The Lucky Penny That Named Portland

The Lucky Penny That Named Portland

Posted September 1, 2016

What’s in a name?

Do you ever wonder how places get their names?

On the surface, it seems like a silly question. Many places are named after the people who discovered or incorporated them (America comes from explorer Amerigo Vespucci), the geography of the area (think Rocky Mountains), or the native population living there (Massachusetts is named for the Massachusett Native Americans). Others are named for saints or deities (San Francisco), historical figures (Washington, D.C.), or the local fauna (Buffalo).

But for every Oklahoma City or San Antonio, there are hundreds of places with outrageous naming stories.

For example, in 1950, the town of Hot Springs, New Mexico went all-in on a radio promotion. In order to win a contest to host the 10th anniversary special episode of NBC’s “Truth or Consequences,” the town literally changed its name to the name of the show. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico currently boasts a population of 6,400 people.

This is just one example. There’s also a community in Alaska called Chicken – so named because its residents couldn’t agree on a spelling of the heavily prevalent ptarmigan bird, and decided on a bird they could spell. And deep in the midst of the South Pacific, a string of islands are officially named the Disappointment Islands, because European travelers found neither fresh water nor hospitable natives on their voyages there.

Portland: Heads or Tails?

On its surface, then, the name Portland, Oregon seems to have a conventional origin story. Sitting at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, and with easy access to the Pacific Ocean, this “inland” city is also a “port.” Easy, right?

Wrong. The story of Portland’s naming is actually nearly as long as the Oregon Trail that many settlers traveled to reach this great city.

Portland’s story begins in nearby Oregon City – the first city incorporated west of the Rocky Mountains and the final stop on the famed Oregon Trail. As more and more settlers moved west in the 1840s, many Oregon City residents migrated north, up the Willamette towards the Columbia River. These intrepid pioneers cleared acres worth of trees and began to set up a settlement in what is now present-day Portland. At that point, the place was informally called Stumptown or The Clearing, due to the thousands of bare tree stumps in the area.

In 1843, a pioneer named William Overton saw potential for a new settlement here, and wanted to file a land claim. He had one problem: he didn’t have the necessary 25 cents to pay the filing fee. Overton agreed to split the 640-acre claim down the middle with a former Massachusetts lawyer named Asa Lovejoy, provided Lovejoy pay the quarter to secure the claim.

Two years later, Overton left for greener pastures, selling his stake in the burgeoning community to a pioneer from Maine named Francis Pettygrove. Pettygrove and Lovejoy, both seeing the potential in this growing town, wanted to bestow a name fit for a great American city. Lovejoy had his heart set on the name of his native Boston, while Pettygrove would not budge from Portland, in homage to his home state’s bustling port city.

The debate was settled in 1845, when Pettygrove and Lovejoy were eating dinner at the home of Francis Ermatinger in Oregon City. Deciding that it was the only fair way, Pettygrove pulled a penny from his pocket and flipped it three times. Unfortunately for Lovejoy, Pettygrove won two out of the three tosses, and The Clearing was officially incorporated as Portland four years later.

The Portland Penny

So what became of that fateful copper disc you see above? Well, Pettygrove kept the penny with him when he moved north and founded another town, Port Townsend, Washington. After his death, the penny was passed down through the family, and ended up in the safe deposit box of one of Pettygrove’s nephews, secure in a San Francisco bank.

In 1910, the coin was given to the Oregon Historical Society, and is now on display in the Society’s museum in downtown Portland.

In the Wake of Lewis and Clark

The fascinating history of Portland is just one of the many treasures our guests encounter on our new, cruise-based tour: In the Wake of Lewis and Clark. We board a replica coastal steamer for a trip along the Columbia and Snake rivers to celebrate the history and culture of this unique corner of the nation. Click the link above to read about this new tour, along with our many other trips both within and outside of the United States.

And remember, there’s more in a name than you might think.

Portland image via Flickr

Portland penny image via Oregon Encyclopedia

Portland map via Flickr