The name Oregon is of uncertain origin. Other than being of Native American origin and being first applied to the Oregon River, now known as the Columbia River, little is certain.
The name first appears in a 1765 petition to King George III by Robert Rogers, a colonial military officer. Rogers refers to the Ouragon River, saying it is an Indian name for the famed, but yet-to-be-seen-by-Europeans river of the west that would come to be known as the Columbia River. The name could be from the Connecticut-English pidgin word wauregan, meaning beautiful.
The name Oregon appears in print in Jonathan Carver’s 1778 Travels through the Interior Part of North America and William Cullen Bryant uses the name in his 1817 poem Thanatopsis:1
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there!2
Bryant’s poem made the name famous and indirectly led to the naming of the territory and eventually the state.
An alternative hypothesis for the origin appears in a 1944 article in American Speech where it is postulated that the name comes from ouraconsint. The name appears on a French map from sometime before 1709 and the name is split into two lines, with -sint appearing below, giving the impression to a casual reader that the river’s name is ouracon. The river in question is the Wisconsin River, commonly called the Ouisconsing by the French. According to this hypothesis English explorers like Rogers confused the name with a river further to the west.3
2William Cullen Bryant, “Thanatopsis,” in Songs of Three Centuries, ed. John Greenleaf Whittier (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1817), 188.
3George R. Stewart, “The Source of the Name Oregon,” American Speech 19, no. 2 (Apr 1944): 115-17.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton