Salem History Facts and Timeline

(Salem, Oregon - OR, USA)

Lying on the northwestern side of Oregon, the state capital, Salem, offers an interesting history dating back more than 10,000 years, when Native American ethnic tribes of Kalapuya people lived here.

It is widely believed by historians that close to 20,000 of the successful Kalapuyas lived around the Willamette Valley. Their numbers were so high since they lived well off the land, hunting for deer, fishing in the Willamette River, and gathering an assortment of wild food from the surrounding fields and woods.

When European Americans began to explore the Salem area at the beginning of the 19th century, the population of Kalapuya people witnessed a rapid decline. These explorers unwittingly brought various diseases with them, diseases that the native Indians had never been exposed to and therefore had little or no immunity against, such as smallpox.

American Colonization of Salem

The earliest permanent settlement based in this part of Oregon took place at the very beginning of the 1840s, thanks to a mission led by American pioneer and missionary Jason Lee. He set up his community roughly 13 miles / 21 km to the north of modern-day downtown Salem, in an area named Wheatland.

His missionaries founded the Oregon Institute in the year 1842, on the site that was later to become Salem. The Oregon Institute grew in size and stature to become the Willamette University, which currently boasts more than 2,500 students and a campus spreading roughly 32 hectares / 80 acres.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Kalapuyas were relocated by the US government to the westerly Grand Ronde Reservation and at that time in history, their population had fallen below the 1,000 mark.

Territorial Capital

In 1851, the legislative body of Oregon chose to move the capital of the territory from Oregon City to Salem. This elevation in status was relatively short-lived, since the capital was moved once more, in 1855, to the neighboring town of Corvallis, some 37 miles / 60 km to the southwest. However, it soon became apparent that this relocation of the capital was not a successful one and in a matter of months, Salem's capital status was returned. A fairly modest two-story Capitol Building was constructed, although just two months after its completion, the Capitol was sadly destroyed by fire.

The year 1857 was an important one in Salem history, since the town was officially incorporated as a city. Just two years later, Oregon became the 33rd member of the United States of America, with Salem naturally serving as the esteemed state capital.

Commerce, Transport and Growth

Steamboats soon became a common site on the Willamette River, connecting both Oregon City to the northeast and Eugene to the south. Goods were exported and imported via the Pringle Creek and the city enjoyed a prosperous period. Intermittent seasonal flooding was a problem that Salem found itself coping with, although the major flood of 1861 necessitated a huge cleanup operation afterwards, since many farms suffered a great deal of damage.

Other important dates in Salem history include the construction of the second Oregon State Capitol in 1876, at which time the population had reached an all-time high of 2,500 people. A railway linking Portland came into being in 1872, followed by a bridge spanning the Willamette River in 1886. More flooding and an economic depression came next, along with a modern sewerage system, new schools and many improvements in downtown Salem, including a streetcar service.

Women's rights were improved in the second decade of the 20th century, and the Oregon Pulp and Paper Company opened in 1920 at the Pringle Creek. This was followed soon after by the completion of the Salem General Hospital and the opening of both the Capitol Center (then named the Livesley Building) and the Elsinore Theater. Corban University welcomed its first set of students in 1935, the same year that the stately Capitol Building burnt to the ground, being rebuilt over the next three years.

The 1950s saw the arrival of the Marion County Courthouse and the Detroit Dam, to the east of Salem. A few decades on, the 1980s was a period when the neighborhoods of Gaiety Hill and Court-Chemeketa gained the status of National Historic Districts. History also remembers the late 1990s, when the scenic Riverfront Park was finally completed after some 50 years' worth of planning. Today, Salem continues to play a key part in Oregon's finance, politics and tourism.