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The History of Naming Oregon

Naming Oregon - Map

In approximately 1625 a Dutch map by mapmaker Hondius, and held out to be his "Map of the World", shows the City of Quivira upon a river far north of Cape Blanco on the Oregon coast. It also marks the cities of Conic and Tiguex near that point of land.

Some of these names appeared on other maps, such as Sir Humphrey Gilbert's map published in London in 1576, but on most of them Quivira is shown in Northern California, while the name Anian is applied to the region which was supposed to lie further north.

Numerous fanciful stories of sailors and travelers in the 16th and 17th centuries made this section of America mysterious. The Oregon country began to be marked on maps as New Albion or as Terra Incognita. Some of these stories had a semblance of truth.

Mariners reported in great detail the fabled straits of Anian, a waterway that led through the continent. The straits were reputed to be the veritable Northwest Passage so much sought as a short route to the Orient.

After two or three centuries of fable and myth, the name Oregon, itself doubtful in its meaning, came into use with an origin as baffling to modern research as the earlier myths and fictions. It was first used to designate a great river that supposed to flow into the Pacific Ocean and sometimes referred to as the River of the West.

As early as 1603, the Spanish navigator, Marin d' Aguilar, is reported to have noted the effluence of such a river near the latitude at which the Columbia River in now known to empty into the sea. Earlier geographers had indicated a river in that general locality upon maps of even earlier date.

Naming Oregon - Map So far as known, the name Oregon did not appear in any book or upon any map until after Major Robert Rogers made use of it in a written document of 1765 bearing his name and presented to King George the Third. That document, or a Proposal as he called it, outlined the use of 200 men and officers to make an overland search for the Northwest passage.

The route to be followed was detailed by Major Rogers and the expedition was led by Captain James Tute. The expedition spent a winter in St. Anthony Falls, now in Minnesota near Saint Paul. They went no further because they expected to portage to the River Oregon and instead learned they must ascend the Missouri, which later became the route taken by Lewis and Clark.

To keep this activity in context, on February 28, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's Corps of Discovery. The expedition took four years and traveled many thousands of miles in what became one of America's greatest stories of adventure and discovery.

In Rogers' Proposal, he says, "...from the Great Lakes towards the Head of the Mississippi, and from thence to the River called by the Indians Ouragon, which flows...". This may or may not be a derivation, but no Indian word has been found that supports this. Attempts to find an Indian origin of the name have not been successful.

Another possibility is the derivation comes from Wau-re-gon, Indian for "beautiful water". This too has not been substantiated.

The first use of the word "Oregon" in print occurred in Carver's Travels, London 1778: "...The River Bourbon, which empties itself into Hudson's Bay; the Waters of Saint Lawrence; the Mississippi, and the River Oregon, or the River of the West, that falls into the Pacific Ocean at the Straits of Annian." Carver never saw the river or the west coast.

By now, the Oregon Territory was referred by several names: Oregon, Oregan or Origan. The word Willamette is a true Indian name, but it was applied to the river by white settlers because a tribe by that name lived on its banks. There was general belief in the River Oregon though no white person had seen it. President Thomas Jefferson knew of it and referred to it by name in 1793.

The young poet William Cullen Bryant used the word "Oregon" in 1811, although his poem did not get into print until 1817. The word "Oregon" was embedded in a much-quoted verse: "Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound, Save his own dashings -- yet the dead are there!".

When the poem was published, the river had already been christened the Columbia upon its discovery in 1792. It was usually designated as the Columbia River on maps after that date.

On December 19, 1820, there was brought to Congress a motion by Representative John Floyd of Virginia which allowed for the appointment of a committee of inquiry into the situation of the settlements upon the Pacific Ocean, and "...the expediency of occupying the Columbia River..."

This committee discussed the law of nations, the charters under which territorial titles were obtained from the British crown, the large profits derived from the fur trade and what fisheries, and the flattering reports of Lewis and Clark concerning the resources of the interior.

Floyd noted in his report, that the land was "found to be rich and well adapted to the culture of all the useful vegetables found in any part of the United States, such as turnips, potatoes, onions, rye, wheat, melons of various kinds, cucumbers and every species of pease."

He proposed an establishment at the mouth of the Columbia River which would be allowed to take their women and children with them. The bill authorized the President to occupy "that portion of the territory of the United States on the headwaters of the Columbia River..."

The bill sat idle for more than a year and it died. Congressman Floyd authored another bill on January 18, 1822, which passed the second reading and is noteworthy because it proposed to designate the region as "Oregon," this being the first official use of the name in connection with the territory as distinguished from the river.

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