How did Portland get its name? by Alex Zerbach

How The City Of Portland Got It’s Name

If you grew up in Portland Oregon then there's a good chance you know how the city got it’s name. But if you are new to Portland or haven’t heard the story it goes a little like this.
Of course it all starts with Lewis & Clark, the famed explorers and adventurers who set off from the Eastern parts of the United States in search of a better life and unlimited opportunity in what was West of the Mississippi river. They sailed from St. Louis in 1804 and ended their voyage in the Pacific Northwest where they stayed for a couple of years.

(This image is looking up the Columbia river near Memaloose Island and was taken between 1860-1920)

Before Oregon was Oregon it was called the Oregon Territory and it spanned a much bigger distance in the 1800’s then it does today. Back then, the Oregon Territory stretched from Canada to parts of California and as far East as the Rockies. That means if the Oregon Territory were still recognized today it would have Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and parts of Montana and California within it’s borders.

When Lewis & Clark came back to Washington D.C. they of course shared the news about how plentiful the Western part of the country was, with it’s lush forests, beautiful rivers and lakes, and expansive amounts of unclaimed land.
Here is where many of the first American entrepreneurs got their start
As one would expect, many opportunistic settlers and entrepreneurs hopped on the opportunity to claim some of this new territory and call it their own.
This is where the Oregon Trail comes into the picture. The Oregon Trail is a 2,200-mile (3,500 km) historic east–west large-wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon. It was established from 1811 to 1840 by fur trappers and traders and was only accessible by foot or horseback.

Asa Lovejoy


Two of the main characters of our story enter the picture as they journey along the Oregon Trail. Asa Lovejoy, an attorney and politician, came over on the Oregon Trial in 1842. He was briefly held hostage by a group of Native Americans before being freed and continuing on his journey. Asa was accompanied by William Overton, a Tennessee drifter.

After the two men reached the Oregon Territory they decided to canoe down the Willamette River. They stopped in what is now called Portland Oregon and decided to stake their claim.

Back in the 1800’s you were allowed to file a land claim. The government allowed you to pay a small fee in order to take ownership of that land. The purpose behind this practice was to encourage settlers to pack up and move West to grow the country in size and power.

Overton and Lovejoy split a claim for 640 acres of land, which is about 1 square mile, along the Willamette River. We can assume that the original claim is somewhere on the waterfront in current day Downtown Portland.

Hard to believe that you could buy a piece of America for half of a dollar. $1 of 1843 dollars would be worth: $32.26 in 2015. So Lovejoy and Overton bought Portland Oregon for roughly $16 of today’s dollars.

As Overton and Lovejoy worked tirelessly on clearing trees and building structures for their new town, William Overton decided to move on. He sold his share of the 640 acre claim to Francis Pettygrove for $50, a healthy return on investment for Overton. Pettygrove was originally from Portland Maine and like most Americans moving West, was seeking fortune on the Oregon Trail.  

Fun Fact: Francis Pettygrove also founded Port Townsend in Washington State.
The naming of Portland came down to a coin toss

(This picture of Portland was taken in 1902)

So now the two men own what would eventually be called Portland. But how did the city of Portland get it’s name? You might have caught on above that Francis Pettygrove was from Portland Maine and Asa Lovejoy was from Boston Massachusetts. The time had come for them to agree on a name to call their newly established city. The two men did what any civilized human being would do whenever a tough decision needs to be made. They flipped a coin. The winner of the coin toss would get the rights to call the city whatever he desired. As the tale goes, and history supports these claims, Francis Pettygrove won and called the new city Portland after his beloved Portland Maine home town. So there you have it. The city of Portland Oregon was named after the city of Portland Maine due to a coin flip in the 1800’s. Evidence of all 3 men can be seen in Portland to this day, as each man has a street named after him.

Look at Portland now

Portland has grown a lot since 1843 when Asa Lovejoy and William Overton first traveled along the Oregon Trail to get here. The current population of Portland is north of 500,000 people and the city is still a beautiful cornerstone of the Pacific Northwest.

We at Portland Gear love the history, culture, and people of Portland Oregon. We embrace the past and are excited for the future. We have roots in Portland and can appreciate these men’s sacrifice to stake their claim and found Portland Oregon.

 Written by: Alex Zerbach


Marcus Harvey
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