Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

The Importance of Memory and Place: A Narrative of Oregon Geographic Names with Lewis L. McArthur

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

The Importance of Memory and Place: A Narrative of Oregon Geographic Names with Lewis L. McArthur

Article excerpt

GROWING UP IN THE SLEEPY Eastern Oregon town of Dayville, I knew my fair share of colorful place-names--Murderers Creek, Battle Creek, Mule, and Izee, for example. Murderers Creek held a particular fascination as it applies to a beautiful, meandering, cool country creek where riders water their horses and families picnic. When I asked another local child how Murderers Creek got its name, she replied that it was because a group of miners murdered a few Indians somewhere along its banks. Someone else told me that it was named for the killing of several of the wild horses that still roamed the hills and meadows. Since those credulous days, I have learned that the creek earned its name when a small party of Paiute Indians killed a group of prospectors who were investigating the potential of the creek. Murderers Creek is but one of thousands of place-names documented in Oregon Geographic Names, an important text that speaks to the long history of place and memory in Oregon.

The small bit of information offered in Oregon Geographic Names about the beautiful creek near my hometown may seem insignificant outside of Grant County, but the name is loaded with meaning. The name remarks on the presence of gold miners in the Dayville area, as well as the fact that, while the Civil War raged east of the Mississippi River, Indians still lived and fought in the John Day Valley. The moniker further notes the manner in which locals chose to memorialize the event. One hundred forty years later, the creek still flows, standing as a small marker of local history. In this manner, place-names not only serve as geographic markers but as cultural and historical markers, as well. Place-names give us value and a sense of shared community and memory.


Without Oregon Geographic Names, there would be many misremembered Oregon place-names and, consequently, a loss of Oregon history. What began with one man's personal passion and interest is now an important source for Oregon geography and history, with smatterings of etymology, folklore, and humor mixed in. The text provides glimpses of life across the state encompassing all the periods of Oregon history. From its earliest conception, Oregon Geographic Names took on a life of its own and continues to grow, much in the same manner as its original compiler, Lewis A. "Tam" McArthur, intended.

Lewis Ankeny McArthur, known to many as "Tam," was born at The Dalles, Oregon, on April 27, 1883, into a family closely connected to Oregon history. His paternal grandfather, Navy Lieutenant William P. McArthur, was responsible for leading the first survey of the Pacific Coast for the United States Coast Survey of 1849 and 1850, while his maternal grandfather, James W. Nesmith, was an Oregon pioneer who arrived in 1843 and was heavily involved in territorial and state government, serving as U.S. Senator from Oregon from 1861 to 1867 and as a Representative from 1873 to 1875. (1) McArthur's mother, Harriet Nesmith, was one of the original organizers of the Oregon Historical Society, continuing to serve on its board for twenty-six years, from 1898 to 1924. There is little wonder that McArthur developed such a passion for precision and Oregon geography.

The idea for a book dedicated to Oregon place-names likely came from a comment by Harvey Scott, then-editor of the Oregonian. (2) Scott had published a number of editorials expounding on place-names in Oregon, particularly those with Native American names, and believed an entire book dedicated to the topic might be interesting. McArthur apparently took this sentiment to heart. He began compiling information from county biographical guidebooks, current history texts, post office histories, and records of the provisional and territorial government of Oregon. One of the most important sources of information on Oregon place-names was people's memories.

The first full-length edition of Oregon Geographic Names appeared in 1928, with a second edition following in 1944. …

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