Wheeler County History

Map of the state of Oregon with Wheeler county in the middle blacked out. Wheeler County was established Feb. 17, 1899. Formed from parts of Grant, Gilliam, and Crook Counties, there have been no boundary changes since its creation. The county shares boundaries with Gilliam and Morrow Counties to the north, Wasco and Jefferson to the west, Crook to the south, and Grant to the east. The county was named for Henry Wheeler, who operated the first stage line through the county. The area of the county is 1,713 square miles. 

The county seat is located in the city of Fossil. The town's name was derived from the first postmaster's discovery of fossil remains on his land in 1876. Fossil was designated the temporary county seat when the county was created. In 1900 there was an election to determine the permanent county seat. Spray, Twickenham and Fossil were the aspirants with Fossil winning the election. The current courthouse was built in 1902. 

Wheeler County's government consists of a county court made up of a county judge and two commissioners. The county judge retains judicial authority for probate and juvenile proceedings. Other county officers include assessor, district attorney, justice of the peace, clerk, sheriff-emergency services director, treasurer, and surveyor. 

Wheeler County's 2018 population was 1,450. This represented an increase of 0.6% from 2010. The county population has declined considerably since a peak of 3,313 occurring in 1950. 

The terrain varies widely from sagebrush, juniper, and rim rock to thick stands of pine and fir. Portions of two national forests lie within its boundaries with forest lands covering nearly one third of the county. The area is known as an outstanding depository of prehistoric fossils. The Painted Hills and Clarno units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument are located in the county. Principal industries are agriculture, livestock, and recreation. 

Wheeler county courthouse
Fossil's 1902 Wheeler County Courthouse was built after a vote with 3 cities vying for county seat. (Oregon State Archives Scenic Image 20070908-1011​)

Wheeler County Courthouse

701 Adams Street
Fossil, OR 97830
County Clerk: 541-763-2400
Circuit Court: 541-763-2541​
Visit Wheeler County website >​

John Day Fossil Beds​​​​​​

Red rocked rolling hills with a boardwalk through the valley section.
A boardwalk in the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. (Oregon State Archives Scenic Image 20070907-0939​)
Wheeler County is internationally known for its fossils. With even the name of the county seat (Fossil) getting into the act, its history is rich with geology and archaeology. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument preserves the best sites within Wheeler County at the Clarno and Painted Hills units.
The cliffs of the Palisades at the Clarno Unit, now part of a near desert environment, were formed by volcanic mud flows 44 million years ago that preserved countless plant and animal fossils. At that time, the near tropical environment got about 100 inches of rain a year and was home to crocodile- and rhinoceros-like creatures. Visitors hike along an interpretive trail and see examples of fossils embedded in the rocks at the base of the Palisades. (Source: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument​)