“keep down the river three sleeps” — Fort Vancouver Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin

Today, the Fort Vancouver Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers the adventures of John Ball in September 1832.

John Ball (1794 – 1884) was a settler, educator, lawyer and member of the Michigan State Legislature, but he was an adventurer as well.

In 1832, he joined Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth’s first expedition and traveled to the Oregon Country.

The Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume III, from March 1902 – December 1902, included an article Across the Continent Seventy Years Ago (compiled from the papers of John Ball) by Kate N. B. Powers.

An excerpt tells of his September 1832 adventures:


We were now at what I knew was the headwaters of the Owyhee River, then supposed to be the eastern boundary of Oregon. We continued down this canyon of burnt granite, mica, slate, etc., for several days, and saw many curious things. In one case there was a stone resting on a column as if just balanced there. We then traveled northwest over a very even plain, with some sagebrush, but saw water only once.

September 1 —Some thirty miles from the stream, there was a kind of well in the rocks. Snowy mountains were visible to the north, and country descended in that direction. We encamped on the plain, the Owyhee being a thousand feet below us.

The rocks appeared like a burnt brick kiln. We saw some Indian with dried fish, and bought some, then ascended the bluffs on the west.

We saw horses’ tracks down the steep bluffs, which with difficulty we descended, to our joy to quench our thirst and that of our horses.

September 9 — We visited a large Indian encampment or village. They were fishing. Their ingenious mode was very interesting.

The stream was shallow. They built a fence across it near its mouth (we were now at the mouth of the Owyhee). Then leaving some distance above they made a weir at one side so that the fish coming down or coming up would go in, but were unable to find their way out. Then they speared them.

Their spears were made having a bone point with a socket that fitted into a shaft or pole, and a hole was drilled through the bone point by which a string tied it to the shaft.

At sun rise a signal was given by their chief: they all rushed from both sides into the stream, struck the salmon with their spears, and in each case the point would come off, but being fastened to the shaft by a string, the fish were easily towed ashore.

The chief of this village accompanied us down the stream six miles. I here lost my hatchet, given me by Doctor Brinsmaide of Troy, New York.

We reached the Lewis River September 10, and continued down the river, trapping wherever we saw signs of the beavers.

September 17 — We had some fresh fish boiled in baskets, the water being kept boiling by hot stones. For a day we went up a creek from the southwest trapping.

Our horses were cut loose at night by the Indians, and my camlet cloak was stolen. As a general rule, the Indians were kind and friendly, and would make us presents of food, but they could not forego the attempt to steal our horses (of which we had two to each man) any more than a negro can leave a hen roost alone.

The Indians we met were Shoshones or the Pallotipallos, or Flatheads, so called from the fact that the foreheads of all members of the tribe are flattened during infancy. The operation is performed by tying boards hewn to proper shape for the purpose, which compress the head, one being placed against the forehead and tied to another at the back, on which the infant is placed. The more the head is misshaped the greater the supposed beauty.

September 20 — We met Mr. Sublette and Mr. Frap. They went to the southwest. There was little timber in this region. When two or three of us went up trapping, we tied our horses’ halters to our arms at night, so as to be sure not to lose them.

We traveled slowly, trapping on the streams coming from the west. At last we got tired, not having good luck, and the fish being bad.

We tried to make the Indians understand that we wanted to go to Walla Walla. That being the only word in common between us, the conversation had to be by signs.

An Indian drew a map on the sand; one sign meant river, making a motion of paddling; another the trail, by pointing to a horse.

We understood that we were to keep down the river three sleeps (laying his head on his hand and shutting his eyes three times) thus giving us to understand we were to go by day, and if we whipped up, could cover the ground in two days.

There the river went into the mountains, and we were to go over these mountains, and sleep; then another range, and sleep; then making a sign of a plain, then two more sleeps, and then Walla Walla.

I was quite confident I understood him, if it was by signs. It proved as he said, and was a great help to us.

Lewis and Clark speak of the destitute condition of these Flathead Indians.

Not knowing just where we were, and not taking the precaution to buy a supply of dried fish, and meeting no more Indians, we soon got short of food.

We made some thirty miles a day some days over the prairie, for when we arrived at the mountains we were in a sad plight.

We were thoroughly exhausted by hard travel and the horses were no better.


By the end of October the party arrived at Fort Vancouver where Mr. Ball stayed for several months before his wanderlust took him on another adventure.

The Fort Vancouver Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with a portrait of John Ball—adventurer, teacher, lawyer, farmer, businessman, politician.

Fort Vancouver Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin