The year was 1841, and in the wild frontier of Oregon Country, a Methodist mission established by Jason Lee was laying down the foundation of a settlement near the Kalapuyan village of Tchimikiti. Once rooted, Lee began work on a town near the mission, which he named Chemeketa, but the name didn’t last long. In 1846, William Willson renamed the town and thus, the city of Salem, Oregon, was born, with the name coming from the Arabic word “salam” which translates directly to “peace.”
And peace it was for newfound settlers as they became acquainted with the new land they now called home. Being located at a crossroads of trade and travel on these former prairie lands along the Willamette River meant a thriving and flourishing city. In fact, it was quickly designated the seat of Marion County in 1849. Then in 1859, after Salem was incorporated into the state of Oregon in 1857, it was established as the de facto state capital. By popular vote, it was assigned the title of official state capital in 1864, and as the saying goes, the rest was history.
And what a history it was! When Lee arrived in 1841, he quickly got to work on building a sawmill and grist mill in the area. His house was added the following year, and it was the first permanent non-Native residence in the region. Over the next three years, more than a thousand people traveled the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley, with many claiming land near Lee’s mission. Lee’s mission school ran into troubling times in 1844 and was subsequently closed down, with the property transferring over to William Willson, who then platted the town of Salem.
Since the city was quickly named a territorial capital, the city’s influence on territorial politics was also front and center during its formative years. It was increased when Asahel Bush and Samuel R. Thurston moved their newspaper, the “Oregon Statesman,” there in 1853. Bush used the publication to argue policy with Thomas Dryer of the Whig/Republican “Oregonian” in Portland. This public battle of wits became known as Oregon-Style Journalism, with the two parties repeatedly squaring off in the headlines for years to come. It wasn’t until the 1870s that things began to calm down between the two as a libel law was adopted and a state press association was formed that included a professional code of ethics.
Just like the city has been designated as the capital many times over in various forms during its formative years, it also tried on many different hats in the form of capitol buildings. There have been three capitol buildings in total since its formation. The first was a two-story statehouse that burned to the ground in December of 1855 after only being inhabited for two months.
The second building was completed in 1876 at the site of the original. This Revival-style building was modeled on the U.S. Capitol building, and it received its own distinctive copper dome in 1893. Sadly, this building was also destroyed by a fire on April 25, 1935. But as the saying goes, the third time is the charm, and a third building was built yet again on the exact same site in 1938. Still standing today, this building is the current Oregon State Capitol building, complete with a distinctive pioneer statue atop the capitol dome plated with gold leaf and officially named the “Oregon Pioneer.”
Along with the capitol building, many other historical buildings and markers are still standing, sharing stories of the past so that today’s residents can learn the intricate history of the city they call home. They’re tales of hardship, prosperity, and growth, describing a beautiful spot of land that has provided for all since the first settlers’ arrival. It began with lumber and agriculture, both of which are still just as important today as they were back then and led to the prosperous city we see now.
So next time you find yourself just north of downtown on High Street near the Mill Creek Bridge, don’t forget to check out the historical marker there that maps the town’s earliest settlements. This marker tells the story of how it all began, and while you’re standing there, don’t forget that “Salem began here” as you’ll be standing on the site of the first sawmill and home of pioneer minister Jason Lee, who started it all.