Lafayette History

                                                Wagon Train on Oregon Trail.  Photo used with permission from Oregon State Library. 

Lafayette, Oregon was founded in 1846 by an ambitious single, young man named Joel Perkins.  In the latter part of 1846, Perkins led a petition drive to have his new little town named as Yamhill County's first county seat.  The governor approved it and designated the town as such in December of that year.

The village was very small until 1848, when gold was discovered.  Late Yamhill County historian, Ruth Stoller, tells what happened in Lafayette after that:

"Situated as it was on the California Trail, it was a popular starting point for men headed for the gold mines.  Stores and services sprang up to meet their demands."

"Those who had already returned brought back plenty of gold dust and many of the settlers moved into town to enjoy their new found prosperity and to give their children better educational opportunities."

By 1850, Lafayette had more residents than the nearby settlement of  "Portland".  Lafayette continued to boom and became one of the most popular places for pioneers to settle after arriving off of the Oregon Trail.  The town earned itself the nickname  "Athens of Oregon" and a pioneer of the town explained why in a comment that was preserved in historical documents:    "In the early 50's, Lafayette was one of the important cities in Oregon.  It was the county seat of Oregon's richest and most populous county and the outfitting point for many a pack train that took flour and other supplies to the mines.  At one time there were more than thirty stores there and the Athens of Oregon, as it was sometimes called, was socially, commercially and politically an impor-tant community." 

The town was home to many of Oregon's most prominent citizens of the day, according to historians like Elwood Evans, who said "...Lafayette, the former county seat... has had at various times more noted pioneers among its residents than any other town in the state." 

Lafayette enjoyed a few decades of success and popularity before fading into the background next to their neighbor, the thriving new town of Mcminnville.  There are many complex reasons for why Mcminnville passed Lafayette by.   Lafayette eventually lost the county seat to them and was a sleepy little town by the beginning of the 1900s. 

Some of Oregon's earliest towns have been lost in time, leaving only a dot on old, historical marks as proof that they ever existed.   Lafayette not only survived its injuries, but today the town is 4000 residents strong with new development taking place.    It may never become the metropolis it once was, but its heritage makes this town a hidden gem of Oregon history.  If we take the time to learn its oldest stories, we will get an education about American settlement in the Pacific Northwest.  

Since Lafayette is one of the oldest cities in Oregon, it's not surprising that it was host to some of the first July 4th celebrations in the state as well.   Many of the fun details of these events are preserved in historical newspapers.   The earliest known one in this town took place in 1848, 11 years before Oregon became a state.  You only need to read the transcriptions of these celebrations to see that these pioneers - some of Oregon's first - brought their love for America with them when they settled here, in "Oregon Territory".  They planted American ideals here through these patriotic events and some of their activities and actual quotes are written on this blog.

Sources:  Yamhill County Historical Society;  Stoller, Ruth; "Joel Perkins", a speech she gave and wrote up for Yamhill County Historical Society, date unknown; Stoller, Ruth; "Old Yamhill - the early history of its towns and cities", 1976; Evans, Elwood; "History of the Pacific Northwest - OR & WA", Vol. II, 1889; Perkins, Norris H.; "Slow Settles the Dust in Oregon", 1993; Gaston, Joseph; "Centennial History of Oregon, 1811-1912", Vol. I, 1912.


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