How Salem, Oregon Got Its Name...& Kept It!

The following text describes how Salem, Oregon acquired its name. This narrative was written more than eighty years ago. It is a slice of history that was tucked away for generations and recently came to light. It is published here, edited by Jon Hazen, illustrated by James Cloutier.



The story of the manner in which one Oregon city after another came into being furnishes a mirror of the period in which these events occurred. A curious mingling of the motives is observable.

The spirit of missionaries, and especially the desire of the new settlers to obtain the facilities of education for their children, are revealed by the circumstances that when town-building had assumed the proportions of a 1853 Oregon Legislature boom--and even before that--it was proposed by a number of devoutly religious and sincerely altruistic citizens to capitalize this speculative spirit in the interest of church and school. The early history of Salem affords an interesting and romantic example of this.

When the immigration of 1845, which was much larger than any which preceded it, brought a new problem of provision for the education of the children of white settlers, the trustees of the Oregon Institute conceived the idea of laying off a town and realizing a fund from the sale of lots, to be devoted to this purpose.

This was done in 1846, at which time there was only one building within the limits of the Salem survey,--the residence of Rev. L.H. Judson. There being no law for holding in the name of the Institute the townsite property thus sought to be acquired, various members of the Methodist body, by agreement, altered or extended the lines of their own claims so as to protect the school.

Judson in this manner surrendered 320 acres, Rev. David Leslie about 200, H.B. Brewer about 80, and W.H. Willson about 40. A little later Willson was designated in a contract with the trustees of the Institute to take over the entire claim as his own, it being intended that when he perfected title in accordance with the land laws he should surrender to the Institute all except one-third, retaining the latter fractional part for his own services.

After the survey of 1846 a few lots were sold, which were paid for in wheat, and in due time the question of selecting a name arose. The Indian name was "Chemeketa," freely translated as "place of rest," and this was proposed by Rev. Mr. Parrish as a name for the new settlement.

But Willson pointed out that by a happy coincidence there was also a biblical word meaning nearly the same thing, "Salem" or Sholum"--a "city of peace"* which was then decided upon. [*note: It is doubtful whether the name Chemeketa had this signification. The name seems to have been derived from one of the Calapooyan bands of Indians of that name.]

But the missionary influence diminished somewhat with continued accessions of the new and sometimes irreverent and ungodly elements to the population, so that in the summer of 1853 the subject of changing the name was seriously agitated.

"Chemeketa," "Woronoco," and "Multnomah," among others, were proposed. Petitions asking that the change be made were circulated for presentation to the Legislature, and received a considerable number of signatures.

In the proceedings of the Fifth Territorial Legislature which met in December, 1853, it appears that, December 19, 1853, Mr. Colby presented the petition of R.C. Geer and others praying that the name of Salem be changed to "Thurston" or "Valena", the latter of which was the given name of a young daughter of J.W. Nesmith, afterward Mrs. William H. Molson.

On the same day Mr. Humanson submitted the petition of Chester N. Terry and others to change the name to "Corvallis" and a resolution was also introduced in the council to change the name of Marysville to Corvallis. A rather spirited contest ensued which resulted in the name Corvallis to the city which now bears it. This act was passed on December 20, 1853.

Meanwhile the various Salem petitions had been referred to a select committee of the council, which submitted a report on December 21, 1853, recommending that the name be changed to "Chemawa." Action on the report was delayed until January 13, 1854, when two other amendments were offered, "Willamette" and "Bronson" being suggested, the latter without much seriousness, but ostensibly in honor of a respected pioneer resident.

The name "Chemawa" was adopted by the council and the bill went to the house for concurrence, being called up January 17, 1854. The debate seems to have been the occasion of a good deal of merriment and bantering.

Mr. Simpson moved to substitute "Valena" for "Chemawa." Mr. Scott raised a laugh by moving to amend the amendment of striking out "Valena" and inserting "Pike" and insisted on a vote. On the motion of Mr. Kelly "Chemawa" was changed to "Chemawah," whereupon the motion of Mr. Simpson called for "Chemawah" to be stricken out and "Victoria" inserted.

The House's prankish mood having by this time exhausted itself, the bill was considered with due gravity and indefinitely postponed, and the name Salem has been retained without questioning to the present day.


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