Genealogy Guide to Portland, Oregon

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

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As the City of Roses, Portland, Ore., began like any typical garden: full of promise and mud. Well-watered by two rivers, this fur-trapper’s station gradually blossomed into a major Northwest port. If your ancestors transplanted themselves to Portland, it’s not difficult to find out more about them in one of America’s greenest cities.

A city blooms
Portland sprouted in the shade of several half-grown towns. A declining Chinook village to the north had been claimed by the British as Fort Vancouver in 1824. Several towns grew in the fertile Willamette Valley to the south, including Oregon City, the French-Canadian Catholic colony of French Prairie and several Methodist missions in the 1830s and 1840s.

Portland was still just a riverbank when pioneers staked a claim there in 1843. To name the new town, Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove flipped a coin; Lovejoy favored naming the city Boston, but Pettygrove won one for his home state of Maine. Proximity to the Columbia River and the inland-reaching Willamette River made the town a prime spot for exporters of Northwest lumber, furs and agricultural goods.

The Oregon Trail created an overland wagon path to Portland by 1846, but settlement didn’t officially open until the United States cleared claim to Oregon Territory in 1848. Within 20 years, the transcontinental railway made travel to California easier, and inbound travelers could steam up the coast. Direct rail service to Portland was in place by 1883.

Most who arrived in Portland via the Oregon Trail were Americans of British or German descent from eastern states. As Portland bloomed, it attracted laborers from distant lands, including Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, Germans from Russia, and Chinese. Oregon wasn’t friendly to nonwhites in the 1800s: It discouraged African-American arrivals with strict laws and expelled Chinese immigrants. Still, Portland’s population doubled in the first decade of the 1900s to more than 200,000 residents.

During World War II, thousands of local Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated to an internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho. Local shipyards imported workers from the Midwest and South, who then filled postwar manufacturing jobs. The small African-American population of Portland grew to nearly 18,000 in the 1940s, but housing rules imposed segregation in the city until the 1950s. In more recent years, Russians, Ukrainians, Vietnamese and Africans have planted themselves in metro Portland, which has made a name for itself as one of the nation’s hippest cities.

Cultivate your research
If your ancestors journeyed to the City of Roses, find their roots with these resources:

  • Births and deaths: Portland recorded births (1864 to 1917) and deaths (1862 to 1917) independently of the state, which began keeping vital records in 1903. Request copies of city registers and state death records at the Oregon State Archives; request state birth records from the State of Oregon Center for Health Statistics. Portland births (1881 to 1902) and deaths (1881 to 1917) are indexed online. The Genealogical Forum of Oregon (GFO) also has an online index to Portland death records from 1881 to 1917; request copies of the records for $5. has an index to Portland deaths from 1915 to 1924.
  • Marriages: Find local marriages in county records (parent counties Clackamas or Washington, or the current Multnomah County). Look for marriage applications, licenses, certificates and indexes through 1980 at the state archives. There’s an index to marriage registers (1855 to 1920) at the GFO website (and a later index at their library); request copies for $5. Request noncertified marriage certificates from the county Marriage License Section.
  • Probate: Start with the probate index (1852 to 1939) on the GFO website, which includes estates, will contests, guardianships and postponed estates. Request probates from the Records Department by mail; copies are 25 cents per page. For fastest service, send known information and a blank check marked “not to exceed $X” for whatever your limit is. If you’re in town, call a day ahead so records can be pulled for you. Don’t go to the probate office — it handles only open cases.
  • Land records: Early residents claimed acreage by application to a provisional government; find an index (1845 to 1849) at the GFO site. Find additional indexes and microfilmed records (before 1850) in Clackamas County. The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 offered free land in Oregon Territory until 1853. Find an index to claims on the GFO site; originals are at the National Archives, and microfilmed copies are at the state archives and the GFO. The Homestead Act of 1862 again offered land, this time until 1908. Find and order copies of homestead files at the Bureau of Land Management.

Otherwise, deeds since 1850 are at the Multnomah County Recorder’s Office. The office has chronological and alphabetical grantor-grantee indexes, but staff won’t look up names for you. If you can’t make it to the office, request a lookup in the GFO’s deed indexes (1849 to 1959) so you can then order deeds by mail from the Recorder’s Office.

  • Censuses: An 1842 census of “Settlers West of the Rockies” specifically enumerates folks living in the Willamette region. Territorial censuses (1841 to 1859) are cataloged at CensusFinder; search a compiled index, Oregon Census, 1841-1890, on Portland City first appears in the federal census in 1850 — look in Clackamas and Washington counties; Multnomah County wasn’t formed until 1854. Search an index to the 1890 veterans census; search or browse census images on, or look for originals at the National Archives.
  • City directories: Directories have existed for Portland since 1863. Find them at the Multnomah County Public Library (1863 to present), the GFO (1887 to 1985) and the Family History Library (1863 to 1935). RootsWeb has a directory to specific issues.
  • Cemetery records: Local government manages 14 pioneer cemeteries with more than 50,000 grave sites as old as 1809; known burials are indexed online (look under Places). Call to request copies of records. Otherwise, find a list of cemeteries (including Catholic and Jewish ones) at Genealogy Trails and transcriptions for several Portland cemeteries at Find a Grave. For burials in nearby Willamette National Cemetery (established in 1950), search the Veterans Administration grave site locator.
  • Newspapers: Several newspapers covered the Portland area by the 1860s. You’ll find many at the Multnomah Public Library and the Oregon Historical Society. GenealogyBank has searchable historical Oregon newspapers as old as 1854, including Portland’s Democratic Standard, New Age and the Oregonian. indexes more than 42,000 names from the Morning Oregonian (1861 to 1890) and Weekly Oregonian (1854 to 1862). The GFO also has an index of more than 23,000 obituaries on its website.

TIP: Oregon Trail arrivals created diaries, biographies, arrival lists and more; the Oregon Historical Society has an excellent collection. Peruse arrival lists and other resources at Oregon Genealogy and The Oregon Territory and Its Pioneers.

Fast Facts

  • Settled: 1843
  • Incorporated: 1851
  • Nicknames: City of Roses, Stumptown, PDX
  • State: Oregon
  • County: Multnomah (since 1854)
  • Historical counties: Clackamas, Twality (sometimes spelled Tuality), Washington
  • Area: 134 square miles
  • Motto: The City That Works
  • Primary historical ethnic groups: Chinese, Irish
  • Primary historical industries: shipping, brickmaking, shipbuilding, manufacturing
  • Famous sons & daughters: Beverly Cleary, Clark Gable, Matt Groening, Tonya Harding, The Kingsmen, Sally Struthers


  • 1843: First Portland land claimed
  • 1848: Oregon Territory organized
  • 1859: Oregon becomes a state
  • 1886: Chinese immigrants expelled
  • 1891: Port of Portland officially created
  • 1894: River floods 250 city blocks
  • 1905: Portland hosts World’s Fair
  • 1919: Anti-black housing code established
  • 1920s: Millions spent on bridges and harbor wall
  • 1942: Japanese residents are evacuated
  • 1962: Winds during Columbus Day Storm reach 116 mph




Organizations and Archives

Top 5 Historic Sites

  1. Museum of the Oregon Territory
    211 Tumwater Drive, Box 2211, Oregon City, OR 97045, (503) 655-5574
    Artifacts at this excellent regional museum tell the stories of American Indians and white settlers of the Willamette Valley. Be sure to check out the Clackamas County Family History Society research library.
  2. Oregon Historical Society Museum
    1200 SW Park Ave., Portland, OR 97205, (503) 222-1741
    This venue chronicles Oregon’s history from before European arrivals to the 20th century, including the Oregon Trail years. Take a docent-led or self-guided tour and check out the popular seasonal exhibits.
  3. Oregon Maritime Museum
    Waterfront Park, SW Naito Parkway and Pine Street, Portland, OR 97204, (503) 224-7724
    Learn about life on Portland’s rivers and shipyards by exploring an old steamship and exhibits of ship models, maritime artifacts and memorabilia. You can also hop aboard the restored steam-powered tugboat Portland.
  4. Phillip Foster Farm
    29912 SE Highway 211, Eagle Creek, OR 97022, (503) 637-6324
    Tour an 1847 land-claim farm that served Oregon Trail arrivals with crops, orchards, a grist mill and a store. Several restored buildings and gardens re-create the frontier experience.
  5. Pittock Mansion
    3229 NW Pittock Drive, Portland, OR 97210, (503) 823-3623
    This richly decorated historic mansion perched above downtown tells the story of a Portland newspaper pioneer and the growth of the city.

Records at a Glance

Birth records

  • Begin: 1864 (Portland), 1903 (Oregon)
  • Privacy restrictions: restricted for 100 years to immediate family and legal representatives
  • Research tips: The Oregon State Archives holds City of Portland birth registers from 1864 to 1917; search Portland births from 1881 to 1902. Contact the state Center for Health Statistics for copies of birth records or order them through VitalChek.

City directories

  • Begin: 1862
  • Research tips: No directories exist from 1945 to 1949. Order microfilm copies from the Family History Library, or request a lookup from the GFO; it has city directories from 1887 to 1985.

Death records

  • Begin: 1862 (Portland), 1903 (Oregon)
  • Privacy restrictions: restricted for 50 years
  • Research tips: The Oregon State Archives holds City of Portland death records 1862 to 1917; search Portland deaths 1881 to 1917. Contact the Center for Health Statistics for post-1903 death records or order them through VitalChek. The GFO offers death certificate copies for $5.


  • Begin: 1840s
  • Research tips: Research provisional land claims (1845 to 1849), donation land claims (1850 to 1853) and Homestead Act claims (1862 to 1908) separately. You can find deeds since 1850 at the Multnomah County Recorder’s Office.

Marriage records

  • Begin: 1855
  • Privacy restrictions: restricted for 50 years
  • Research tips: Contact the county Marriage License Section for noncertified copies; research indexes and records at the Oregon State Archives.

Related Resources

From the November 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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