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Beavers, ducks and Valentines

If you think Oregon has always been the Beaver State, it’s time to think again.

You don’t need to choose which side of the football game you’re on to make a decision. Nicknames for the 33rd state go back farther than football, or even statehood, for that matter.

The earliest American government on the West Coast formed in Champoeg in May 1843. The vote to decide whether to align with Great Britain or the United States was close — 52-50.

The U.S. Congress took its customary amount of time before approving territorial status for the area, allowing the Oregon Territory to form a government March 3, 1849. This was about the time Abraham Lincoln was offered the governorship, which he politely (we think) declined.

The territorial government minted Beaver coins in violation of the U.S. Constitution, but why should they worry? Who in Washington, D.C., was going to come all the way out here and slap some hands?

Beavers, those bucktoothed varmints, had been the big draw in the area ever since the Hudson Bay trappers began rambling through the Douglas firs, so, the Beaver State may have been an early nickname choice. But whether that or any or another nickname was attached to the area at the time isn’t known.

With statehood coming Feb. 14, 1859, potential state nicknames began to flourish. One of the earliest, quite often vying with the Beaver State, was the Sunset State. Those were the days when Oregon was farther west than any other state in the Union, and thus, the last place in America to enjoy a sunset. Anyway, Washington stole that title away in 1889 when it became a state.

The Hard Case State, sometimes the State of the Hard Cases, refers to the rough and tumble life of those early Oregon settlers, some daring a stormy trip around the Horn of South America, and the hardscrabble others, walking across the continent and keeping their eye out for Indians. The nickname came in and out of favor a number of times but disappeared by the 1920s.

Oregon was never the Duck State, sorry Eugene, although judging by the popularity of the football team lately, it might one day make it into the running.

The duck idea probably was inspired by the nickname Webfoot, which was popular during the late 19th century. Some of the Oregonians weren’t very happy being the Webfoot State and accused Californians of creating the name to embarrass them by pointing out the state’s imaginary excessive rainfall. They must have been thinking of the Willamette Valley.

On Feb. 12, 1912, when Arizona entered the Union as the Valentine State, it set off a wave of protest in Oregon. Oregon was the first state admitted on a Valentine’s Day and should have rights to the nickname, they said. However, it didn’t happen, and even as late as 1954 there were calls for an official Valentine State.

Funny thing is there’s nothing official about it. The world knows us as the Beaver State, but our Legislature has never made it official. We have an official flower, the state animal became the beaver in 1967, and the beaver became part of the state flag in 1925 — but still no official nickname.

That all seems to fit with our old state motto: Alis Volat Propriis, meaning, “She flies with her own wings.” But the Legislature changed that in 1957 to The Union.

The wings of change. Go figure.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.