Most Salemites have a visual image of how their county appears
on the map of Oregon, - - rather like an old-fashioned key pointing
east. Less familiar, however, is the fact that Marion County
is virtually an island, surrounded as it is on all four sides
by water. The Willamette River borders the county on the north
and west; the Santiam River serves as its southern border, and
the Pudding River and Butte Creek are its eastern border.
One Large County
It was not always so. In the early 1840s, when officials
delineated the four districts that comprised the Oregon Country,
Champoeg/Marion stretched east from the Willamette to the
Great Divide and south to the California and Nevada borders.
By 1853, when Washington Territory was separated from Oregon,
the northern, southern, and western borders remained as they
are today but, easterly, the County extended to the Rocky
Mountains. Not until 1856 did Marion County acquire its present
Name Change to Marion
Champoeg County had been renamed Marion in September of 1849
- - a total departure from the previous use of local names
as the other three original districts were Clackamas, Yamhill,
and Tuality. As of Oregons receiving Territorial status,
many new counties were formed from those districts: Washington,
Linn, Benton, and Polk (all of which reflected a place or
person significant to Oregons history).
How, then to account for Marion, named in honor of a Revolutionary
War hero, General Francis Marion, the legendary "Swamp
Fox?" As General Marion was long gone from the American
scene by that time, having died in South Carolina in 1795,
and, as most of the new Oregon officials had not served with
Marions militia troops in the Revolution at all, there
must have been some other reason for his name being chosen
for a county 3,000 miles away.
It is tempting to speculate that some of the earliest settlers
might have been from South Carolina and urged the adoption
of one of their states most illustrious heroes for the
County name. Not so in this case, for most were Yankees from
New England, New York, and points in the Northern tier of
states; none had originally come from South Carolina, although
there were two Southerners prominent in Oregons Provisional
government: Georgian James ONeil (who had provided the
form for Oregons Constitution), and Virginian Joseph
L. Meek (Oregons first U.S. Marshal).
There is however, the possibility that one of Oregons
very earliest settlers actually knew of General Marion during
the Revolution, William Cannon. By 1780, the main theater
of action in the War had moved to the Southern colonies; Cannon,
born in 1762 Virginia, would have been old enough to serve
with some of the Southern militia units and, either heard
firsthand of Marions exploits, or may have even met
him on the battlefield.
Another possible explanation may be that pre-1849 settlers
had come from states that already had Marion Counties, or
they were familiar with counties by that name through which
they had passed on their way to Oregon. In the Eastern states
were 14 so-named counties, the closest to Oregon being that
of Marion County, Iowa, and one Eastern county even had a
Salem for its Marion County seat - - Illinois. Those Eastern
states with Marion Counties in them were Alabama, Arkansas,
Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi,
Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Adding
Oregon, Kansas, and West Virginia later, the total is now
A further logical reason behind the change from Champoeg
to Marion at that particular point in time is that the latest
of at least three version of General Marions life had
been published just five years before, extolling the heros
exploits in the War for Independence. Or, perhaps, the choice
of Marion for our Countys name was simply a combination
of all three of these circumstances.
County Government Organizes
Initially, County governance rested in the hands of a
probate court consisting of three appointees; these first
Marion County officials were Turner Crump, Benjamin Walden,
and Isaac N. Gilbert (who served as clerk).
Volume I of their deliberations began in August of 1849,
and recorded the matters of concern to a young county:
- settling estates,
- selecting grand jury members,
- addressing petitions for grocery and ferry licenses or
for new roads,
- granting divorces,
- building bridges, and
- appointing election judges for the various precincts,
as well as determining the extent of those voting precincts
In the absence of a Courthouse in which to hold their sessions,
the Court met at the Judson-McLain house located at what is
now 960 Broadway NE as well as in private houses or church
buildings.. A note in the journal of their proceedings mentions
paying a rent of $5 for two days use of the Judson-McLain
house for their May term. The house was once the home of Jason
Lee, and it is thought to be the second oldest building in
Oregon. It was also the home of the Honorable Rueben Patrick
Boise at the time of his death, April 10, 1907. This building
was perhaps the very first "courthouse" was moved
to its present site as a part of Mission Mill Village in Salem.
At their December 1850 session, the court designated eight
precincts for the county: Champoeg, Abacaw, Northern, LaBiche,
Howell Prairie, Salem, Santiam, and Mill Creek. the Justices
of the Peace appointed for the various precincts were: For
Champoeg, Robert Newell; for Abacaw; Samuel Allen; for Northern,
James Pervine; for LaBiche, W.A. Golden; for Howell Prairie,
William Greenwood; for Santiam, Thomas Holt. No justices were
appointed for Salem's and Mill Creek's precincts as Probate
Judges Crump and Walden served in that capacity for those
precincts. Through the years since 1850, as the county filled
with towns and new settlers, the original eight precincts
have expanded now to 126. A County jail was built in 1852
at the corner of Church St. and Ferry St. the present location
of DeLynn's Cleaners, 198 Church St. NE.
Dr. William H. Willson, an agent for the Board of the Oregon
Institute (Willamette University) designated the present courthouse
site "for Public purposes". The site is located
between High and Church Streets, west to east, and State and
Court Streets, south to north. To Finance the construction
of a courthouse, Dr. Willson even donated nine city lots to
be sold at auction to help build the courthouse. The lots
sold for %90 to $215 per lot. Construction began in 1853 after
prizes were offered for the best design and plans. Albert
W. Ferguson won the $30 prize. The total cost of construction
was $15,703.93. Not until 1854, when the first Courthouse
was completed, was there a site dedicated to the exclusive
use of Marion Countys Court. The building was a simple,
two-story frame building, 68 feet long and 40 feet wide, with
four doric columns on the front and a cupola on top. It also
served as the site of the Oregon Constitutional Convention
of 1857, which produced the fundamental charter approved by
Congress in 1859 admitting Oregon into statehood.
In the meantime, the jail located on Church and Ferry Streets
was destroyed by fire, and in 1858, the County Commissioner's
Court authorized construction of a new jail for $8,000 on
the courthouse block. It was a two-story brick building, 34
feet long and 25 feet wide containing three cells. Located
on the southeast corner of the block, the site is now the
south end of the present parking structure. This jail served
its purpose until the second courthouse was built in 1873.
By 1870, it had become apparent that a new courthouse was
needed to serve the county and the courts. The site selected
was that of the first courthouse, so that necessitated removal
of the first courthouse. Also obvious was that county and
court business should not be unduly interrupted during the
period of construction. An agreement was negotiated to move
the old courthouse to a nearby site and restore and maintain
it for interim use during construction of the new courthouse.
The structure was relocated to what is now 455 Court St NE
and is presently occupied by Whitlock's Vacuum Cleaner Clinic.
The buildings last use before it was dismantled was as a livery
stable in 1903.
Form of Government Changes
In 1963, the Marion County Court was replaced by a Board
of Commissioners. And so it continues to this day: three county
commissioners with the addition of six officers:
- District Attorney,
- Sheriff, and
- Administrative Officer.
These are now elective, not appointive, offices. All of these
officials are located in Salem for, besides being the states
capital, Salem also serves as the County seat.
Though one of the smaller of Oregons 36 counties,
at 1,194 square miles, Marion ranks fifth in population. As
of 1999, the Countys residents numbered 275,250 and
may have reached 300,000 by now. In influence, however, it
ranks first as the center of State government.
While a number of Marion Countys namesakes in the eastern
United States have already celebrated their bicentennials,
ours is some years in the future. However, in terms of continuous
occupancy by white men, Marion County stands next only to
Clatsop County and the establishment of Astoria in 1810.
An early post of the Pacific Fur Company was located in the
extreme northwest of Marion County as early as 1812; it was
this installation that first exposed the various fur company
employees to the favorable nature of the Willamette Valley
for cultivation, and assured that the first retirees from
Company service would choose to settle here.
Etienne Lucier is usually credited with being the first to
establish a farm on what came to be called French Prairie;
that was in 1829. As he was joined by other retired Hudsons
Bay Company men and their families, the areas viability
as an agricultural center grew and became a natural magnet
for the Lee mission and later settlers from the East. It was
no coincidence that Oregons Statehood history began
on the bluffs above the Willamette at Champoeg - - for that
was where the greatest concentration of white settlers could
By that reckoning, old Marion County could celebrate its
bicentennial in just a few short years.
Written by Sue Bell - Contributed on February 4, 2003
Ralph N. Preston, "Early Oregon Atlas" (Ptld: Binford
& Mort, 1978) pp. 54-55.
M.V. McKeon, "General Marion, Hero of the Pioneers,"
Marion County HISTORY, Vol. 3, p. 61., p. 64.
Caroline C. Dobb, "Men of Champoeg" (Ptld: Metropolitan
Press, Publishers, 1932) pp. 51 and 125.
McKeon, op. cit., p. 61.
William Gilmore Simms, "The Life of Francis Marion"
Probate Court and Count Commissioners Court Journal, Vol.
I (OR Archives).
"The Courthouses of Marion County", Historic Marion,
Winter, 2001 by Richard D. Barber.
Oregon Blue Book 2001-2002, p. 259, 276.
Chester C. Kaiser, "Champoeg, The Birth Place of Oregon,"
Marion County HISTORY, Vol. 2, p. 27.
Harriet D. Munnick, "Oregons First Farmer"
Marion County HISTORY, Vol. 3, p. 9.