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Umatilla is an Indian term meaning "rippling water" or "water rippling over sand" and has provided the name both for the county and its major river. The county contains 3,231 square miles and is bounded by the Columbia River on the north, Morrow County on the west, Grant County on the south, and Union and Wallowa Counties on the east.
Lewis and Clark and pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail passed through the area. The gold rush of 1862 brought miners and stock raisers to the mountains and grasslands of Umatilla County. The county expanded after the coming of the railroad in 1881 and the area was open to the development of dry land wheat farming. The fertile land of Umatilla County gives a strongly agricultural base to the county's economy. Fruit, grain, timber, cattle, and sheep are important agricultural products.
Pendleton is the cultural center of Eastern Oregon. Pendleton's "Old town" is listed as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) have their property nearby. They have established the Wild Horse Casino and golf course on the reservation to generate revenue for development and welfare. They have also built the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, for education and interpretation of their cultures. Recreation, primarily in the Blue Mountains, and tourism, most notably for the annual Pendleton Round-Up rodeo, are also important to the local economy.