Salem: Oregon's Capital

waterfountain in front of state capitol
The State Capitol from the fountain to the west in Salem. (Oregon State Archives Scenic Image D7K_5082​)
Also see the Salem city government description.
Salem, with a population of 177,694 is Oregon’s state capital and the second largest city. Salem is also the county seat of Marion County, but a small portion contained within its corporate limits of 44 square miles lies across the Willamette River in Polk County. Salem is situated on the 45th geo- graphic parallel in the center of the Willamette Valley—one of the most fertile and agriculturally productive regions in the world—47 miles south of Portland and 64 miles north of Eugene. 

Salem serves as the hub of both state government and the surrounding farming communities. State government is the largest employer, with approximately 19,949 state employees and offices for 73 state agencies located in Salem. Salem is also one of the largest food-processing centers in the United States.


In addition, Salem is one of Oregon’s oldest cities. The tribal name for the locality was Chemeketa, said to mean “meeting or resting place.” It may also have been the name of one of the bands of the Kalapuya Tribe. In 1840–1841, the Jason Lee Mission was moved from the banks of the Willamette River, upstream to a site on Mill Creek. In 1842, missionaries established the Oregon Institute. When the mission was dissolved in 1844, it was decided to lay out a townsite on the Oregon Institute lands. Either David Leslie, one of the trustees who came to Oregon from Salem, Massachusetts, or W. H. Willson, who filed plats in 1850–1851 for what is now the main part of the city, selected the name “Salem.” Salem is the Anglicized form of the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace.*


The location of the Oregon capital caused a spirited contest that lasted nearly 15 years. By a legislative act in 1851, the territorial government moved the capital to Salem from Oregon City. In 1855, it was moved to Corvallis, only to move back to Salem the same year. Destruction of the Capitol Building at Salem on December 31, 1855, was considered an incendiary part of this controversy. 

The close proximity of government provides Salem citizens with a distinct opportunity to be involved in the decision-making processes of the state. The citizens of Salem also have a long history of commitment to community improvement, a commitment recognized nationally through the presentation of two All-America City Awards in 1960–1961 and 1982–1983. 

*Early Salem history from Oregon Geographic Names by Lewis A. McArthur. ​