Originally occupied by Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla Indian Tribes and a handful of French Canadian Trappers, the Town that became Milton Freewater has a rich and interesting history. Early wagon trains following the Whitman party traveled though this town en route to the Willamette Valley and many returned to this area to call it home.
A Living History
Before settlers moved into the area, Northern Umatilla County was occupied mainly by the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla Indian Tribes, with a few trappers scattered here and there. The French Canadian family, the Pambruns, the first non-native settlers arrived in the 1830’s. Their descendants still occupy the area.
The first wagon train too come through this area was in 1843 following the directions of the Whitman Party who had arrived in the 1830’s.This wagon train came down the West hill bordering present day Milton and would have reached the base of the valley at approximately the location of the present Lutheran Church. From there they traveled to the Whitman Mission to rest and stock up. Several wagon trains arrived later. The last one to come through arrived at the Mission in October of 1847 before continuing on to the Willamette Valley.
The Whitman massacre occurred a little over a month later in late November. After this tragic occurrence, this portion of the Oregon Trail was no longer used. Henry Wood, was in this 1847 trek as a 9 year old boy. He moved back from Yamhill County at the age of 15 to the nearby Cottonwood Area in 1852.) When the largest movement of the trail west occurred in the 1850’s, some of the settlers found the Willamette Valley unsuitable for a variety of reasons and a number of them drifted back to this area.
Thomas McCoy traveled north from the goldfields of California with $35,000. in his pocket, quite a sum in 1856. He built a cabin on the Walla Walla River near Tum-a-Lum and later in the 1870’s, a seven gabled house. The house is destroyed but the cabin now occupies land on the Frazier Museum property and has been restored for the public to enjoy visiting.
The W.S. Frazier family arrived in 1868 and Frazier laid out the townsite in 1872. According to the Frazier family, he named the town Milton after the English poet, John Milton, whose poems he greatly admired. It is also said that the town was named Milltown because of the flour mill built by Johann Miller in the 1870’s. A third version of the story is that the first postmaster, W.A. Cowell, named it after his hometown, Milton, New York.
We will probably never know which version is correct as time has erased any confirmation that can be found. Milton had an ordinance forbidding saloons and this made a significant number of residents unhappy. In the 1880’s they moved a bit to the north and started a new town, naming it Freewater as they offered access to free water for the new residents. The towns remained apart as friendly and sometimes not so friendly rivals for many years but consolidated by a narrow vote in 1950, making it official the following year.
A microclimate of mild temperatures and the volcanic soil of the Walla Walla Valley has made it ideal for the growing of all but tropical fruits. Apples, cherries, plums, pears, peaches, apricots, grapes, peas and wheat have allowed the town to prosper.