History of Yamhill County
Yamhill County was one of the first 'Districts' of Oregon, created July 5, 1843. At that time it encompassed an area lying between the Willamette River and the Pacific Coast and extending north-south from the Columbia River to the California border. By 1845, when Polk County was created, our county was smaller in size than it is today, but still extended to the Coast. Its size grew in a northerly direction in 1847, and with minor changes in the years since, has remained at about the current 718 square miles.
The best evidence of the origin of the name is that it was the early name given the Yamhelas Indian Tribe, part of the Kalapooian family. It was referred to by John Work (Hudsons Bay Company brigade leader) as Yamhill in 1834, and sometimes as Yam-hill. Lafayette, the first county seat, was called Yamhill Falls in early correspondence by settlers. The immigrant wagon trains of 1843 and 1844 brought the bulk of the original settlers into the area. The center of commerce at the time was in Lafayette, which sat on the overland trail used by the Indians, chosen because it was a good place to ford the Yamhill River, called the Yellow River by Mr. Work. The lure of the free land was overpowering to many families suffering from the threat of illnesses (malaria and scourge) and the depressed economy in the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River Valleys in the early 1840's.
One of the areas earliest settlers, Ewing Young, arrived in the 1830's to take up a large homestead and raise cattle. He died in 1841, leaving no will, and with no known living relatives to tend to affairs or disperse the estate. There were no probate courts, let alone much law or government in the area at that time.
The Provisional Government was created by a vote of about 100 people at Champoeg near the Willamette River in 1843, largely because the settlers desired a formal representative governmental body to establish laws and execute the will of the people. It had to be Provisional, since the territorial boundary was still undefined. This early government, consisting of a committee of the executive, legislative and judicial branches granted itself the power to tax. Collecting the taxes was another matter. In one instance in Polk County, a man sentenced to a three year imprisonment was instead sold to a farmer, since there were no prisons. The farmer worked the man for three years, then gave him a horse, saddle and $25 and sent him on his way.
By 1845 the 2000 settlers in the Willamette Valley outnumbered the natives, whose numbers were rapidly dwindling due to illnesses introduced by the immigrants. In 1849 with the discovery of gold in California, it has been estimated that 2 out of every 3 men left for the goldfields.
After years of toil, the settlers put pressure on politicians to see that they got the land they labored over. In 1849 the Territory of Oregon was created, granting protection by the United States. In September of 1850 Congress passed the Organic Act, otherwise referred to as the Donation Act. Specifically, 640 acres of land were to be patented to white couples married by December 1, 1851. Single males would receive 320 acres. In both cases the male had to be over 18 years of age, and they had to 'prove up' on the claim, i.e., perform certain improvements and live on the claim. This act was unique in that it granted the woman 320 acres in her own right.
A subsequent act extended the period of eligibility to include those married between December 1, 1850 and December 1, 1851, but the size was reduced to 320 acres if married and 160 acres if single. Next, the U.S. governement sold, by cash entry, certain available lands for $1.25 per acre. There were 7329 Donation Land Claims issued in the State of Oregon, with one setting astraddle the California border.
In Yamhill County, about 380 Donation Land Claims were patented out by the General Land Office, covering about 290 square miles total, or 40% of the county's area. According to documents in the Oregon State Archives, Lafayette was founded in 1846 by Joel Perkins. Mr. Perkins was quite the entrepreneur, making several trips to the California gold fields in the late 1840's and early '50's. Unfortunately he was murdered on a return trip to Oregon in August of 1856. In 1851, the population of the town of Lafayette exceeded that of Portland, but this changed rapidly within just a few years.
By the 1860's nearly all of the tillable farm land in the county had been claimed, purchased or homesteaded. Farming became the primary endeavor of our settlers, especially after most of the fathers and brothers returned from the goldfields. Yamhill County had powerful political connections with State government in these early years. While other areas (southern and eastern) of Oregon were still being settled and slowly developed, Yamhill County built it's second courthouse after fire destroyed the first one in January of 1857. Dayton and McMinnville, both smaller than Lafayette, put in their bids to relocate the county seat to their communities. In the 1870's, when a proposed railroad was being discussed, the merchants in McMinnville sought and gained a link to their small but rapidly growing city. Their counterparts in Lafayette failed to seek a tie by rail and this came back to haunt them within a decade. In a 1887 election, a majority of voters elected to relocate the courthouse to McMinnville. The old courthouse in Lafayette was sold and turned into a seminary. By the turn of the century it was housing a broom factory, and it was torn down in 1922. Bricks from this old courthouse were donated to the Yamhill County Historical Society, and they can be purchased for $5.00 each at the Museum in Lafayette.