Sunday, August 31, 2008

Oregon: What's In A Name?

I'm getting close to the ending in my book, Undaunted Courage. In reading this book a question came to mind. Where did Oregon get it's name?

Obviously, it is a name that has been around for awhile. A name known to folks in Lewis and Clark's time. Then it was known as the Oregon territory, and it encompassed a larger portion of land, as did the Louisiana territory. Back then the Columbia River was also known as the Oregon, or Oregan river.

I was able to glean this much from the book. In order to learn more about the origins of the name Oregon, I needed to do some more research. Unfortunately, I was not able to come up with a definative answer, but I was able to learn of a couple different possibilities, and from there, I was able to come up with what I felt was the most probable language and origin of the word.

The History of Naming Oregon, at discusses the general timeline, and in particular the first known use of the words Oregan and Oregon, as well as the original spellings, the first of which would be from what I would assume was an English fellow, Major Robert Rogers, who mentioned it in a report to King James the III, in 1765. In this document he says the Indians called it "Ouragon".While evidently there has been no evidence found that shows this name in any Indian language, I'm thinking he had to have gotten it from somewhere... The other thing to take into consideration with the lack of evidence, is that not only did many of the tribes of that time suffer, and even completely die off, due to diseases contracted from the white folks, but those who did survive were in such low numbers that they quickly assimilated themselves into the white world, their customs and languages lost within 1 or two generations.

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

Searching further I found,who mentions another possibility, "The origin of the state name is uncertain, but might have been derived from a 1715 French map which refers to the Wisconsin River as "Ouaricon-sint." ...Hmmm. Personally, while I do notice the similarity in names, I'm having a hard time wrapping myself around a river in far NW territory being named after a Wisconson river.It's possible, but I'm thinking the other two possibilities are more probable.

Then there's who says, "...World Book Encyclopedia states: The Columbia River was at one time called the Oregon or Ouragan, which means Hurricane in French."

Given the rather vivid descriptions from Lewis and Clark, as well as the trade traffic which came to the mouth of the Columbia, as well as up the river a ways, followed by the trade between the natives, and certainly communications between them, as evidenced by the trinkets and other goods Lewis and Clark noticed in the natives up and down the Columbia, I can see this as a distinct possibility. Another thing I notice is the spelling similarity between Ouragan, and "Oregan", a spelling Jefferson used.

Of course one can't completely discount the Wau-re-gon either. After all, if the name came from natives, they did (and still do) find the Columbia to be a source of beauty, as well as an inportant, perhaps at one time even revered source of sustenance.

As much as I enjoy being set apart, as one who doesn't necessarily follow the crowd, I am inclined, in this case to go with the flow, and agree with the general consensus, Ouregan, both for it's meaning, and it's timeline, although, if that is the case, then I expect it was a name picked up by the natives from a traveler/trader, rather than from the native language.

The more romantic side of me though, would rather think my second choice is the correct one, "Wau-re-gon"

What are your thoughts?


toomanyhats said...

My World Book from 1975 gives the same story of the Columbia being called Ouragan...that's how they spelled it I guess I'll go with that...I've got a 1938 version of a kids Oregon History but couldn't find anything pertinent in there.

Mark R. Putnam said...

I have read that Oregon meant "stormy" river as it was first applied to the Columbia River. The root, if this is true, would be French and Latin. "Orage" in French means storm, and it root "aura" in Latin means windy. One of the towns in Oregan near the Columbia River is Aurora, which has this same root. I understand that the Columbia River was once called the stormy river.

Boondock Ma (Kim's Mom) said...

Thank you for your comment! I do remember reading somewhere that Ouragan meant stormy river, but when I went back to research it futher I couldn't find that reference again. I never thought of the similarity in the name Aurora. Now you have me wanting to delve into it all over again, and take it even further! Perhaps there's a clue in Aurora's history..