Eugene is named after its founder, Eugene Franklin Skinner. Until 1889, it was named Eugene City. In 1846, Skinner erected the first cabin in the area. It was used as a trading post and was registered as an official post office on January 8, 1850. At this time the settlement was known as Skinner's Mudhole. It was relocated in 1853 and named Eugene City, but was not formally incorporated as a city until 1862. Skinner later ran a ferry service across the Willamette River where the Ferry Street Bridge now stands.
The first major educational institution in the area was Columbia College, founded a few years earlier than the University of Oregon. It fell victim to two major fires in four years, and after the second fire, the college decided not to rebuild again. The part of south Eugene known as College Hill was the former location of Columbia College. There is no college there today.
The town raised the initial funding to start a public university, which later became the University of Oregon, with the hope of turning the small town into a center of learning. In 1872, the Legislative Assembly passed a bill creating the University of Oregon as a state institution. Eugene bested the nearby town of Albany in the competition for the state university. In 1873, community member J.H.D. Henderson donated the hilltop land for the campus, overlooking the city.