A small, prehistoric stone knife found here in 2012 has convinced some archaeologists that people have lived in what’s now Oregon for at least 15,000 years. Much later Native American tribes including the Paiute, Nez Perce, Shasta, Tillamook, Chinook, and many more lived on the land. Europeans are thought to have arrived in the 1500s. Upon reaching the region, both Spain and Great Britain claimed it for themselves.
In 1803 the United States bought a huge swath of land as part of the Louisiana Purchase. A year later President Thomas Jefferson sent American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to map the newly purchased territory as well as the land beyond, which included the region that’s now Oregon.
Starting in the 1840s American settlers arrived by way of the Oregon Trail, a more than 2,000-mile-long route for wagon trains. (Marks that wagon wheels left in the earth, called ruts, can still be seen today.) Soon there were so many Americans here that the European countries gave up their claim to the land, and in 1859 Oregon became the 33rd state.
WHY’S IT CALLED THAT?
Experts disagree on how Oregon got its name—and there are many theories. Some think it could’ve come from the French word ouragan meaning “hurricane,” a term used by French explorers to describe a super-windy area of the state. Others believe it may have been derived from the Chinook word oolighan, a type of fish these Native Americans ate.
Oregon was nicknamed the Beaver State because early settlers used to trap these animals for their fur.
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDFORMS
Oregon is bordered by Washington in the north, Idaho in the east, Nevada and California in the south, and the Pacific Ocean in the west. The land can be divided into six areas of lowlands, plateaus, and mountains.
The Columbia Plateau is Oregon’s largest geographical region, and it fills almost the entire eastern half of the state. Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America, is here. The canyon is on average 5,500 feet deep—nearly five stacked Eiffel Towers could fit inside!
South of the Columbia Plateau is the Basin and Range Region, which is mostly semi-arid and contains a few steep mountains.
Running north to south through the state are the Cascade Mountains, an area of major highs and lows. These include Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest point at 11,245 feet, and Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States at a depth of 1,943 feet.
The Willamette Lowland is a narrow, fertile area in the northwest.
The Coast Range in the west has low, forested mountains, small lakes, and cliffs that follow the Pacific coast.
The Klamath Mountains—a rugged, forested area—cross Oregon’s southwest corner. Here you’ll find Oregon Caves National Monument.
Once hunted for its fur, the beaver—Oregon’s state animal—is common here. Other local mammals include Roosevelt elk, gray wolves, and wolverines. Burrowing owls, snowy plovers, sage grouse, and osprey are some of Oregon’s avian residents. Reptiles such as western pond turtles and Oregon alligator lizards creep through the state. Meanwhile spotted frogs, Pacific giant salamanders, and coastal tailed frogs are a few of the area’s amphibians.
Oregon’s most common type of tree is the Douglas fir (the state tree). Oregon is also known for hemlock, red alder, bigleaf maple, and ponderosa pine. Wildflowers such as creeping Oregon grape, sticky purple geranium, white mule’s ears, and heal-all (sometimes used to sooth sore throats) grow in Oregon.
Oregon provides the most softwood lumber in the United States. Sunstone (the official state gem), opal, agate, and jade are also mined here.
—Author Beverly Cleary, journalist Ann Curry, Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, and chef James Beard have all lived in Oregon.
—At 1,943 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States.
—Oregon has the world’s only Big Foot trap, located in Siskiyou National Forest. (Though most people don’t believe that this creature actually exists.)
—Steller sea lions live year-round in the sea caves and caverns of Oregon’s coast.