Native Americans

The earliest known Indians to live along the Rock River were the Algonquins, a large family of Indians which included many tribes.  About 1750, they were driven out by the Sacs and Foxes who came from the region of the St. Lawrence River.  Other Indians who at one time or another lived in this region were the Potawatomi and Winnebago Indian tribes. The name Oregon means “River of the West and Rocky Waters.”  As time passed, settlers discovered the area contained a large number of Indian mounds, most 10 to 12 feet in diameter.

Florence – Oregon City – Oregon

John Phelps, the first European to visit the land, deserves the honor for founding Oregon..  He visited the Rock River Valley for the first time in 1829, returning in 1833 looking for a suitable site to settle.  Impressed by the forest and river-fed valley, he located a claim and built his cabin.  Other pioneers followed Phelps and together they created the first church, school, grocery store, blacksmith shop, and post office.  By December 4, 1838, due in large part to the efforts of Phelps and his brothers, B. T. Phelps and G. W. Phelps, the land was claimed, subdivided, and certified by the Ogle County clerk as Oregon City. In 1839, Oregon City was renamed Florence after a visitor compared the scenic beauty of the Rock River to the Italian city of the same name.  Florence was used for about three years when the community opted to revert to its original name sans the word “city.  By 1847, the town boasted of a saw-mill, ferry, 44 households and a population of 225.  The population continued to grow during the 1850s and 1860s demonstrated by the increase of churches and the building of a railroad in 1871. Although Oregon existed as a community, it was not organized as a city under an act of the General Assembly of the State of Illinois until April 1, 1869.


Industry followed the railroad and through the years Oregon became home to an oatmeal mill, furniture and piano factory, chair factory, flour mill, road building and maintenance equipment factory, (E.D. Etnyre & Co.) mowers and heavy machinery accessories, (Woods Equipment Co.).   Both of these industries still exist.  In recent years, F. N. Smith, a specialty tool & die manufacturer, and the Exelon Nuclear Power Station located near Oregon have added substantial industry to the area.

The first home built in Oregon (1835) was that of James V. Gale built on the site of Nash School, now Oregon Park District Recreation Center.  He was the first Recorder of Ogle County, first Justice of the Peace, and in 1863, he was elected State Representative by the Republican Party. In 1870, he became Oregon’s first mayor.

The Regulators and the Driscoll Gang

In the early days of Ogle County, a gang of outlaws numbering as many as 500 men made life in this area both interesting and dangerous. From 1835-1841, the notorious “Prairie Bandits” controlled the area and ruled by keeping people in terror.  They were horse thieves, counterfeiters, and murderers.  The night before the first Ogle County Courthouse was to be opened March 1841, it was burned to the ground by this group hoping to destroy records needed to prosecute jailed gang members awaiting trial.  Outraged town leaders decided to take the law into their own hands.  Organizing as “Regulator” they warned the “Bandits” to get out or be horsewhipped.  They captured John Driscoll, the recognized leader of the gang and his son William, tried, and executed them before a 111-man firing squad.  The execution site is found east of Oregon.

Famous Visitors

Abraham Lincoln spoke at Oregon on August 16, 1856, and the location on north 4th street is marked by a large stone that says, “Lincoln spoke here—-August 16, 1856.”

Legendary outlaw Jesse James and his brother Frank stopped by the Ogle County Fair in 1876, to enjoy some harness racing just days before they left for Minnesota to rob a bank.  Their most ambitious operation ever ended in their greatest disaster when armed townspeople in Northfield, Minnesota managed to kill, wound, or capture the entire James gang except for Jesse and Frank who escaped to Missouri.  James, America’s most successful bank robber, eluded authorities for 15 years.

In 1899, Frank O. Lowden, Illinois Governor from 1917 to 1921, purchased the first piece of property of what later became known as Sinnissippi Forest. Located on the Rock River south and east of Oregon, the forest was named by Mrs. Lowden who used the Indian name for the Rock River, “Rocky Waters.”

Oregon has a vibrant past, many details left to the enthusiastic historian.  Come to our local Historical Museum or Library for more information.