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Volcanoes and History
Cascade Range Volcanoes - "Volcanoes and History"

Peter Burnett

February 16, 1844, eruption of Mount St. Helens, from Linnton, Oregon,
with references to possibly 1842
(Written in 1844, published in the New York Herald on December 28, 1844, and re-printed in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, December 1902)


Excerpt from:
Letters of Peter H. Burnett, written in 1844, published in the New York Herald on December 28, 1844, and re-printed in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, December 1902.

Mount St. Helens, Washington.

   [p.423-424]     ... LINNTON, Oregon Territory, 1844. ... MOUNTAINS. -- We have the most beautiful scenery in North America -- the largest ocean, the purest and most beautiful streams, and loftiest and most beautiful trees. The several peaks of the Cascade range of mountains are grand and imposing objects. From Vancouver you have a fair and full view of Mount Hood, perhaps the tallest peak of the Cascades, and which rises nearly sixteen thousand feet above the level of the Pacific, and ten thousand feet above the surrounding mountains. This lofty pile rises up by itself, and is in form of a regular cone, covered with perpetual snow. This is the only peak you can see from Vancouver, as the view is obscured by the tall fir timber. At the mouth of the Willamette, as you enter the Columbia, you have a view of both Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens. From Linnton you have a very fair and full view of Mount St. Helens, about fifty miles distant; but it looks as if it was within reach. This peak is very smooth, and in the form of a regular cone, and nearly, if not quite, as tall as Mount Hood, and also covered with perpetual snow. This mountain is now a burning volcano. It commenced about a year since. The crater is on one side of the mountain, about two thirds of the distance from its base. This peak, like Mount Hood, stands far off and alone, in its solitary grandeur, rising far, far above all surrounding objects. On the sixteenth of February, 1844, being a beautiful and clear day, the mountain burned most magnificently. The dense masses of smoke rose up in one immense column, covering the whole crest of the mountain in clouds. Like other volcanoes, it burns at intervals. This mountain is second to but one volcanic mountain in the world, Cotopaxi, in South America. On the side of the mountain, near its top, is a large black object, amidst the pure white snow around it. This is supposed to be the mouth of a large cavern. From Indian accounts this mountain emitted a volume of burning lava about the time it first commenced burning. An Indian came to Vancouver with his foot and leg badly burnt, who stated that he was on the side of the mountain hunting deer, and he came to a stream of something running down the mountain, and when he attempted to jump across it, he fell with one foot into it; and that was the way in which he got his foot and leg burned. This Indian came to the fort to get Doctor Barclay to administer some remedy to cure his foot. From a point on the mountain immediately back of Linnton you can see five peaks of the Cascade range. As we passed from the Atila [Umatilla ?] to Doctor Whitmarsh's [Whitman's ?] we could distinctly see Mount Hood, at a distance of about one hundred and fifty miles. ...



Digital version of the Peter Burnett Letters, as published in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, December 1902,
was found at the "Google Books" website, 2009.



Harry M. Majors writes:
(Majors, H.M., 1980, Mount St. Helens: The 1842-44 Eruptions, IN: Northwest Discovery, July 1980)
"Mount St. Helens continued to engage in intermittent activity even into the year 1844. Among the emigrants of 1843 on the Oregon Trail was Peter Hardeman Burnett (1807-1895), later to be governor of California, who wrote a series of letters describing his journey and the Oregon country. These letters were contemporaneously published in the New York Herald. These same letters were then collected and issued in book form by George Wilkes (1820-1885), who unscrupulously published them under his own name.

In a letter written probably in February 1844 at Linnton in the Willamette Valley, Peter Burnett describes Mount St. Helens and mentions an eruption of February 16, 1844. Burnett correctly mentions that "The crater is on the side of the mountain, about two thirds of the distance from its base. ... On the side of the mountain, near its top, is a large black spot, amidst the pure white snow around it. This is supposed to be the mouth of a large cavern." Burnett does not specify on which side of the peak the crater was present; however, for it to be visible from the lower Willamette Valley, the crater would had have been situated on the south/southwest flank of the peak.

Burnett is also our only source for the account of an Indian deer hunter who badly burned his foot and leg when he slipped into a stream of lava while attempting to cross it. This incident would had to have taken place either in November-December 1842, or sometime during 1843. The "Doctor Barclay" mentioned is Forbes Barclay (1812-1873), a native of the Shetland Islands who first arrived at Fort Vancouver from England in 1840 via ship. Barclay remained at Fort Vancouver until 1850, at which time he moved to Oregon City (of which he was mayor during 1864-1873)."



 


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