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The Kalapuya (or Calapooya) Indians were the first to live in the area along the banks of Willamette river now known as Salem . Evidence indicates that they lived here for at least 5,000 years.
In 1812, European-Americans trappers and hunters arrived and settled in the valley. They worked for the trading companies in Astoria providing fur and food. Methodist minister Jason Lee established a mission just north of present-day Salem at what is now called Wheatland. He soon moved south to Mill Creek and built a house and sawmill. This became the first permament colony in the area. The missionaries established the Oregon Institute in 1842, which eventually became Willamette University.
The area was known by the Indian name of Chemeketa and it was also called simply the Mill or the Institute. The name "Salem" was adopted about 1850, and is believed to have been suggested by one of the trustees of the Institute, who was from Salem, Massachusetts.
The colony was quickly transformed into a town as more settlers arrived and established businesses, attracted by the mild climate and agricultural possibilities. Salem was chosen as the capital of the new Oregon Territory in 1851, and remains the capital of Oregon today.
The establishment of food processing plants and woolen mills, as well as logging in the nearby forests spurred the city's economic development. Growth was accelerated following the arrival of the railroad in 1872, and the first bridge across the Willamette was completed in 1886. Streets were improved and fledgling water and sewer systems were developed.
Salem continued to grow and expand in the 20th Century, with the population tripling between 1900 and 1920. Although the city was affected by the Great Depression in the 1930's, it was not crippled as severely as many other places due to the agricultural base of the economy. During World War II, the city continued its growth as businesses concentrated their production to meet the war needs.
The 1950's were again a period of growth and expansion, with Salem receiving the prestigious "All American City" Award in 1961. However, the Columbus Day windstorm in 1962 and the 1964 flood brought tremendous damage to the city and surrounding area. By the 1970's Salem embarked on a plan to revitalize the downtown area to enhance the local natural features and add footpaths and bike paths.
By the 1980's Salem's economy had switched to retail and tech industries, although agriculture remained strong. Large mega-stores moved into the area, as well as computer corporations. Today, Salem is a busy, bustling city with a diverse population and economic base. Agriculture remains a strong force and the area produces 90% of the world's Marionberries, as well as many other crops.
The Oregon State Fair, started in 1861, is still held every summer in Salem and celebrates the agricultural roots of the area.