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How Salem Got its Name 

Salem might have avoided being one of the many cities of the same name in the United States by adopting one of many other suggested names. When trustees of the Oregon Institute laid out the town, in 1846, the name Chemeketa was suggested by the Reverend Josiah Parrish. No one really knows what the term truly meant to the Kalapuya Indians who inhabited the area, but the white men interpreted this word to mean "resting place or meeting place".

How would Valena sound? Or Thurston, or Corvallis - all names suggested in the territorial legislature of 1853, along with Chemawa, Chemeketa, Willametta, Durham, Multnomah, Corrona, Bronson, Pike and Victoria. Thurston was an understandable choice, Sam Thurston was a much revered personage in early Oregon, the Territory's first representative to Congress who had died just two years earlier on his way home to Oregon. John D. Boone's suggestion was that "Algebra" be the town's new name. A late entry in the name game was a petition suggestion that Valleyopolis be selected.

Even after the town began to call itself Salem, not everyone was happy about it. In late 1853, Asahel Bush, the influential editor of the Oregon Statesman newspaper, launched a serious campaign to rename Salem. In a lengthy editorial December 13, he urged the adoption of Chemeketa rather than Salem since there were at that time 31 other Salems in the states and territories, one of which was in Marion County, Illinois!

Bush wanted to rename Salem to Chemeketa to recognize its original unique name. Bush stated this Indian name meant "Old home" or the "Old camping ground". (It isn't known what this term meant to the local Native Americans.) Bush argued there wasn't another Chemeketa on the planet.

The territorial legislature favored naming its capital city Chemawa until Rev. John Stipp presented a petition signed by a number of citizens urging the legislature not to choose an Indian name. When the final vote came in the legislature in January, 1854, Salem was retained.

Who named Salem and what does it mean?

W. H. Willson suggested Salem, the Anglicized version of the biblical name for peace, Shalom.

Or was the name Salem chosen by Reverend David Leslie, president of the trustees? Leslie had suggested a Biblical name by using the last part of the word Jerusalem.

Historians differ on the credit, but it was to somebody's credit that a certain suggestion wasn't adopted. - That was the name "Woronoco"!

In an action establishing Salem as the seat of government in the Oregon Territory, on December 1855, all attempts and "odd" name suggestions ceased and so, the capital city of Oregon has remained Salem ever since.

Complied by Monica Mersinger.

Statesman-Journal newspaper, November 13, 1971

Lewis H. Judson, "Who Gave Salem Its Name?", Marion County History Vol. IX, p. 49

Oregon Statesman, issues Nov 15, 1853; Dec 13, 1853; Jan 3, 1854; Jan. 10, 1854; Jan 24, 1854; Jan 23, 1855; Dec 25, 1855.

Illustrated Historical Atlas Map of Marion and Linn Counties Oregon, S.F. " Edgar Williamsn and Co, 1878, p. 24


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State Capitol with cherry blossoms

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