In 1851, the Oregon Territorial Legislature gave Douglas County its name, saying as it did so that it was naming it after U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, a senator from Illinois who championed Oregon’s adoption.
But Douglas’ story is problematic.
He argued in favor of southern states being allowed to keep slavery legal at a time when the abolitionist movement was growing in strength. He later went on to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1860 — the same year that Republican Abraham Lincoln ultimately won the presidency.
His biography is one of a man who quite literally placed himself on the wrong side of history, and that’s why several county residents are calling for Douglas County to separate from its namesake.
To be clear, they’re not proposing the county change its name. Rather, they’re suggesting it be named for a different Douglas.
Tenmile resident John Hunter mentioned two possible replacements at a recent Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting.
One is David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who toured the Roseburg area along the Umpqua River in 1826, cataloguing the flora and fauna here and lending his name to the Douglas fir tree. An informal survey by The News-Review suggested many Douglas County residents already mistakenly believe this is the Douglas after whom the county is named.
The other option is former slave and noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This choice would require a change in spelling to add the extra “s” on the end of the county’s name.
Stephen A. Douglas challenged Lincoln in the 1858 Illinois race for the U.S. Senate. The election was perhaps best known for the Lincoln-Douglas debates, during which the topic of slavery was at the forefront. Douglas won that election, but the debates also made Lincoln famous.
Daniel Robertson, retired attorney and former director of the Douglas County Museum of Natural and Cultural History, said Douglas faced stiff opposition to his bid for the presidential nomination at the 1860 Democratic convention. Despite his support for pro-slavery states, he was opposed by the Southern Democrats.
The Oregon Democratic delegates proposed former Oregon Territorial Governor Joseph Lane. But Lane complicated matters when he sent a telegram to the Oregon delegation urging them to walk from the convention if the South did. The telegram was leaked to Douglas supporters, who publicized it, Robertson said.
The Democratic Party fell apart, splitting into two major parties representing North and South and a third smaller party. The Southern Democrats nominated then-Vice President John Breckinridge for president, with Lane nominated as vice president.
“One can theorize, and not be too far off probably that if there had been a united Democratic Party in 1860 that the minority party of the Republicans probably would not have won the White House,” Robertson said.
Robertson said Douglas’ name was taken for an Oregon county because he was pro-expansionist. He supported Oregon as well as annexing Texas and acquiring former Mexican states in the southwest.
Robertson said he’s not sure what the procedure would be for changing the county’s namesake. Since the county was named by the Legislature and is not a home rule county, he said it might be necessary to obtain legislative approval for a name change.
But if the name remains the same, a namesake change might be simpler.
“I kind of suspect that if the Douglas County Board of Commissioners said we would rather honor David Douglas than Stephen A. Douglas that the Legislature isn’t going to say well that’ll take an act of the Legislature,” he said.
Hunter said at this point, he and others supporting the idea simply want to get the conversation started.
“People are really interested in it. It’s very timely,” he said.
And, he said, it wouldn’t be too hard for the county to make the switch.
“There’s no statue to take down I don’t think, and there’s going to not be much financial cost,” he said.
If Douglas County were to consider changing its namesake, it wouldn’t be alone. KLCC reported Lane County commissioners discussed at a recent meeting either renaming the county or finding another besides Joseph Lane — also criticized for his pro-slavery views — to name it after.
King County, Washington ditched its previous namesake William King, a former vice president, plantation owner and slave holder. That King was replaced by civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The change was approved by the King County Council in 1986, but didn’t become official until the Legislature passed a bill and the governor signed it into law in 2005.