Malheur County was created February 17, 1887, from the southern portion of Baker County. The county was named after the Malheur River that flowed through the area. Peter Skene Ogden, a Hudson's Bay Company trader, referred to this river in his journal as "Riviere au Malheur" which translates as "unfortunate river." It was given this name because during an expedition into the Snake River country in 1825-1826, property and furs hidden in the area were discovered and stolen.
Malheur County is located in the southeast corner of Oregon. It is bordered by Baker County on the north, the State of Idaho on the east, the State of Nevada on the south, and Harney and Grant Counties on the west. Malheur County is the second largest county in the state with 9,874 square miles.
The county seat is Vale. The first county courthouse was built in 1887 at a cost of $1400. The second courthouse was built in 1902 after several years of rivalry between localities contending for the honor of being named the county seat. A third courthouse was built in 1958.
Malheur County held its first general election in 1888 to elect a judge, sheriff, clerk, two commissioners, treasurer, assessor, superintendent of schools, and coroner. In 1994 Malheur County government is composed of a county judge, two commissioners, a district attorney, clerk, sheriff, and treasurer.
Malheur County was first settled by miners and stockmen in the early 1860s. The discovery of gold in 1863 created an interest in this area which resulted in the establishment of settlements and stock ranches. Basques settled in the region in the 1890s and were mainly engaged in sheep raising. The principal industries of Malheur County are agriculture, livestock, food processing, and tourism. The Western Treasure Valley located in the northeast corner of the county is the center of diversified and intensified farming.
The population of Malheur County steadily increased from 1890 through 1980. From 1980 to the 1990 there was a 36% decline partially due to weak agricultural seasons between 1982 and 1986. However, the 2000 population reached 31,615 which represented an increase of 21.42% from 1990. Over half of the county's population is within the cities of Ontario, Vale, and Nyssa in the Western Treasure Valley. A large number of the county's rural residents live in unincorporated areas on farms and ranches in the same valley.
Did You Know?
Oregon has what appears to be an outpost of the Roman Empire in its southeast corner. The community of Rome in Malheur County got its name from the imposing nearby formations of fossil-bearing clay that look like Roman ruins. The 100 foot high formations, which are also known as the "Walls of Rome," measure about five miles long and two miles wide. They are near the wild and scenic Owyhee River.
The river, oddly enough, is named for a variation of the word Hawaii. The name is in reference to two Hawaiians (Sandwich Islanders) who were part of a Hudson's Bay Company fur trapping expedition in 1819 when they were killed by Snake Indians. Thus, in a highly improbable historical twist, elements of Rome and Hawaii meet in the remote desert of Oregon.