But one important contribution to our knowledge of the origin of the word Oregon has been made in the last 100 years. That was the discovery, not unexpected, that Jonathan Carver may have appropriated the name, but not the spelling, from a Major Robert Rogers, an English army officer who was commandant at the frontier military post at Mackinac during the time of Carver’s journey into the upper valley of the Mississippi.
Major Rogers used the form Ouragon or Ourigan in a petition or proposal for an exploring expedition into the country west of the Great Lakes. This was in London in 1765. His petition was not granted, but he was sent to Mackinac as commandant. Carver is the first person to have used the form Oregon in referring to the River of the West. For a short account of Carver, see Carver Glacier. His Travels Through the Interior Parts of Northern America was first published in 1778 and in the introduction occurs the following passage purporting to list the names of the four great rivers of the continent: “The River Bourbon, which empties itself into Hudson’s Bay; the Waters of Saint Lawrence, the Mississippi and the River Oregon, or the River of the West, that falls into the Pacific Ocean at the Straits of Annian.”
It is important to get clearly in mind the chronological sequence of Carver’s book and the petition prepared by major Rogers. Carver’s Travels was first published in London in 1778 from a manuscript finally prepared just previous to its publication, but to use Carver’s own words, was based upon “journals and charts” claimed to have been made during his journey to the west in 1766-67, and while at Mackinac in the fall of 1767. Kenneth Roberts’ historical novel Northwest Passage, 1937, has a good deal to say about Carver and his relations with Rogers. Rogers’ petition containing the name Ouragon was dated Aug. 1765, and his second petition containing the spelling Ourigan was dated Feb. 1772. A petition by Carver to the King’s Privy Council showing the original association of Carver with rogers for the purpose of the western exploration was acted on in May 1769, and another petition by Carver showing that the journals and charts previously mentioned had been and were still deposited with the Board of Trade in London is dated Nov. 1773. Not only did Major Rogers put into writing the name Ouragon during the year before he engaged Carver, but also none of Carver’s petitions, so far examined, contains the name Oregon as we spell it, although he mentions other localities. Malclom H. Clark, Jr.
The subsequent history of the word Oregon, and some of the theories of its origin were favorite themes of Harvey W. Scott, the famous early editor of the Oregonian. The compiler cannot do better than to reprint some of Mr. Scott’s editorial comments on the subject, but it must be borne in mind that there comments were not originally printed together, as they are here reproduced. “But the name Oregon came very slowly into notice. It was long after the publication of Carver’s book when it again made its appearance. The name seems not to have been known either to Vancouver or to Gray, since neither uses it. The latter, entering the river as a discoverer, called the river not the Oregon, but the Columbia, for his ship a fact which shows that the name Oregon was quite unknown. The name was not used by Lewis and Clark in the report of their travels; in Astor’s petition to Congress, presented in 1812, setting forth his claim to national assistance for his undertaking, on the ground that his efforts to establish trade here, under the sovereignty of the United States, would redound to the public security and advantage, the name Oregon is not used to designate or describe the country; nor is it used in the act of Congress passed in response to his petition, by which the American Fur Company was permitted to introduce here goods for the Indian trade. At this time, indeed, the name appears to have been quite unknown, and perhaps would have perished but for the poet Bryant, who evidently had happened, in his reading, upon the volume of Carver’s travels. The word suited the sonorous movement and solemn majesty of his verse, and he embalmed it in ‘Thanatopsis’ published in 1814-17, and the description therein of the distant solitudes and ‘continuous woods’ touched Bryant’s poetic spirit and recalled the name he had seen in Carver’s book. There are men whose susceptibility to literary excellence, whose skill and power in producing literary effects, giving us results of this kind.
The textbooks in the hands of our children in the public schools continue to furnish them with erroneous information that the name of the state of Oregon was derived from the word oregano, the Spanish name for the plant we call ‘marjoram. This is a mere conjecture absolutely without support. More than this, it is completely disproved by all that is known of the history of the name. There is nothing in the record of the Spanish navigators, nothing in the history of Spanish explorers or discovery, that indicates, even in the faintest way, that this was the origin of the name, or that the Spaniards called this country , or any part of it by that name. There is marjoram here, indeed; and at a long time after the Spaniards had discontinued their northern coast voyages. It was suggested that the presence of marjoram (oregano) here had led the Spaniards to call the country Oregon. From the year 1535 the Spaniards, from Mexico, made frequent voyages of exploration along the Pacific Coast toward the north. The main object was the discovery of a passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Consequently the explorers paid little attention to the country itself. After a time, finding the effort to discover a passage fruitless, they desisted for a long time. But after the laps of two centuries, they began settlements on the coast of California; and then voyages toward the north were resumed by some of their navigators. In 1775 the mouth of the Columbia River was seen by Heceta, but owing to the force of the current, he was unable to enter. The fact here to be noted is that the Spaniards of that day did not call the country Oregon, or if they did, they have left no record of it. Others have professed or proposed to derive the name Oregon from the Spanish word oreja (the ear), supposing that the Spaniards noted the big ears of the native Indians and named the country from the circumstance. But the Spaniards themselves have left no record of the kind; nor has it been noted, so as far as we are aware, that the ears of our Indians were remarkably long. The word orejon is nearer our form; it signifies ‘slice of dried apple’, we may suppose, from its resemblance to the form of the ear. Many years ago Archbishop F.N. Blanchet, of Oregon, while in Peru, noted a peculiar use of the word orejon in that country, which he ingeniously conjectured might throw some light on the origin of the name Oregon. We believe it probable that the name Oregon arose out of some circumstances connected with the western explorations of the French. Earlier than the English the French had pressed on westward from the Great Lakes to the Red River, to the Saskatchewan and to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. They were ranging the country of the upper Mississippi in search of furs and for trade with the natives; they were full of curiosity and active in inquiry about the great distant West and the unknown western sea. Of this sea they possessed Spanish charts and perhaps used among the natives the word Aragon as a homonym of Spain. When Jonathan Carver, of Connecticut, was on his expedition to the upper Mississippi country, in 1767-68, he made all possible inquiries, he tells us, about the country toward the west, the western river, and the sea and the word Oregon. Recent writers have shown that much of Carver’s book is made up of unacknowledged extracts from French explorers before him, particularly from Hennepin, Lahontan and Charlevoix; and, as Carver had no scholarship, it is believed the book was compiled in London, partly from Carver’s own story and partly from the records of French and English exploration.” Scott’s quoted comment that the name appears to have been quite unknown at the time of Astor’s expedition cannot be accepted as correct. Arrowsmith’s 1798 map of the river made from Broughton’s sketch is plainly titled Plan of the River Oregan, made from an Actual Survey.
The most plausible present explanation of the name Oregon is given by George R. Stewart. In an article in the American Speech, April 1944, and Names on the Land 1967, he propounds that the origin was an engraver’s error naming the Ouiscon-sink (Wisconsin) River on certain French editions of Lahontan’s map published in the early 1700’s In early editions the name was not only misspelled Ouaricon- sint but also hyphenated after Ouaricon – with the final syllable oddly offset. Stewart feels that Rogers heard secondhand of the River Ouaricon that flowed west somewhere beyond the Great Lakes and that he mistakenly or carelessly transformed the word first to Ouragon and then to Ourigan. The odd nomenclature did not occur in the English editions of the map so if Rogers had seen one, he would have had no reason to suspect the Ouaricon was merely the Wisconsin by another name. Previously for more than 50 years, the best opinion has been that the name originated from one of the three sources, French, Indian or Spanish. T. C. Elliott, in the OHQ, mentioned in the first paragraph under this heading, associated the names used by Major Rogers with the French word for storm, ouragan. William H. Galvani wrote of the possible Spanish origin of Oregon in OHQ, v.21, p. 332. Joaquin Miller suggested the Spanish oye agua, hear the water, as a source of Oregon in the Oregonian, Oct. 21, 1970, but this seems fanciful to the compiler. Thus the matter rests.
All information provided via : Oregon Geographic Names – Sixth Edition
by Lewis L. McArthur Oregon Historical Society Press