Why Is Salem the Capital of Oregon?

(Last Updated On: February 22, 2018)

Capital of Oregon

The Capital of Oregon

Despite the fact that many of us have had to memorize them since we were children, U.S. capitals often seem unintuitive when you take the time to think about it. For example, why doesn’t the state’s most prosperous city get the title of capital? You could make the case here for many states, like New York City over Albany for New York or New Orleans over Baton Rouge for Louisiana. Another possible example is Salem in Oregon, and historically, some people in the state felt the same way.

The Founding of Salem

Salem is in the heart of the Willamette Valley, initially settled by the Kalapuya Native American people. In their language, they called it Chim-i-ki-ti, which meant “meeting place” or “resting place.” The first settlers who came to the area were led by Methodist Jason Lee in 1840. This was his second attempt to create a mission in the then-Oregon Country. At the time, the area was known as Chemeketa, a variant on its original Native American name. Others called it Mill Creek due to its proximity to the eponymous body of water.

So how does one go from the native name to Salem? It’s not entirely clear. The most common concept held is that William H. Wilson, who planned out the original town in 1846, chose the name in tribute to the Hebrew word Shalom. Other theories include that it was in reference to Salem, Massachusetts.

Capital Clashes

The Willamette Heritage Center explains that the provincial government of Oregon (remember, these were the pioneer days) was originally set up in Oregon City. Oregon City had the advantage of being centrally located. However, being a river port town and situated on the Oregon Trail meant that Salem was prospering economically at the time. In 1851, the territory’s legislature passed a bill that named Salem the formal capital, Portland the home of the territory jail, and Maryville (known as Corvallis today) as the home of the territory’s university.

Despite the fact that Salem as the capital was law, not everyone was happy about the decision. Being the seat of power for the local government more jobs and revenue to the surrounding community. Other cities wanted what Salem had, and this led to squabbling for years. Right after the bill was passed, the territory’s governor spoke out against it. At one point, some legislators refused to meet in the city to legislate.

The U.S. Congress passed a resolution to confirm that Salem was the capital, but the story didn’t end there. Before the capitol building was even built, the state moved the capital to Maryville before moving it back shortly afterward. However, Salem’s capitol building ended up burning down, still leaving things up in the air. At this point, Eugene and Portland were the strongest contenders.

In the end, it would be the people of Oregon who made Salem its capital, when the issue was decided by general election in 1862 and 1864. Salem beat out Portland in both cases, with nearly twice as many votes.

Ironically, those people back then who thought that being the capital meant good business were proved right. Today, the government employs 30% of the city’s workers. It has a modest 150,000 people, but is known across the state as a great destination for skiing and wine.

About the Author:

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Derek Pharr is the Chief Product Officer at Sporcle and a content creator.
He has been a writer and blogger for nearly two decades.
He enjoys writing about everything from productivity, memory and learning, leadership, life hacks, and trivia.
Derek writes a twice weekly newsletter called Chief Rabbit at www.chiefrabbit.com