This article appears in the May 2018 edition of the Salem Business Journal.
By Dick Hughes, special to Marion County
Wolves, grizzlies, black bears and cougars were killing livestock. People were fighting over land. A well-to-do man died without a will, so what to do with his cattle and his estate?
Those issues drove settlers to create the first Oregon, and later Marion County, government. They met May 2, 1843 on a bluff above the Willamette River at a site we now know as Champoeg State Heritage Area. That history-deciding meeting is memorialized in a mural in the House Chamber of the Oregon State Capitol.
Much has changed in the 175 years since that meeting, but Marion County's place as the heart of Oregon government has remained constant. And regardless of whether residents have held a minimalist or expansive view of government, they have counted on county services.
Marion County has good reason to celebrate "175 Years of Service" throughout this year, including festivities at the Marion County Fair in July.
The celebration also could be called "175 Years of Solutions." That first meeting along the Willamette largely dealt with an issue that reigns across Oregon today: wolves.
Political sentiments were strong in the 19th century, as they are in the 21st century. The Champoeg vote to form a system of self-government was close, perhaps 52-50.
That Oregon Territory Provisional Government helped create order on the frontier. Land disputes proliferated. Probate – the settling of estates – was a critical concern, crystalized by the 1841 death of former mountain man Ewing Young, a prominent financier and cattle rancher in the Chehalem Valley who died without heirs.
What would become Marion County was a huge area, stretching east to the Rocky Mountains and south to California and Nevada. One of four districts that made up the Oregon Territory, it was called Champooick, later changed to Champoeg.
In 1849, Champoeg County's name was changed to honor Revolutionary War Gen. Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion.
The county gained its present boundaries in 1856 after Wasco, Polk, Linn and other counties were carved from its vast breadth. Marion County is bordered by the Willamette River and Butte Creek on the north, the Santiam River and North Fork of the Santiam on the south, the Willamette on the west and the Cascade Range on the east.
At 1,194 square miles, Marion is comparatively small in size; relatively large in population, estimated at 341,286 last year by the U.S. Census Bureau; and undeniable in its 175 years of political, economic and educational influence.
The oldest university in the West, Willamette University, was founded here in 1842. Salem, the county seat, became the territorial capital in 1851 and then the state capital. The Marion County Courthouse in 1857 hosted the Oregon Constitutional Convention, whose foundational charter became the basis for Oregon joining the Union as the 33rd state on Feb. 14, 1859.
In the 1860s, the county purchased what would become the Oregon State Fairgrounds, deeding the property to the Oregon State Agriculture Society.
Through the centuries, Marion County has remained one of the world's great agricultural regions. Generations of Native Americans lived off the land. Retired fur trappers settled into farming. Nurseries took hold. County agricultural agents provided advice. And thanks to voters in 2015, that collaboration continues with creation of the Marion County Extension and 4-H Service District.
The state has taken over the courts, but many of the 19th and early 20th century demands for services remain: roads, ferries, land use, law enforcement, animal regulation, help for the indigent, physical and mental health treatment, veterans care and yes, tax collections to pay for those services.
The 21st century has brought more demands and more services. But it all started with wolves.
On May 2, 2018, 175 years after the historic vote at Champoeg, Marion County kicked off its "175 Years of Service" celebration for the remainder of 2018. There will be special festivities as part of the annual Marion County Fair, a self-guided tour of Marion County, 175 things to do in Marion County, and more. Visit www.marioncounty175.com for information about upcoming "175" events and activities.