after which it died away, and continued calm during the rest of the day. Breakfasted a little above the Finale, and passed the Rivière Quinelle about noon. Encamped about 10 miles below the Grosse Isle [“Big Island,” or Blalock Island]. 

In 1849, John Charles also mentioned the Rivière Finale, which was “above the Chutes Island.” It is quite clear that the Finale, and the Quinal or Quinelle, are two separate rivers, as John Charles also speaks of the Rivière Quinal, which was most of a day’s travel below the lower end of the Grand [Umatilla] Rapid. He was travelling upriver with Thomas Lowe, who had led out the 1847 and 1848 Expresses: so clearly those were the names that were in use in the late 1840s, if not before that time. 

Let’s continue with Thomas Lowe’s upriver journey:

5th Wednesday. Fine warm weather, and calm. Breakfasted at the lower end of the Grosse Isle. Engaged 3 Horses to haul the line, and they ran the boat up to the end of the Island in a very short time. Encamped opposite the mouth of the Umatilla.

6th, Thursday. Head wind all day, but generally not very strong. Breakfasted about 4 miles above the Grand [Umatilla] Rapid, and arrived at Fort Nez Percés an hour after sundown.

7th Friday. Very warm. Had the pieces brought into the Fort early this morning, and in the afternoon got the boat hauled up and placed alongside the Fort wall. Making arrangements for our departure tomorrow on our return to [Fort] Vancouver on horseback, and for Joe’s trip to [Fort] Colvile. Leave three men here to fill up vacancies, William Towai, Peter, and Kapeet. 

So one of the items that Thomas Lowe was delivering to Fort Nez Percés was the boat they had travelled upriver in, and one of the items he was to return to Fort Vancouver with was saddle horses from Walla Walla. As mentioned in the previous post in this short series, the men that were remaining at Walla Walla were William Towal, a Hawaiian, Peter (who is unidentified, at least by me), and Kapeet (also unidentified). The Joe that was heading upriver to Fort Colvile with his family was likely Joseph Anarize, Iroquois, who was crossing the Mountains with his family. Another Iroquois, Charles Teonsarakonta, travelled with Anarize, but remained at Fort Colvile. Lowe’s journal continues:

8th, Saturday. Joe started early this morning for Colvile. His wife and son accompany him, also Charles Teonsarakonta. He had six horses in all. After breakfast got everything ready and started from Walla Walla on our return to Vancouver at about 10 am. [Edouard] Beauchemin and [Louis Francois] Dauny accompany me, and Kashoosha, a Walla Walla Indian who came up with us in the boat takes down 3 horses of his own, and I have ten riding Horses for the Company and two of my own. We have 3 light loads, principally of provisions. The wind was strong ahead all day, and we were almost blinded with dust and sand. Encamped about 3 miles below the Umatilla River, sun about 2 hours high.

9th, Sunday. Fine weather, but wind very strong ahead, so much so indeed that we found it impossible to proceed on account of the clouds of sand which actually blinded us. Breakfasted about 15 miles above the Rivière Quinelle, and had to encamp there as the wind increased. 

10th, Monday. Warm day. Started from our encampment about 3 hours before daylight as it was then calm. Got to the Rivière Quinalle just as the sun was rising. Found there some Indians on their way up with goods for Pere Joset [sic], he himself is 3 days march behind. Breakfasted at the Finale. Encamped 4 miles above John Day’s River.

I am presuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the Mission at The Dalles (see below) is the Mission established by Reverends Lee and Perkins at Wascopam [the Dalles]: but I also know that there was later another mission near or at The Dalles. Was it established by 1849? (Yes, it was.) Was it Catholic, and is that where this “Pere Joset” came from? (Yes, and probably yes). I thought it might have been Pere de Smet and that Lowe didn’t hear his name correctly, but de Smet was not in the Columbia District in 1849. So I have no idea who this missionary was, that might have been travelling over the Barlow Road in 1849. 

11th, Tuesday. Fine pleasant weather. It was late this morning before we could start, as we had some difficulty in finding and catching the horses. Breakfasted 3 miles. below John Day’s River. Passed 5 waggons of immigrants a little above the Chutes River on their way to the Wallamette. At the Chutes River met Birisbois carrying an Express from the commanding Officer of the Troops at Vancouver to the one in command of the Rifle Corps coming from the States. Crossed the Chutes River in a canoe and swam the Horses. Encamped on the Dalles River about 4 miles from the Mission Station. Pere Joset likewise camped there. He had 33 loaded horses, and was bound inland with goods. 

12th, Wednesday. Close and smoky day. The wind blowing from there the Cascade Mountains are on fire. Called at the Catholic Mission Station at the Dalles for some provisions we left there on our way up and breakfasted at the Little River about half a mile distance. Our way the rest of the day was nothing but climbing and descending hills, as we struck off from the Dalles inland to follow Barlow’s road to Oregon City. Encamped on a small tributary of the Chutes River.

So there was now a Catholic Mission at the Dalles — my question, above, is answered. The HBC men had more or less followed the south bank of the Columbia River to the Catholic Mission, from whence they now struck south to follow the Barlow Road around Mount Hood. It would not an easy road to follow, it seems. His journal continues:

13th, Thursday. Fine warm day, but air full of smoke. Breakfasted on a tributary of the Chutes River, at which is called Laptouliiks Encampment, where there is a farm belonging to a Cayuse Indian of that name. Made a long march afterwards and encamped on the Rivière de Sable or Sandy. 

There is a Sandy River along this historic road: that must have been where they camped for the night! Assuming it was, Thomas Lowe’s crew would have travelled through the Tygh Valley, over Tygh, Rock, and Gate Creeks to the White River, after which the trail ascended toward the height of land, following Barlow Creek. They then skirted Barlow Butte and headed west past Summit Mountain (which I presume is the summit of what is now called Barlow Pass), and past the Government Camp to the Sandy River. Let’s see if I am right! From there….

14th, Friday. Breakfasted before starting, as there is a long distance to go through the woods before finding a place where there is grass. Followed the valley of the Sandy upwards all morning, then the road veered, and we descended the River the rest of the day. Our course all day lay through the woods and along the bank of the River, and we had a good many hills to climb and to descend. 

Upwards? Are they going up Barlow Creek to the height of land? Or have the HBC men crossed over the pass and are on today’s Sandy River where they rode across “the Devil’s Backbone?” Obviously I am guessing at his exact location: this will be a puzzle that all the Washington state historians who follow me can figure out — in fact, you probably all know exactly where Lowe is at any point in this journey! Lowe’s journal continues:

15th, Saturday. Breakfasted at the last traverse of the Sandy, about 15 miles from our encampment. Carried on steadily for the rest of the day, and encamped about 5 miles from Oregon City in a low bottom where there was a good feed for the horses. I rode over to Oregon City in the evening and slept there, but the people remained at the encampment with the horses. 

16th Sunday. Rained last night for the first time since starting from Vancouver. Passed the day at Oregon City.

As I said, above, there is someone who will know where Lowe is on this journey — and that someone has come forward. I will tell you his name if he gives me permission; he lives in Oregon City and shows people over the Barlow Road. As you can guess, Lowe is off in his names. This is what he says of Lowe’s journey over the Barlow Road in 1849:

From The Dalles, he [Lowe] would have crossed 8 Mile Creek, which flows into 15 Mile Creek near its mouth. He would also have crossed 15 Mile Creek (which continues to the Columbia almost across from The Dalles Dam). Lowe’s route then drops off Tygh ridge into the valley of Tygh Creek and its junction with the White River. There was a large tribal encampment near the junction. The White River flows into the Deschutes east of Tygh Valley. After the climb out of Tygh Creek Valley, Lowe would have crossed Rock Creek and Gate Creek, which both flow into the White River. He would not have hit any water flowing into the Sandy drainage until after Barlow Summit — East Fork of the Salmon River (near Pioneer Woman’s Grave). Then Summit Meadow and Still Creek area (Sandy Drainage), and down Laurel Hill. The original road ran along the north side of the Sandy River and crossed the river for the last time after descending from Devils Backbone. The timeline is different from wagon travel, but they were using horses: it still would have been an accomplishment to move as far as he recorded “after a long day’s travel.” The terrain is very rough. He possibly stayed on the ridges along the way without the descent into the White River Canyon, as water could be had at regular intervals from the creeks available. Forage could be a different matter, but small meadows could have been available.

Remember that above, Thomas Lowe said he spent the day in Oregon City, sending the men ahead with the horses. Lowe was basically retired from the HBC: his time was his own and he could do what he wanted. He had probably arranged that he spend this time in Oregon City, where at least one of his future business partners lived. 

17th, Monday. Cloudy weather but no rain. Left Oregon City about 10 am. The men had made a move yesterday with the Horses and encamped about 3 miles from the Clackamas on the Vancouver road. Arrived at Portland at 1 pm, and crossed the Willamette to visit that place. Got to Switzlers at 5 pm, and left the Horses there to be crossed tomorrow. Crossed the Columbia in a canoe, and arrived at Vancouver at 6 pm, where my poor wife, since dead, was the first to meet and welcome me back. 

He had wed one of James Birnie’s daughters, named La Rose. She died of tuberculosis a year or so after their marriage. James Birnie was my great-great-grandfather, and he had large number of daughters who all married fur traders — this is how I have such a large fur trade family with so many connections!

Thomas Lowe must have written the final words in this journal in March, 1853, when he was already a merchant in San Francisco.  He never married again. 

There is no continuation to this journal, except when I write about journeys that continued on from Walla Walla to Fort Colvile. If you want to know more about Thomas Lowe, however, there is plenty of information on this site. Begin reading at and know that there are numerous posts still to come. There is no one who tells the history of the Columbia District quite like Thomas Lowe. He was here when all the important stuff was happening!  

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved. 

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3 thoughts on “The Barlow Road

  1. Kees van Weel

    Thank you. I worked on the Mount Hood National Forest in 1981 & 82, and saw several segments of the Barlow Road, which had informational signs posted.


    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I have some new information to add to this post, so you will know where Lowe was — he was not exactly where he thought he was, it seems, or he didn’t know the proper names of the places where he was. This information came from a man who lives in Oregon City and who guides people over the trail. He is the Barlow Road expert of the NW OCTA, or the Northwest Chapter of the Oregon California Trails Association.