Morrow County History

County Overview

Morrow County, created from Umatilla County in 1885, is located in North-Central Oregon east of the Cascade Mountains.  It was named for an early resident, J.L. Morrow.  The north border extends 35 miles along the Columbia River.  The Umatilla National Forest and the Blue Mountains are approximately 60 miles to the south. 

In between the Columbia River and the Blue Mountains lay more than one million acres of rolling plains and broad plateaus.  The rich agricultural land is divided into three occupational zones: irrigation farming in the north, vast fields of wheat yielding to cattle and sheep ranches through the center of the county and timber products in the south.  With the advent of center pivot irrigation technology, Morrow County became one of Oregon's fastest growing areas in terms of population, personal income and agricultural and industrial development.  The Port of Morrow, along the Columbia River, serves as a gateway for the region to the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Rim markets.  It is the second largest port in the state of Oregon, with the Port of Portland being the largest. 

County Established

Morrow County was established on February 16, 1885 and Heppner was named the county seat, although exploration and settlement of the area by early settlers began in earnest during the mid 1800's.  The first observations by white explorers were made in 1805 by Lewis and Clark as they made their way down the Columbia River.  Although they passed along the northern side of the river and did not set foot in present day Morrow County, their notes record the rolling plain-like hills of the area and the lack of timber except for willow trees.  (See the expedition journal entries between October 18-20, 1805.)

Emigrant Trail

The emigrant trail was about fifteen miles from the Columbia River. Emigrants traveling the Oregon Trail had to first cross Butter Creek just before entering the Morrow County Desert, perhaps among the most desolate parts of the trail. Had it not been for Well Spring and a few smaller springs in the area, emigrants would have had a difficult time making it.  While passing through present day Morrow County, emigrants did not see the river again until nearly across Sherman County. 

Oregon Settlers

When the first settlers arrived in Oregon, many headed to the Willamette Valley, which was lush and green.  Only a few miners and stockmen choose to stay in Eastern Oregon.  As a result, Eastern Oregon was not highly populated until well after Oregon became a state.  As the Willamette Valley population increased and the excitement over the California Gold Fields was dying down some settlers remembered the rolling plains they crossed in Eastern Oregon.  For settlers from prairie states, the tall trees and wet marshes of western Oregon were hard to get used to.  In the early 1860's, some of these emigrants drove their herds of cattle and sheep across the Cascade Mountain range in search of more suitable grazing lands.  The word "grass" spread as quickly as the word "gold".  Another reason for the population shift eastwards in the 1860's arose as young men of the first settlers grew anxious to start out on their own.


In 1862 gold was found in Canyon Creek, a tributary of the main stream of the John Day River.  When the news reached the settlements in the Willamette Valley, parties and individuals set out to hunt for gold.  Maps were had by nearly all of the prospectors and the most accurate marks on the maps were often those showing the location of water.  Prospectors stayed close to the creeks and walked or led pack animals.  The men who came to the mines were true pioneers who did much of the early exploring of Eastern Oregon.  Some men did not return to the Valley but settled down to start a new life.


Early settlers obtained their land by homesteading.  A man had to file his intention to live on and improve his land for the required amount of time each ear in order to obtain his homestead.  Improvements had to be made and it usually took five years to earn the deed to the land.  Pre-emption claims could also be filed.  The land had to be lived on for six to nine months and then paid for at $1.25 an acre.  Timber cultures could also be acquired by settlers having a set number of live trees on five of their 160 acres.

The government also granted the railroad land if they would build their lines on through to the west of the land. The railroads in turn, sold the land to early settlers in order to finance the railroad.

County Seat Established

In 1869, George Stansbury purchased the claim of a man named Estes in the foothills of the Blue Mountains where five canyons converged.  This area was known as Stansbury flats and in 1872, J.L. Morrow, a merchant in La Grande, was convinced that the area would be a favorable location for a trading center.  Morrow entered into a partnership with Henry Heppner and together they built a store which is now the present site of the Les Schwab Tire Center in Heppner.  Their store building was later moved north to the crossing of present-day Willow and Main Streets where Cal's Service Center is today.  After the store was built, a blacksmith shop and a saloon were soon opened and a rapid growth of the community soon followed.

As the town grew, J.L. Morrow suggested that the new town be named "Heppner" in honor of Henry Heppner.  Over Henry's objections, the townspeople approved the name change.  Heppner was incorporated on February 9, 1887 and is the county seat.  As Henry Heppner never married and had no direct heirs, it is fitting that the community he was instrumental in founding should perpetuate his name.

Heppner remains the thriving county seat.  As a "Gateway to the Blue Mountains", there is easy access to all nearby mountain recreation areas and activities including hunting, camping, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.