Josephine County: The Golden Beginnings
A Josephine County Historical Society Publication

by Larry McLane

It is often asked, "What caused the settlement of Southern Oregon, specifically, Josephine County?" The answer: gold.

In the spring of 1851 Lloyd Rollins and a party of prospectors, including his teenaged daughter Josephine, were headed for the California gold fields. Upon arriving on the Rogue River, some friendly Indians told them of gold in what later became the Illinois Valley.

Josephine later wrote that it took a week of packing out a road in some places to get within three miles of their destination. They packed into a tributary of the main river later named Josephine Creek in her honor. Here they indeed found considerable gold. This was the first gold discovered in Southern Oregon.

People have been buying and selling gold for a long time, and the business is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Gold was again discovered on Jackson Creek in now Jackson County in April 1852 as documented by  Levi Scott, Oregon trailblazer. Scott was pasturing cattle in the Rogue Valley for the California gold field market when this discovery was made. This gold strike was so rich, thousands of miners flocked to the area and the town of Jacksonville literally grew over night, needless to say, there were too many miners for claims available, so they spread out to the Applegate and Illinois Valleys where another major strike was found: Sailor Diggins, later Waldo.

All the tributaries of the Illinois River were prospected. Sucker Creek and Althouse Creek were very rich. At this same time, gold was discovered on Galice Creek, also rich.

By 1853 to 1854, the miners were working on Grave Creek, then Coyote Creek, where millions of dollars in gold was taken over a number of years. During the years from 1851 to 1900 many rich quartz mines were discovered. During the mining years, many homesteads were taken in the fertile Upper Rogue Vally and as mining faded, farming took its place as the main industry.

By comparison, Josephine County mines lasted many more years than Jackson County's and were the dominant industry. Josephine County has very little tillable land in comparison to Jackson County, namely the Applegate Valley, Illinois Valley, and some west of Grants Pass. Farming was never a paying industry and only provided a living for most.

With the coming of the railroad in 1883 the timber and lumber industry was  born - mines were still producing millions of dollars, but by World War I, gold mining had nearly ceased since at that time, the timber industry had driven Josephine County's economy.

Grants Pass became a thriving center of trade and shipped untold millions of board feet of lumber over the years. Now the lumber industry is gold the way of gold mining. What the future holds is anyone's guess; but, rest assured, Josephine County has one of the richest and most colorful histories in the State of Oregon.

A Commentary on Local History
by Joan Momsen

Local histories are often in error because of several different reasons. First when a new settlement was established, recording the precise date of events was not always done; survival came before historic detail. Second, when the facts were finally written down, specifics were forgotton; so, stories were not always factual and were somtimes embellished by the teller's memories. Third, handwriting and abbreviations were sometimes misread; it was common to abbreviate first names or use only initials. There was no standard penmanship form and many writers had little or no formal education. For example, O's were mistaken for A's, E's for I's, etc. The name James might be abbreviated as Jas and misread as Jos, therefore, James ended up being recorded as Joseph. Kerby could be written as Kirby, Mid Ford as Medford, Wonder and Wander and really poor penmanship could turn Mr. Tanner into Mr. Lanner.

I could go on, but I mean to explain why, when one reads about events that were witnessed only by a few, and conflicting information is found decades later, it should just be accepted. The information is probably pretty close to the truth and one should just be thankful the basic facts were even recorded at all. So if someone states a fact from the distant past as gospel, just ask if he or she was there. If it happened in Washington, D.C. on the floor of Congress and was recorded in the Congressional Record, it is probably word-for-word true, but if it happened in the bushes along the Applegate between a settler and a Native American, one can pretty well be sure of getting two different versions. With this in mind, enjoy this little book and let us know what you think!

Below you will find links to short local histories about the towns that make up Josephine County. These are from "The Oldtimer" the annual publication sent to members of the Josephine County Historical Society. If you'd like more information on becoming a member or purchasing publications from us, please email us at or call us at (541) 479-7827.

Cave Junction Kerby Takilma
Galice Leland Waldo
Golden Merlin Wilderville
Grants Pass Murphy Williams
Greenback O'Brien Wolf Creek
Holland Placer Wonder
Hugo Selma  


Related Sites

Josephine County Historical Society

Applegate Trail - the Southern Route of the Oregon Trail

Oregon Facts: History of Oregon Names

Oregon Facts: Interesting Names and Places in Oregon

Ghost Towns of Oregon

Updated on June 22, 2011

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