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  • Ednold

A Capital Fortnight 11/15/20

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

When the Oregon Territory was first established in 1848, the territory encompassed an area that included the current states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, as well as parts of Wyoming and Montana, and the capital of the territory was Oregon City. By 1853, after the creation of Washington Territory, it was about half the size but still included much of Idaho and parts of Wyoming, and the capital had moved south to Salem. Since Salem is still the present-day capital of Oregon, one might assume that that has been the case for the past 169 years. That assumption would be incorrect. Almost 165 years ago, for just a few weeks, Corvallis was the capital of the entire Oregon Territory.

Oregon Territory in blue

Beginning in 1843 when representatives at Champoeg narrowly passed a vote to create a provisional government, there was a question as to where the capital of Oregon should be located. For a short time Champoeg itself was seen as an acceptable meeting place since it was conveniently located on the Willamette River between the Oregon City/Portland area and smaller population centers to the south. Then Oregon City became the preferred location, since most of the elected officers were from that area. Without any government buildings the meetings were held in private homes or churches.

By 1851 officials had recognized the need for a more centrally located seat of government and in that year they passed the “Act to provide for the selection of places for the location and erection of public buildings of the territory of Oregon,”. That bill named Salem as the territorial capital. Portland would be the site of the territorial penitentiary and Marysville would be the site of the territorial university. Salem, originally known as Chemeketa, was a popular choice due to its more central location and the fact that Jason Lee’s Methodist Mission there had already built a community with the infrastructure to handle large groups of people. Lee’s home was very big by the standards of the time and there were church and school buildings that could also be used as gathering places.

The year after first meeting in the new capital city, the Oregon Territorial Legislature again met in Salem in December 1853 where a petition was presented seeking to change the name of that city to either Thurston or Valena. At the same time, two other separate petitions were presented seeking to change the names of Salem and Marysville to Corvallis. Obviously, both names could not be changed to Corvallis and a heated debate ensued, with the town of Marysville ultimately being awarded the new name of Corvallis. Since there was already a Marysville in California on the same stagecoach route as Oregon’s Marysville, it was deemed wise to make the change. The legislators also recognized that neither Thurston nor Valena would be an improvement on Salem, and they let that city keep her name. So, the city of Salem, formerly Chemeketa, which was the capital, did not become Corvallis. And Marysville, which did become Corvallis, was not then the capital but soon would be. Creating a new territorial government sounds like it would have been a lot of fun.

After having settled on the location for a capital, the next step was to build a capitol building to house the government. A portion of the money needed for the construction had already been approved by Congress and the work began in 1854. But even as the capitol building was under construction the dispute regarding the location of the capital wouldn’t die, and in 1855 an act was passed moving the capital to Corvallis. In 1851 Marysville/Corvallis had been named the seat for Benton County government as well as the site of the territorial university. Corvallis, led by founder Joseph Avery, a longtime member of the legislative assembly, agreed to trade the university to Jacksonville, in southern Oregon. In return, Corvallis would get enough votes to become the state capital. Since Corvallis was even more centrally located in the territory than Salem and was at the head of navigable water on the Willamette River, proponents of the move were able to pass the bill, and Corvallis became the capital.

The Avery Building - Territorial Capitol

So it was that on December 3, 1855, members of the territorial legislature met in session at Corvallis. At about this same time the US Treasury Department let it be known that the money they had appropriated for the building in Salem couldn’t be used in any other city. They also wouldn’t be paying members for working in or traveling to anywhere other than Salem. Legislators were understandably not happy with this news, which was a big reason they didn’t stay in Corvallis very long. They quickly passed a resolution to reconvene in Salem, and that was the end of Corvallis' time as territorial capital. As the honorable Mr. Tichenor of Coos County said during the discussion of relocation: “Let us go where the property of the Territory is. Let us clew-up, tack-ship, and steer for Salem. The facts are to my mind most conclusive that it was nothing but corruption that caused it to be removed here in the first place. It has been removed by the tickle-me-and-I’ll-tickle-you game.” It sounds like they play strange games in Coos County, but Mr. Tichenor was not far wrong in his supposition.

It wasn’t until I was doing a little research on this story that I learned that my own great, great, great, great grandfather, James Monroe “Ednold” Fulkerson, a founder of Linfield College in McMinnville, was also a member of the Territorial Legislature assembled in the Avery Building on the corner of 2nd Street and Adams Avenue on those fateful December days in 1855. I had been unaware that a partial transcript of one meeting had survived and been passed down in my family since that time and I would like to include it here for the edification of all.

My grandpa James Monroe Fulkerson

A.P. Dennison, President of the Legislature: I hereby bring this legislative session to order. To open this meeting, I would like to begin by recognizing Mr. James Fulkerson of Polk County. As the most intelligent, most well-spoken and handsomest member of this body, Mr. Fulkerson will have the privilege of making any opening remarks he would like to make.

Mr. Fulkerson of Polk County: (Stroking his voluptuous beard sans mustache while all eyes in the room turn admiringly toward him) Thank you Mr. President. Actually, as our new host, I believe Mr. Avery Smith of Benton County may have a few opening remarks for us.

Mr. Dennison: Yes, Mr. Smith. Maybe you would like to point out all of the advantages to us of meeting in this freezing shed in this dungheap of a village that is now our capital?

Mr. Avery Smith of Benton County: Well, Mr. President, I understand that December doesn’t exactly show our town in it’s best light, but it really is quite a lovely place and I would like to welcome you all to our wonderful little community. I’m sure you will all come to appreciate all that we have to offer here in Benton county.

Mr. Dennison: Come now, Mr. Smith. This tiny, stinking, godforsaken place is to be our capital from now on?

Mr Huber of Clatsop and Yamhill Counties: Mr. President, could you please tell Mr. Tichenor to stop tickling me?

Mr. Drain of Linn County: Yes, please, Mr. President. I, too, am not interested in being tickled by, or doing any tickling of, Mr. Tichenor.

Mr. Dennison: Everyone will refrain from doing any tickling during the remainder of this session. Is that understood, Mr. Tichenor? May I remind you that this is not Coos County? You are in… Where the hell are we again?

Mr. Huber: Marys… um, Corvallis, Mr. President.

Mr Dennison: Oh, yes. Lovely Whorevallis. Good lord! (sighs heavily)

Mr Smith: Oh, now, Mr. President. At present the streets are a quagmire of mud and manure, it’s true. And the accommodations are not what you may be used to. And it’s a long way from home for most of you...

Mr Dennison: I believe you have made my point quite well, Mr. Smith. Thank you. This arrangement cannot be allowed to last. Please be seated.

Mr. Smith: But, but, but we can pave the roads. We can add a couple of bridges! We can put up a Marriott across the street. We can put a Dairy Queen around the corner and a Burger King down the road. Just imagine the whole town full of football fans on an autumn afternoon, or baseball fans in the spring. It will be glorious!

Mr. Dennison: This is a democracy, Mr. Smith. There will be no further talk of royalty here. And I don’t know of these balls of which you speak, but may I suggest that if any balls need looking after, they be your own. I believe we have heard quite enough from you, Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith: I only ask that you give the grand community of Marysville, um, I mean Corvallis, a chance, sir.

Mr. Dennison: Stand down, Mr. Smith. Surely you must admit that this place sucks. Whose idea was this, anyway? (With much confusion, Mr. Smith, who was already standing, attempts to continue standing while also somehow being “down”.) Mr. Smith! I repeat: stand down immediately or I will declare you out of order! (Mr. Smith embarrassedly looks around the room, repeatedly alternating between a half-squat and standing to his full 5’8” height, attempting to fulfill the order to “stand down” while silently imploring the other councilors for help as to what that might mean.) That’s it Mr. Smith! (banging his gavel) You are out of order! Remove yourself from these chambers immediately!

Mr. Smith: (Now standing on his head with his legs resting against the north wall of the room) I’m sorry, Mr. President. I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re asking me to do.

Mr. Dennison: Leave, Mr. Smith! Or at least sit down and shut up. That’s what I’m asking you to do. And none of my delicious homemade chili for you when this is over. All in favor of moving the capital city back to Valena, say “aye”.

Mr. Smith: I believe you mean Salem, Mr. President.

Mr. Dennison: (throwing his gavel, which strikes Mr. Peebles of Marion County on the shin, and bolting across the room toward Smith) Damn you Smith!!!

The legislators returned to Salem and assembled in the new capitol building on December 17th. Salem would remain the capital from then on and Oregon State University didn't end up in Jacksonville. A few days later the legislature adjourned for the holidays, and later that same month (I couldn’t find any two sources that agreed on the exact date) the brand new capitol and everything in it went up in smoke; burned to the ground in a fire that lasted two days. The committee appointed to investigate the fire believed that it was purposely set. No proof was ever presented, but it was suggested that the fire was the result of a nefarious arson plot hatched by a group Corvallis residents angry that their town’s time as capital had been so short. Is there any truth to that vicious rumor? As with all residents of the former capital, I have been sworn to secrecy.

After the fire Joseph Holman offered a building in Salem for the territory’s use. The Holman Building, originally planned as a hotel on the northwest corner of Commercial and Ferry Streets in Salem, was home to the legislature and other government offices until 1876.

Still, not everyone was in favor of Salem, and for several more years the debate regarding the capital location continued to rear its ugly head. At one time or another over the next ten years or so both Eugene and Portland were seriously considered. Finally, in 1864, a general election was held that decisively rendered Salem the permanent capital, probably because, as one writer put it at the time, “people (were) heartily tired of the tiresome question”.

The Avery Building on the corner of Second St. and Adams Ave. in downtown Corvallis was torn down a long time ago. But there is a new building on that same spot that’s home to a bicycle shop, and there’s a plaque outside marking the place where the Territorial Legislature, and my 4x great grandpa Fulkerson, gathered 165 years ago.

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Nov 16, 2020

As a lifelong 'Salem' guy I would find it hard to think in terms of a "Corvallis Capital City." The very thought of it "tickles" my fancy. Fortunately Mr Dennison leadership and eloquent oratory was able to deflect that possibility.

I like the way you managed to slip your Grandpa Fulkerson (the handsome, intelligent, well-spoken one) into those weighty deliberations.

Anyway, all's well that ends well. These days Corvallis has enough on its plate.....trying to keep the Beavers on track. How would they deal with the legislative members who like to vacation in Idaho.

Thanks again for another "behind the scenes" bit of Oregon history.


Nov 16, 2020

I knew they had a hard time deciding where the capital should be but I didn't realize it was that bad. I had heard that Corvallis was in the running. Thanks, Ednold, for another great piece. I love Oregon history............lets have more!

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