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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.