When it was still a rumor, the Columbia River was known by other names. For a time it was the mythical River of the West. Then it was the “River Ourigan,” which by another spelling became the name of the territory and state.
The origin of the word is a mystery, but there has been lots of speculation. The name might have been derived from the French word for storm, “ouragan,” or the Spanish word for marjoram, “oregano,” for example. Recent and more careful scholarship suggests two possible sources of “Ourigan.” One has to do with the oil derived from smelt and used by Northwest coastal Indians as a trade item, and the other has to do with the translation of an Algonquin term for “beautiful river.” Both theories date to the mid-1700s and to central figure of Colonial New England history, Robert Rogers.
In 1765, Rogers, a British solider and leader of Rogers’ Rangers in wars against the tribes of New England, proposed to blaze a trail west across America and, ultimately, to India. Rogers planned to launch his exploration from Fort Michilimackinac, which was built by the French in 1715 on the south shore of the Straits of Mackinac on the present day lower peninsula of Michigan. Rogers had been appointed commander of the garrison there.
Seeking support for his exploration, in 1765 and 1772 he petitioned King George’s privy council for funds. In the petitions he referred to the “Great River Ourigan,” rumored by local Indians to flow through a vast country to the western sea. He was the first to use the term in a document.
The theory is that Rogers learned the word from Indians who traded with tribes of the western interior for “ooligan,” the oil derived from a type of smelt. Coast tribes traded ooligan to interior tribes, who in turn traded it to tribes farther east around the Great Lakes. While coastal peoples called smelt oil “ooligan,” some western Cree Indians who inhabited portions of the Canadian plains pronounced the “l” with an “r” sound, and “ooligan” became “ourigan.” Thus the Great River of the West drained to the sea in the area where the ourigan came from — the River Ourigan.
The second recent theory also traces to Rogers and suggests that he learned the word “wauregan” from Mohegan Indians, with whom he traveled in exploring the Ohio River valley between 1758 and 1760. The word meant “beautiful river.” A 1684 French map of the Ohio River labeled it “olighin,” a word in the Seneca language that also meant “beautiful river.” An article written in 1879 by J. Hammond Trumbull, an anthropologist, suggested those two words were the origins of the word Oregon, and Trumbull pointed to a 1751 French map that showed a western river named, in French, “belle riviere,” or beautiful river. Thus, Rogers may have altered the spelling of the words in his own reference to the River of the West: beautiful river, belle riviere, wauregan, olighin, ourigan.
Scholars with opposing theories argue with equal vigor that theirs are correct, but the origin of the word may never be known with more precision. Scholars do appear to agree, however, that the word dates to the adventurous Robert Rogers.