The Kalapuya people were the earliest inhabitants of this part of Oregon. Hunters and gatherers, they burned the grass to clear brush, increasing the local game and vegetation and creating a wide, grassy prairie.
The first white settlers, Elijah Bristow, Eugene Franklin Skinner, and two other companions arrived in what is now Lane County, Oregon in 1846. The others established their land claims at the end of the Willamette Valley, and as the group was on their way back, Skinner claimed the area that is now Eugene and built the first cabin here, using it as a trading post and later as a post office.
Oregon became a state in 1859. The town of Eugene was incorporated in 1862 and named for the early settler.
The first telegraph line came to Eugene in 1864, and the Territorial Road arrived the following year, making Eugene a popular stagecoach stop. By 1872, the Oregon-California Railway arrived. The University of Oregon was formally established here in 1872 and opened in 1876.
Eugene Franklin Skinner: Founder of Eugene City
Eugene Franklin Skinner was born September 13, 1809 in Essex, Essex County, New York, and son of Major John Joseph Skinner. His mother died in his infancy. His father moved the family to Green County, Wisconsin when Eugene was about 14 years old. He moved back to Plattsburg, New York for a short time, but settled in Hennepin, Putnam County, Illinois where he served as county sheriff. In May, 1845, he and his wife, Mary Cook (whom he married in November 28, 1839), journeyed overland to California, hoping to regain his health. They traveled with Elijah Bristow and Wesley Shannon.
The party wintered at Sutter’s Fort. In 1846 Skinners came north to Oregon, stopping briefly in Polk County, near Dallas. That summer Skinner joined the Bristow party in exploring the valley to the south, and took up a claim downriver some miles from Elijah Bristow’s claim at the foot of a low hill. Fortunately for Skinner, two Kalapuyas happened by, bringing trout from the river. “Build high up,” they said, “Ya-po-ah.” They pointed to the hillside. Using Chinook jargon, he asked why. “Big waters come some day,” they told him. He was convinced to build his cabin on high ground because of the floods. Skinner selected a bench of land on the south side of the hill, cut his logs from the firs at the river’s edge, and built a one-room claim cabin. This rude shelter had a door with skins hung across the opening. Its primary purpose was to hold the land until Skinner could bring his family there for permanent occupancy. The site of his first cabin is commemorated with a marker installed by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution on the hill known ever since as Skinner’s Butte.
The cabin expanded, and had two doors and a window looking out across the prairie and the wooded area to the south and west. For several months Mary was the only white woman in the region that would become Lane County (Bristow’s wife, bringing several of their fifteen children, couldn’t make the journey from the East until 1848). In the high valley, the few Indians had few disputes for the early white settlers. There came a day, however, when Chief Tom was filled with resentment at the thought of the occupants of the cabin at Ya-po-ah. The Skinners knew enough jargon to recognize the impending danger. Eugene shouldered his musket and patrolled the cabin that night, while Mary molded bullets over the fire. By sundown on the following day, Chief Tom and Eugene Skinner smoked the pipe of peace.In the spring of 1847, Eugene Skinner brought his wife Mary and their infant daughter Mary Elizabeth, born in December 2, 1846 in Clackamas County, to the tiny log cabin.
The Skinners had lost three daughters to illness back in Illinois, but they eventually raised a family of several children born on the homestead. Here they farmed, operated a ferry service, and in 1852, with Judge D. M. Risdon laid out the town of Eugene. Mary Cook Skinner was privileged to name the new town Eugene City after her husband. In 1853 Skinner donated a portion of his property for county buildings. Thereafter he practiced law, serving as county clerk and Eugene postmaster for several years. He was the father of five children: Lenora, the first white child born in Lane County, September 2, 1848; Phoebe, born March 29, 1850; St. John B. L., born November 7, 1851; Amelia R., born April 16, 1855. Mr. Skinner died December 15, 1864. There is an enormous ivy tree planted in front of 260 West Sixth Avenue, between Lincoln and Charnelton. Mary Cook Skinner brought four little Firs from back of the butte and planted them together. Later she planted ivy, and over the years it became so thick the Firs had to be cut down. The house that stands there today is the house where Eugene Skinner died. He took a cold from exposure during the big flood of 1861 while trying to save his cattle and never fully recovered. Mary remarried on February 7, 1867, and died on June 4, 1881 as Mrs. N. L. Packard.