At the beginning of the twenty-first century, central Oregon is known throughout the Pacific Northwest as a center of outdoor recreation. The area offers a sunny climate and a resort atmosphere, with attractions including skiing, golfing, hiking, and camping. The population has boomed in recent years with newcomers arriving from all parts of the United States. Many of these people are “urban refugees”—retirees seeking a quiet life in a secluded corner of the West. Beneath the ski resort and boutique surface, however, central Oregon has a vital regional history.
In some respects central Oregon’s past reflects broad national and regional patterns. This is true of such events as the relocation of Native American tribes from their homes on the Columbia River to the Warm Springs Reservation in the 1850s, the industrial depredations on the vast pine forests, and the recent demographic shift from a largely Native American and Euro-American population to one that is more ethnically diverse.
In other respects, central Oregon’s past is unique. Unlike other parts of the Pacific Northwest, central Oregon did not welcome settlement. The aridity and the short growing season kept pre-historic populations low and frustrated Euro-Americans who tried to farm the thin volcanic soil. For the tribes relocated to the Warm Springs Reservation, farming and ranching, as advocated by the Indian Service, were especially difficult. The history of central Oregon is a history of adaptation and compromise, as people found ways to live in an area that offered great promise but slender resources.
Although we do not know when the term “central Oregon” was first used, it must have been familiar by 1905, when the first account of the region’s history—An Illustrated History of Central Oregon—appeared in print. A.B. Shaver and the other authors of the Illustrated History defined “central Oregon” by taking a broad north-south slice out of the state’s middle. Beginning at the Columbia River and moving south, they included Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Wheeler, old Crook County, Lake, and Klamath counties. This was expedient, but a little over-inclusive. Klamath and Lake counties have their own history, as do the counties on the Columbia Plateau. As the term is most commonly used now, central Oregon refers to the center of Shaver’s central Oregon–the 10,000 square miles drained by the Deschutes River.
© Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens, 2004