This is the first installment in an occasional series entitled What’s in a Name? that will take a look at the names of streets, places, and things around Hillsboro. The names are well-known to us and we see them every day. From where did they come, though?
As we kick off this endeavor, the name of the city itself, Hillsboro, seems like a logical starting point. The author gratefully acknowledges Ginny Mapes, a Washington County historian, who generously contributed to this article.
There once was a man named David Hill. This man’s personal history before his arrival in the Oregon Country is scanty and anything but clear. He’s considered to have been born in 1809. In Connecticut. Or maybe Virginia. Or maybe Ohio. Then again, maybe he lived for a period of time in an intermediate city or two in Virginia and/or Ohio on his life’s trek westward. At least one account raises the specter of an abandoned wife and children in Ohio. This report has never been substantiated, though, and is almost certainly bunkum. No images of Hill are known to exist. However, his contemporaries’ descriptions paint a picture of a slim, tall (six feet, one inch) man with black hair and sallow skin.
Reaching the end of the Oregon Trail, David Hill arrived on the Tualatin Plains in October 1841 and staked a land claim as soon as possible. The Hill claim was 640 acres that is, today, occupied by a large swath of downtown Hillsboro and the residential neighborhood to the south.
In 1846, Lucinda “Lucy” Wilson joined David Hill on his land claim as his wife. Lucy was not lucky in marriage. Hill was her third spouse. Her prior husband, William Wilson, had died during the Oregon Trail journey. Lucinda and David had no offspring together but Lucy brought four children into the marriage. Those children and Mathias Cooley, an orphan in Lucy’s care, were soon on their own. In February 1850, David Hill was appointed legal guardian of five Dunlap children but they never lived with the Hills.
After settling in Oregon, it didn’t take long for Mr. Hill to enter politics. In 1843, he became a member (and, for a time, chair) of the committee that drafted the proposal for an Oregon Country provisional government. At the Champoeg Meeting later that year, he cast one of the ‘yea’ votes that resulted in the creation of the provisional government. Initially, rather than a single governor, an executive committee of three people oversaw the government. Guess who was one of those three? David Hill went on to serve in the provisional legislature and the territorial legislature (after Oregon became a U.S. Territory in 1848). Due to his political activity, Hill became a figure of some prominence in the Oregon Territory.
Further evidencing David Hill’s support for establishing government, in 1850, he sold 160 acres of his land claim to Washington County for the purpose of establishing a county seat. The county had existed since 1843 but, lacking a formal seat, the court had been convening at locations such as the Five Oaks and the Methodist meetinghouse (both located in the neighborhood of the present-day crossing of NE Brookwood Parkway over Highway 26). The log cabin that, up to this point, had been David and Lucinda Hill’s home became the original county courthouse.
To provide an initial financial foundation for the county government, the 160 acres would be platted into streets, city blocks, and lots which would be sold, creating a town. $200 of the proceeds would go to Hill as payment for his real estate. At that time, the place was called Columbus (and, alternatively, Columbia). A surviving letter in David Hill’s own hand proves Columbus was Hill’s chosen name. The area’s first post office (in David Hill’s log cabin) also bore this name. ‘Columbia’ is widely seen in works about Hillsboro’s history. It could be a transcription error of yore canonized over generations of historians’ research references. It’s also possible both similar names were in use simultaneously during those early days, referring to the same place.
David Hill suddenly died on May 9, 1850. His body was buried near the northwest corner of his land claim. Ten years later, the graveyard now known as the Hillsboro Pioneer Cemetery was founded and laid out surrounding Hill’s burial site. There was no headstone, a problem that would be rectified by a Washington County schoolchildren’s fundraiser in 1930.
Following David Hill’s death, the County Court decreed that Columbus’ name would be changed to Hillsborough in honor of his memory. For the next few decades, both the official, British-inspired spelling and the truncated ‘Hillsboro’ enjoyed widespread use among the residents and city officials alike. Apparently, the lack of standardization didn’t bother anyone too much. Except eventually the U.S. Postal Service. The matter finally found rest when the truncated version was ordained by the USPS in 1892.
A side note: To ensure that an entire city block would be dedicated as a courthouse square, Isaiah and Winifred Kelsey (David Hill’s pioneer land claim neighbors to the north) donated a chunk of their abutting real estate to the County to become part of the new townsite. Until his death in 1932, the Kelseys’ son, Frank, staunchly maintained that Hillsboro should be named Kelseyville because his parents’ donation was more laudable than David Hill’s sale which yielded monetary gain.