County holds key distinction in early history of our nation

When people report that Yamhill County is one of the oldest counties in the state, they aren’t kidding.

Today, Oregon is made up of 36 counties. And Yamhill was one of the original four, created before Oregon even became a U.S. territory.

If you’ve ever spent time at Champoeg State Park, one of the area’s gems for tourism, you may have learned it is the site where Oregon’s first government met. At a meeting there on July 5, 1843, those assembled created the counties of Champoeg, Clackamas, Twality and Yamhill, initially known as “districts.”

Their original boundaries were much larger.

Yamhill County stretched all the way west to the ocean and all the way south to Oregon’s border with California, which was still a territory of Mexico then. So for a very brief time, our county effectively shared a border with Mexico!

The four original counties share a rich place in Oregon’s history. But their early significance doesn’t stop at state borders.

Washington didn’t form its first counties until 1845. California didn’t establish any counties until 1850.

As a result, our state’s oldest counties share yet another distinction: They were the first four U.S. counties created on the West Coast.

To learn about Yamhill County’s history, then, is to learn about the formation of Oregon and early migration to America’s far coast — its last frontier at the time.

What’s more, Lafayette, the often-forgotten oldest sibling among Yamhill County’s cities, was a thriving metropolis during the county’s infancy. As such, it became the county’s original seat of government.

Pioneers reported back that Lafayette was Oregon Territory’s third most important city. And it boasted a handful of state firsts, including the first fair and first U.S. District Court session.

Often referred to as the “Athens of Oregon,” it was a magnet for the most prominent of the early Oregon Trail pioneers. Abraham Lincoln’s doctor, A.G. Henry, was just one example of distinguished pioneers making their homes in Lafayette.

The “Athens of Oregon” was not Yamhill County’s only draw, though. Journalists and pioneers writing to loved ones back in the states all bestowed glowing reviews on the county’s distinctive beauty and agricultural wealth.

“History of the Pacific Northwest — Oregon and Washington, 1889,” put it this way:

“Slightly rolling to ensure good drainage, and yet not rough enough to offer any obstacles to the free use of farm machinery, it is almost the beau-ideal of a farming region. Though mainly prairie, there is a superb body of choice timber, in which is an extensive area of cedar, in the Coast Range west, while the north sides of many of the hills are crowned with the most magnificent oak groves. This county (Yamhill) is credited with being the garden spot of Oregon.”

Yes, Yamhill County’s history is as rich as its soil.

If you’ve never had the chance to dig up its roots, you can do so on your way to the coast by stopping in at the Yamhill Valley Heritage Center and Museum. The county’s primary source for historical information, via a research library, educational programs, a museum, and living history events, it is conveniently located on Highway 18.

After leaving the museum and continuing west toward the coast, you get an opportunity to go even further back in time. That opportunity comes in Grand Ronde, where the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde is based.

At the Chachalu Tribal Museum and Cultural Center, you will learn about the tribal communities who were here before the rest of the world arrived. The Kalapuya tribes inhabited this part of the Willamette Valley and volunteers at the museum are eager to share their stories with you.

The next time you go to explore Oregon’s beautiful beachfront, stop along the way to learn the history of Native American and American pioneer settlements here.

Sheri King, a Yamhill Valley Heritage Center volunteer, was born and raised in Oregon and has three sons born and raised in Yamhill County. She made her home in Lafayette for 15 years before moving to McMinnville. She wrote a book on the history of Lafayette and did the research for two state historical markers located there. She can be reached at king.writeideas@protonmail.com.


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