Umatilla County was created on September 27, 1862, out of a portion of Wasco County. Umatilla is an Indian term meaning "rippling water" or "water rippling over sand" and has provided the name both for the county and its major river. Adjustments were made to the county's boundaries following the creation of Grant, Morrow, Union, and Wallowa Counties. The county contains 3,231 square miles and is bounded by the Columbia River on the north, Morrow County on the west, Grant County on the south, and Union and Wallowa Counties on the east.
The legislative act that created Umatilla County designated Marshall Station as the temporary county seat. Umatilla City was chosen the county seat in an 1865 election. Population shifted to the north and east parts of the county due to the opening of the Pendleton area to wheat production. A subsequent election in 1868 resulted in the selection of Pendleton as the new county seat, supplanting both Marshall Station and Umatilla City.
The first courthouse was completed in 1866 in Umatilla City. The next courthouse, and the first built in Pendleton, was a wooden, two-story structure completed in 1869. In 1889 a three-story brick courthouse and jail was erected. A fourth courthouse was built on the site of the old courthouse in 1956 and is still in use today.
The government of Umatilla County consisted originally of a county judge, two county commissioners, clerk, and sheriff. The offices of treasurer, assessor, coroner, and superintendent of schools were added a short time after formation of the county. The county judge position was abolished and a third commissioner was added in 1975.
The first census of the Umatilla County in 1870 counted 2,916 inhabitants. The population has increased steadily with a 2000 census figure of 70,548 representing an increase of 19.07% over 1990.
The Umatilla Indian Reservation was established by the Treaty of Walla Walla in 1855. It became an 800 square mile home for the Umatillas, Walla Wallas, and Cayuse tribes and is located immediately southeast of Pendleton. The Umatilla Confederated Tribes have 1,400 enrolled members.
Lewis and Clark and pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail passed through the area. The gold rush of 1862 brought miners and stock raisers to the mountains and grasslands of Umatilla County. The county expanded after the coming of the railroad in 1881 and the area was open to the development of dry land wheat farming. The fertile land of Umatilla County gives a strongly agricultural base to the county's economy. Fruit, grain, timber, cattle, and sheep are important agricultural products. Recreation, primarily in the Blue Mountains, and tourism, most notably for the annual Pendleton Round-Up rodeo, are also important to the local economy.
Did You Know?
Before a fire destroyed all but two businesses in the 1880s, the city of Weston in Umatilla County rivaled Pendleton. The brick making and milling center also served as the first home to the Eastern Oregon Normal School. Betraying the rivalry, Pendleton newspaper editors once complained about falling behind Weston, which supported a street sprinkling system to keep the dust down. Apparently, the "system" consisted of "two Chinese who spent the entire day passing up and down sprinkling the main street from their five-gallon cans of water."
More recently Weston is known for being the home of Smith Frozen Foods, owned by U.S. Senator Gordon Smith's family. The community also includes other frozen fruit and vegetable companies.