More than a century and a half ago, in 1845, a group of hardy pioneers were traveling by wagon train from Iowa to Oregon. By the time they reached the Malheur River about a mile below the present site of Vale, they had already traveled some 1,500 miles. Tired and ready to reach their destination, they encamped at a spring to rest.
Some were in despair as they had lost several oxen that had apparently died from poison. When one of the members examined a carcass, his hand was infected and he too died. Tempers were pitched and dissension began to rise within the group of travelers.
One member of the train, by the name of Stephen Meek, who had joined the party somewhere in present-day Montana or Idaho, claimed that he had been to Oregon and knew a shortcut. Along the trail, many of the men had begun to distrust Meek and when the party set out westward from the springs, they split into two groups – one following the known route, and the other, Meek’s promised shortcut.
The Meek party swung to the south toward the Steen Mountain country. But, Meek didn’t really know where he was going and with the anger of the group he fled the wagon train in fear of his life, after only one week. Dissention within the group caused them to split once again at the headwaters of Willow Creek. Part of the group headed towards Huntington and down the Columbia River, while the rest of the party continued to travel along the Malheur River.
Along the way, the party met with trouble again as one member was stricken with fever and died, and just a few miles later, several of the oxen were lost. On August 25, 1845, three of the young men soon went out in search of the stock, walking all day and well into the late afternoon before coming to a small stream. Quenching their thirst, they picked up 15-20 pebbles in the creek that displayed an unusual color. Finding their oxen, they then returned to the train.
Exhibiting their stones to the older men in the train, the “more seasoned” travelers pronounced them to be “copper.” When someone asked, “Was there much of it?”, one of the boys replied, “We could have filled one of these blue buckets.”
One of the train’s members, Mrs. Fisher, kept a single nugget and the train continued its journey, leaving behind the other stones. Of Stephen Meek, he did make it to The Dalles and returned to the train with a party of rescuers in order to save them. The wagon train finally reached its destination at The Dalles in October 1845.
All was forgotten until three years later when gold was discovered in California. At that time, the incident was recalled by some of the party members and Mrs. Fisher, who had kept one of the nuggets, soon discovered that it was actually gold.
Thus began the search for the mythical Blue Bucket Mine. Though the location of the gold continues to remain a mystery today, it is believed to be at a tributary of the John Day River.