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Champoeg State Heritage Area: Oregon history in a beautiful setting

View of the Willamette River at Champoeg
View of the Willamette River at Champoeg
Elizabeth R. Rose

Champoeg State Park is a beautiful place to camp, fish, walk or boat. But if you tour the historic buildings and read the plaques, you'll soon realize that this place very is important to Oregon History.

The native Kalapuya (also known as the Calapooya or Calapooia) people called Champoeg home hundreds of years before Lewis and Clark explored the Columbia River. The banks of the river were their fishing grounds and the grass prairies were their hunting grounds. They also gathered and used plants, such as the Camas lily. It is believed that the name Champoeg is based on the Kalapuyan word for yampah, a food root or the place where you find these roots.

In the early 1840's the first large wagon trains of pioneers began arriving over the Oregon Trail. By 1856, all the Native peoples in the Willamette Valley were forced onto a reservation at Grande Ronde.

The Oregon Historical Society, founded in 1898, created a list of historical events that they believed should be memorialized. On their list was the vote at Champoeg, taken on May 2, 1843, to form Oregon’s first government. It was at this time that the pioneers made the decision to belong to American Territory. Friends of Historic Champoeg recall, " This idea inflated until Oregonians were calling Champoeg the Plymouth Rock of the Pacific Coast, with the vote becoming as significant to them as the Pilgrims’ arrival." A monument was erected and celebrations were held annually at the site. In retrospect, this decision was very important. If it were not for that vote, would we all be Canadians today?

In 1861 a massive flooding of the Willamette River destroyed the town of Champoeg, built on the riverbanks for ease of transportation and trade. Butteville, a few miles downstream from Champoeg evolved to replace Champoeg as the French Prairie commercial hub. Champoeg’s school bell ended up in Butteville, and is still there today. There are no photos or much Champoeg memorabilia left due to the flood.

Throughout the years, the park was considered a special place. There were discussions on how to use the land, one opinion being that an arboretum be built. In 1943, the centennial of the 1843 vote a row of giant sequoias were planted near the Pioneer Memorial Building. According to the Friends of Historic Champoeg, the park expansion now includes:

  • The eastern half of the Champoeg town site.
  • Robert Newell’s farmstead, now one of Oregon’s most important archeological sites.
  • John Ball’s farm, the first American farm in the Pacific Northwest.
  • The site of the Hauxhurst Mill, first gristmill in the Willamette Valley.
  • The site of the Manson farmstead, and with it, the 1862 barn.

So when you visit Champoeg, to ride the bike trails, take your family fishing or enjoy a stroll along the river, be sure and stop at the Visitors Center. Tour Newell House, and the Pioneer Mothers Log Cabin museums to discover pioneer life at Champoeg. Take a guided walk to learn what happened to the bustling pioneer town of Champoeg, and how the Donald Manson Barn was built. Visit Kitty Newell's grave. And check out the 1860s-style garden which is planted next to the visitor center.

The park also includes the Historic Butteville Store, down the road, founded in 1863. It is considered the oldest operating store in Oregon. The store is the last commercial vestige of the once thriving Willamette River community of Butteville. The Friends of Historic Champoeg operate the store.

More Information
Friends of Historic Champoeg
Champoeg State Heritage Area

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