Oregon was inhabited by many indigenous tribes before Western traders, explorers, and settlers arrived. An autonomous government was formed in the Oregon Country in 1843 before the Oregon Territory was created in 1848. Oregon became the 33rd state on February 14, 1859. Today, at 98,000 square miles, Oregon is the ninth largest and, with a population of 4 million, 27th most populous U.S. state. The capital, Salem, is the second most populous city in Oregon, with 164,549 residents. Portland, with 632,309 residents, is the most populous and ranks as the 26th most populous city in the United States. The Portland metropolitan area, which also includes the city of Vancouver, Washington, to the north, ranks the 23rd largest metro area in the nation, with a population of 2,389,228.
Oregon is one of the most geographically diverse states in the U.S., marked by volcanoes, abundant bodies of water, dense evergreen and mixed forests, as well as high deserts and semi-arid shrublands. At 11,249 feet, Mount Hood, a stratovolcano, is the state's highest point. Oregon's only national park, Crater Lake National Park, comprises the caldera surrounding Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States. The state is also home to the single largest organism in the world, Armillaria ostoyae, a fungus that runs beneath 8.9 km2 of the Malheur National Forest.
Because of its diverse landscapes and waterways, Oregon's economy is largely powered by various forms of agriculture, fishing, and hydroelectric power. Oregon is also the top timber producer of the contiguous United States, and the timber industry dominated the state's economy in the 20th century. Technology is another one of Oregon's major economic forces, beginning in the 1970s with the establishment of the Silicon Forest and the expansion of Tektronix and Intel. Sportswear company Nike, Inc., headquartered in Beaverton, is the state's largest public corporation with an annual revenue of $30.6 billion.
The earliest evidence of the name Oregon has Spanish origins. The term "orejón" comes from the historical chronicle Relación de la Alta y Baja California (1598) written by the new Spaniard Rodrigo Motezuma and made reference to the Columbia River when the Spanish explorers penetrated into the actual North American territory that became part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. This chronicle is the first topographical and linguistic source with respect to the place name Oregon. There are also two other sources with Spanish origins, such as the name Oregano, which grows in the southern part of the region. It is most probable that the American territory was named by the Spaniards, as there are some populations in Spain such as "Arroyo del Oregón" (which is situated in the province of Ciudad Real), also considering that the individualization in Spanish language "El Orejón" with the mutation of the letter "g" instead of "j".
Another early use of the name, spelled Ouragon, was in a 1765 petition by Major Robert Rogers to the Kingdom of Great Britain. The term referred to the then-mythical River of the West (the Columbia River). By 1778 the spelling had shifted to Oregon. In his 1765 petition, Rogers wrote:
The rout [sic]...is from the Great Lakes towards the Head of the Mississippi, and from thence to the River called by the Indians Ouragon...
One theory is that the name comes from the French word ouragan ("windstorm" or "hurricane"), which was applied to the River of the West based on Native American tales of powerful Chinook winds on the lower Columbia River, or perhaps from firsthand French experience with the Chinook winds of the Great Plains. At the time, the River of the West was thought to rise in western Minnesota and flow west through the Great Plains.
Joaquin Miller explained in Sunset magazine, in 1904, how Oregon's name was derived:
The name, Oregon, is rounded down phonetically, from Aure il agua—Oragua, Or-a-gon, Oregon—given probably by the same Portuguese navigator that named the Farallones after his first officer, and it literally, in a large way, means cascades: 'Hear the waters.' You should steam up the Columbia and hear and feel the waters falling out of the clouds of Mount Hood to understand entirely the full meaning of the name Aure il agua, Oregon.
Another account, endorsed as the "most plausible explanation" in the book Oregon Geographic Names, was advanced by George R. Stewart in a 1944 article in American Speech. According to Stewart, the name came from an engraver's error in a French map published in the early 18th century, on which the Ouisiconsink (Wisconsin) River was spelled "Ouaricon-sint", broken on two lines with the -sint below, so there appeared to be a river flowing to the west named "Ouaricon."
According to the Oregon Tourism Commission, present-day Oregonians / pronounce the state's name as "or-uh-gun, never or-ee-gone." After being drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2002, former Oregon Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington distributed "Orygun" stickers to members of the media as a reminder of how to pronounce the name of his home state. The stickers are sold by the University of Oregon Bookstore.
Oregon is 295 miles (475 km) north to south at longest distance, and 395 miles (636 km) east to west at longest distance. With an area of 98,381 square miles (254,810 km2), Oregon is slightly larger than the United Kingdom. It is the ninth largest state in the United States. Oregon's highest point is the summit of Mount Hood, at 11,249 feet (3,429 m), and its lowest point is the sea level of the Pacific Ocean along the Oregon Coast. Oregon's mean elevation is 3,300 feet (1,006 m). Crater Lake National Park is the state's only national park and the site of Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States at 1,943 feet (592 m). Oregon claims the D River as the shortest river in the world, though the state of Montana makes the same claim of its Roe River. Oregon is also home to Mill Ends Park (in Portland), the smallest park in the world at 452 square inches (0.29 m2).
Oregon is split into eight geographical regions. In Western Oregon: Oregon Coast (west of the Coast Range), the Willamette Valley, Rogue Valley, Cascade Range and Klamath Mountains; and in Central and Eastern Oregon: the Columbia Plateau, the High Desert, and the Blue Mountains.
Oregon lies in two time zones. Most of Malheur County is in the Mountain Time Zone, while the rest of the state lies in the Pacific Time Zone.
Western Oregon's mountainous regions, home to three of the most prominent mountain peaks of the United States including Mount Hood, were formed by the volcanic activity of the Juan de Fuca Plate, a tectonic plate that poses a continued threat of volcanic activity and earthquakes in the region. The most recent major activity was the 1700 Cascadia earthquake. Washington's Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, an event visible from northern Oregon and affecting some areas there.
The Columbia River, which forms much of Oregon's northern border, also played a major role in the region's geological evolution, as well as its economic and cultural development. The Columbia is one of North America's largest rivers, and one of two rivers to cut through the Cascades (the Klamath River in southern Oregon is the other). About 15,000 years ago, the Columbia repeatedly flooded much of Oregon during the Missoula Floods; the modern fertility of the Willamette Valley is largely a result of those floods. Plentiful salmon made parts of the river, such as Celilo Falls, hubs of economic activity for thousands of years.
Today, Oregon's landscape varies from rain forest in the Coast Range to barren desert in the southeast, which still meets the technical definition of a frontier. Oregon's geographical center is further west than any of the other 48 contiguous states (although the westernmost point of the lower 48 states is in Washington). Central Oregon's geographical features range from high desert and volcanic rock formations resulting from lava beds. The Oregon Badlands Wilderness is in this region of the state.
Typical of a western state, Oregon is home to a unique and diverse array of wildlife. Roughly 60 percent of the state is covered in forest, while the areas west of the Cascades are more densely populated by forest, making up around 80 percent of the landscape. Some 60 percent of Oregon's forests are within federal land. Oregon is the top timber producer of the lower 48 states.
Moose have not always inhabited the state but came to Oregon in the 1960s; the Wallowa Valley herd numbered about 60 as of 2013. Gray wolves were extirpated from Oregon around 1930 but have since found their way back; most of them reside in northeast Oregon, but there are now two packs living in the south-central part of the state. Although their existence in Oregon is unconfirmed, reports of grizzly bears still turn up, and it is probable some still move into eastern Oregon from Idaho.
Oregon is home to what is considered the largest single organism in the world, an Armillaria solidipes fungus beneath the Malheur National Forest of eastern Oregon.
Oregon has three national park sites: Crater Lake National Park in the southern part of the Cascades, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument east of the Cascades, and Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks on the north coast.
Oregon's climate is generally mild. The state has an oceanic climate west of the Cascade Range. The climate varies with dense evergreen mixed forests spreading across much of the west, and a high desert sprawling to the east. The state's southwestern portion, particularly the Rogue Valley, has a Mediterranean climate with drier and sunnier winters and hotter summers, similar to Northern California.
Oregon's northeastern portion has a steppe climate, and the high terrain regions have a subarctic climate. Like Western Europe, Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest in general, is considered warm for its latitude, and the state has far milder winters at a given elevation than comparable latitudes elsewhere in North America, such as the Upper Midwest, Ontario, Quebec and New England.
Western Oregon's climate is heavily influenced by the Pacific Ocean. The western third of Oregon is very wet in the winter, moderately to very wet during the spring and fall, and dry during the summer. The relative humidity of Western Oregon is high except during summer days, which are semi-dry to semi-humid; Eastern Oregon typically sees low humidity year-round.
The eastern two thirds of Oregon have cold, snowy winters and very dry summers. Much of the east is semiarid to arid like the rest of the Great Basin, though the Blue Mountains are wet enough to support extensive forests. Most of Oregon receives significant snowfall, but the Willamette Valley, where 60 percent of the population lives, has considerably milder winters for its latitude and typically only sees light snowfall.
Oregon's highest recorded temperature is 119 °F (48 °C) at Pendleton on August 10, 1898, and the lowest recorded temperature is −54 °F (−48 °C) at Seneca on February 10, 1933.
Humans have inhabited the area that is now Oregon for at least 15,000 years. In recorded history, mentions of the land date to as early as the 16th century. During the 18th and 19th centuries, European powers – and later the United States – quarreled over possession of the region until 1846, when the U.S. and Great Britain finalized division of the region. Oregon became a state on February 14, 1859, and as of 2015 is home to over 4 million residents.
While there is considerable evidence that Paleo-Indians inhabited the region, the oldest evidence of habitation in Oregon was found at Fort Rock Cave and the Paisley Caves in Lake County. Archaeologist Luther Cressman dated material from Fort Rock to 13,200 years ago, and there is evidence supporting inhabitants in the region at least 15,000 years ago. By 8000 BC there were settlements throughout the state, with populations concentrated along the lower Columbia River, in the western valleys, and around coastal estuaries.
During the prehistoric period, the Willamette Valley region was flooded after the collapse of glacial dams from Lake Missoula, located in what would later become Montana. These massive floods occurred during the last glacial period and filled the valley with 300 to 400 feet (91 to 122 m) of water.
By the 16th century, Oregon was home to many Native American groups, including the Chinook, Coquille (Ko-Kwell), Bannock, Chasta, Kalapuya, Klamath, Klickitat, Molalla, Nez Perce, Takelma, Killamuk, Neah-kah-nie, Umatilla, and Umpqua.
The first Europeans to visit Oregon were Spanish explorers led by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who sighted southern Oregon off the Pacific coast in 1543. Francis Drake made his way to Nehalem Bay in 1579 and spent five weeks in the middle of summer repairing his ship. He claimed the land between 38–48 degrees north latitude as a Symbolic Sovereign Act for England. Exploration was retaken routinely in 1774, starting with the expedition of the frigate Santiago by Juan José Pérez Hernández (see Spanish expeditions to the Pacific Northwest), and the coast of Oregon became a valuable trading route to Asia. In 1778, British captain James Cook also explored the coast.
French Canadian and métis trappers and missionaries arrived in the eastern part of the state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many having travelled as members of Lewis and Clark and the 1811 Astor expeditions. Some stayed permanently, including Étienne Lussier, believed to be the first European farmer in the state of Oregon. The evidence of this French Canadian presence can be found in the numerous names of French origin in that part of the state, including Malheur Lake and the Malheur River, the Grande Ronde and Deschutes rivers, and the city of La Grande.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition travelled through northern Oregon also in search of the Northwest Passage. They built their winter fort in 1805–06 at Fort Clatsop, near the mouth of the Columbia River, staying at the encampment from December until March.
British explorer David Thompson also conducted overland exploration. In 1811, while working for the North West Company, Thompson became the first European to navigate the entire Columbia River. Stopping on the way, at the junction of the Snake River, he posted a claim to the region for Great Britain and the North West Company. Upon returning to Montreal, he publicized the abundance of fur-bearing animals in the area.
Also in 1811, New Yorker John Jacob Astor financed the establishment of Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River as a western outpost to his Pacific Fur Company; this was the first permanent European settlement in Oregon.
In the War of 1812, the British gained control of all Pacific Fur Company posts. The Treaty of 1818 established joint British and American occupancy of the region west of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. By the 1820s and 1830s, the Hudson's Bay Company dominated the Pacific Northwest from its Columbia District headquarters at Fort Vancouver (built in 1825 by the district's chief factor, John McLoughlin, across the Columbia from present-day Portland).
In 1841, the expert trapper and entrepreneur Ewing Young died leaving considerable wealth and no apparent heir, and no system to probate his estate. A meeting followed Young's funeral, at which a probate government was proposed. Doctor Ira Babcock of Jason Lee's Methodist Mission was elected supreme judge. Babcock chaired two meetings in 1842 at Champoeg, (halfway between Lee's mission and Oregon City), to discuss wolves and other animals of contemporary concern. These meetings were precursors to an all-citizen meeting in 1843, which instituted a provisional government headed by an executive committee made up of David Hill, Alanson Beers, and Joseph Gale. This government was the first acting public government of the Oregon Country before annexation by the government of the United States. It was succeeded by a Second Executive Committee, made up of Peter G. Stewart, Osborne Russell, and William J. Bailey, and this committee was itself succeeded by George Abernethy, who was the first and only Governor of Oregon under the provisional government.
Also in 1841, Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, reversed the Hudson's Bay Company's long-standing policy of discouraging settlement because it interfered with the lucrative fur trade. He directed that some 200 Red River Colony settlers be relocated to HBC farms near Fort Vancouver, (the James Sinclair expedition), in an attempt to hold Columbia District.
Starting in 1842–43, the Oregon Trail brought many new American settlers to the Oregon Country. For some time, it seemed that Britain and the United States would go to war for a third time in 75 years (see Oregon boundary dispute), but the border was defined peacefully in 1846 by the Oregon Treaty. The border between the United States and British North America was set at the 49th parallel. The Oregon Territory was officially organized on August 13, 1848.
Settlement increased with the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 and the forced relocation of the native population to Indian reservations in Oregon.
In December 1844, Oregon passed its Black Exclusion Law, which prohibited African Americans from entering the territory while simultaneously prohibiting slavery. Slave owners who brought their slaves with them were given three years before they were forced to free them. Any African Americans in the region after the law was passed were forced to leave, and those who did not comply were arrested and beaten. They received no less than twenty and no more than thirty-nine stripes across their bare back. If they still did not leave, this process could be repeated every six months. Slavery played a major part in Oregon's history and even influenced its path to statehood. The territory's request for statehood was delayed several times, as members of Congress argued among themselves whether the territory should be admitted as a "free" or "slave" state. Eventually politicians from the south agreed to allow Oregon to enter as a "free" state, in exchange for opening slavery to the southwest United States.
Oregon was admitted to the Union on February 14, 1859. Founded as a refuge from disputes over slavery, Oregon had a "whites only" clause in its original state Constitution. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, regular U.S. troops were withdrawn and sent east. Volunteer cavalry recruited in California were sent north to Oregon to keep peace and protect the populace. The First Oregon Cavalry served until June 1865.
Beginning in the 1880s, the growth of railroads expanded the state's lumber, wheat, and other agricultural markets, and the rapid growth of its cities. Due to the abundance of timber and waterway access via the Willamette River, Portland became a major force in the lumber industry of the Pacific Northwest, and quickly became the state's largest city. It would earn the nickname "Stumptown," and would later become recognized as one of the most dangerous port cities in the United States due to racketeering and illegal activities at the turn of the 20th century. In 1902, Oregon introduced direct legislation by the state's citizens through initiatives and referenda, known as the Oregon System.
On May 5, 1945, six people were killed by a Japanese bomb that exploded on Gearhart Mountain near Bly. This is the only fatal attack on the United States mainland committed by a foreign nation since the Mexican–American War, making Oregon the only U.S. state that has experienced fatal casualties by a foreign army since 1848, as Hawaii was not yet a state when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. The bombing site is now called the Mitchell Recreation Area.
Industrial expansion began in earnest following the 1933–37 construction of the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Hydroelectric power, food, and lumber provided by Oregon helped fuel the development of the West, although the periodic fluctuations in the U.S. building industry have hurt the state's economy on multiple occasions. Portland in particular experienced a population boom between 1900 and 1930, tripling in size; the arrival of World War II also provided the northwest region of the state with an industrial boom, where Liberty ships and aircraft carriers were constructed.
During the 1970s, the Pacific Northwest was particularly affected by the 1973 oil crisis, with Oregon suffering a substantial shortage.
In 1994, Oregon became the first U.S. state to legalize physician-assisted suicide through the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. A measure to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Oregon was approved on November 4, 2014, making Oregon only the second state at the time to have legalized gay marriage, physician-assisted suicide, and recreational marijuana.
Oregon's population is largely concentrated in the Willamette Valley, which stretches from Eugene in the south (home of the University of Oregon) through Corvallis (home of Oregon State University) and Salem (the capital) to Portland (Oregon's largest city).
Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River, was the first permanent English-speaking settlement west of the Rockies in what is now the United States. Oregon City, at the end of the Oregon Trail, was the Oregon Territory's first incorporated city, and was its first capital from 1848 until 1852, when the capital was moved to Salem. Bend, near the geographic center of the state, is one of the ten fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States. In southern Oregon, Medford is a rapidly growing metro area and is home to the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport, the state's third-busiest airport. To the south, near the California border, are the communities of Ashland and Grants Pass.