Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 1/Not Marjoram: The Spanish Word "Oregano" Not the Original of Oregon



The textbooks in the hands of our children in the public schools continue to furnish them with the erroneous information that the name of the State of Oregon was derived from the word "oregano,' the Spanish name for the plant that we call marjoram. This is mere conjecture, absolutely without support. More than this, it is completely disproved by all that is known of the history of the name. There is nothing in the records of the Spanish navigators, nothing in the history of Spanish exploration or discovery, that indicates even in the faintest way that this was the origin of the name, or that the Spaniards called this country or any portion of it by that name. There is marjoram here, indeed; and at a time long after the Spaniards had discontinued their northern coast voyages it was suggested that the presence of marjoram (oregano) here had led the Spaniards to call the country "Oregon."

From the year 1535 the Spaniards, from Mexico, made frequent voyages of exploration along the Pacific Coast towards the north. The main object was the discovery of a passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Consequently the explorers paid little attention to the country itself. After a time, finding the effort to discover a passage fruitless, they desisted for a long period. But after the lapse of two centuries they began to establish settlements on the coast of California; and then voyages towards the north were resumed by some of their navigators. In 1775 the mouth of the Columbia River was seen by Heceta, but, owing to the force of the current, he was unable to enter. The fact here to be noted is that the Spaniards of that day did not call the country Oregon, or, if they did, they have left no record of it.

But even before the discovery of the Columbia River by Heceta the name of Oregon appeared in another quarter. Jonathan Carver, of Connecticut, who had served as a captain in the colonial war against the French, set out from Boston in 1766 and proceeded by way of the Great Lakes to the region of the Upper Mississippi, now forming the States of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. He returned to Boston in October, 1768, and then went over to England, where his "Travels' were published. From that journey to the Upper Mississippi region he brought back the name of Oregon, which he says he obtained from the Indians there. "From these nations,' he says, "together with my own observations, I have learned that the four most capital rivers of the Continent of North America, viz., the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, the Bourbon (flowing into Hudson's Bay), and the Oregon, or River of the West, have their, sources in the same neighborhood. The waters of the three former are within thirty miles of each other; the latter, however, is rather farther west."

Carver, of course, had a geographical theory, and was seeking to verify it. This is the first mention of the name of Oregon that has yet been discovered. Carver either invented the word, or produced it from imitation of some word spoken by the Indians. There certainly was no "oregano," or marjoram, about it.

The word "oregano,' it may be noted, has curious usage in Spanish authors. One of Sancho's proverbs, literally translated, runs thus: "Pray God, it may prove marjoram, and not turn out caraway for us.' It is said to be unexplainable why marjoram and caraway in Spain should have been taken as types of the desirable and undesirable. In another place Sancho says: "I would not have him marjoram (oregano), for covetousness bursts the bag, and the covetous governor does ungoverned justice." Here the word is used in the sense of "eager for gain."

Others have professed or proposed to derive the name of Oregon from the Spanish word "oreja," the ear supposing that the Spaniards noted the big ears of the native Indians and named the country from the circumstance. But the Spaniards themselves have left no record of the kind; nor has it been noted, so far as we are aware, that the ears of our Indians were remarkably large. The word "orejon" is nearer our form; it signifies "slice of dried apple," we may suppose from its resemblance to the form of the ear. Many years ago Archbishop Blanchet, of Oregon, while in Peru, noted a peculiar use of this word "orejon" in that country, which he ingeniously conjectured might throw some light on the origin of the name of Oregon.

But it is unnecessary to formulate any fanciful theory. The name of Oregon first appears in Carver's book of "Travels" in the Upper Mississippi region in 1766-67. Did he invent the name? Probably. Did he get it from the Indians? Possibly something like it. But it never has been discovered among the Indians of that country since Carver's time, nor anything like it. There remains a possible supposition that French travelers who had passed through that country some years before, and had proceeded on their westward journey far toward the Rocky Mountains, and then returned, had been making inquiries among the Indians as to the great western river that all geographers had postulated, and had spoken a word that the Indians had tried to imitate possibly "Aragon" knowing that the Spaniards had explored the western coasts, and intimating that the country by discovery might belong to Spain. But all these are fruitless conjectures.[1] We know where we find the name of Oregon first written, when it was written, and by whom; and the circumstances completely disprove the "oregaiio" and the "orejon" theories. A notable fact it is that a slight incident of Carver's career, so slight that he thought nothing about it the creation of a name, or the casual use of a name hitherto unknown has immortalized his own name upon the tongues of men dwelling in the region of his "Kiver of the West.' But Minnesota has not neglected him. She does justice to him in her records and historical transactions, and has not forgotten to name a county for him. He died in poverty and misery in London, January 31, 1780.


  1. Professor John Fisbe, in his "History of the United States," says that Oregon 'may perhaps be the Algonquin Wau-re-gan, 'beautiful water.'"