What’s in a name? On Oregon’s birthday, a Linfield scholar looks back

It’s Oregon’s 151st birthday, and Linfield celebrates the research of anthropology Professor Thomas Love, who teamed up with a Smithsonian Institution scholar to trace the tangled roots of Oregon’s name back to its origins.

Researchers have long been stymied by the fact that the word doesn’t appear in Indian languages west of the Mississippi, and so the two scholars followed an intricate trail of clues that connect the name to French and British explorers, New England Indian tribes, early maps and long-forgotten Indian dialects. They also drew on their combined knowledge of linguistics and details of spelling and pronunciation.

What resulted was the co-authored “Oregon, the Beautiful.” The paper details how Robert Rogers, a Bunyanesque frontier scout heading up scouts and irregular troops for the British army, heard the word “Wauregon,” which means “beautiful” or “beautiful river,” from Mohegan Indian scouts in New England. He used the word to name the fabled River of the West, whose existence was only rumored. And from there, a journey of twists and turns ensued, one that crossed the boundaries of history, geography, linguistics and anthropology.

“We found no smoking gun in the documents,” Love says of the lack of hard historical evidence. “But we think our argument is the most convincing to date.” So do the editors of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, who praised the scholarship with the 2005 Palmer Award.

For Love, the most gratifying aspect of the search has been satisfying his own inquisitiveness. “We pursued this research just for sheer curiosity and the intellectual puzzle it posed.”