How Florence got its name:
Still in Question

Story by Dave Masko


Could it possibly be a coincidence that a ship named Florence was lost off the coast of Florence? Or did the town of Florence acquire its name because of this shipwreck?

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According to historical records in the Special Collections at the University of Oregon, a sailing vessel named Florence wrecked along the Oregon Coast near Florence on November 18, 1875. A marine history of the Pacific Northwest and numerous other historical records also state this to be true.

This painting illustrates the legend of settlers finding a ship's nameplate with "Florence" on it
This painting illustrates the legend of settlers
finding a ship's nameplate with "Florence" on it.

“What we know is that a wooden board with the name of the sailing ship Florence was picked up by some local Indians somewhere along our beach,” says Pearl Campbell, who serves as the research director for the collection of historical records at the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum in Florence.

An oil painting that hangs in the museum depicts this local legend. During a recent interview, Campbell went on to explain that “one day in the early 1880s, a man named Thomas Safly nailed this wooden board (the ship’s nameplate) over the door of the hotel in downtown Florence that also served as the post office. With that, Florence became the name of the town.”

However, numerous Oregon historians reference a viewpoint that was prevalent out West during the settlement years of the late 19th century whereby the local settlers often re-created history to fulfill a need. Thus, a romanticized story about Indians (who were generally not thought of as friendly in the 1870s) discovering a perfectly shaped piece of driftwood with the name “Florence” on it, and then delivering it to the local townsfolk is viewed by some as a nice story but highly unlikely.

In fact, Oregon Genealogical Society records, including the Centennial History of Oregon, 1811–1911, list numerous examples of pioneers naming the town as “Florence” in various letters, journals, and family Bibles well before this story about the town being named for a piece of driftwood.

When asked about the “other” story of how Florence got its name, Campbell admits to reading about an Oregon state senator named A.B. Florence. However, she maintains, “I’m not sure if he had anything to do with our town’s name.”

A.B. Florence was a state senator in Oregon during the early 1870s when part of what is now the town of Florence was opened up for white settlement. Florence then developed in the late 1870s and early 1880s along with the growth of sawmills and a salmon cannery along the Siuslaw River.

The town grew during this period in part due to lawmakers such as A.B. Florence. Senator Florence wanted a government-financed road linking the coast to Eugene. He also wanted much needed jetty construction. A successful stage line from nearby Gardiner was also attributed to Senator Florence. Thus, it’s quite possible that the appreciative townsfolk decided to call their new community “Florence.” This idea of naming a new settlement after a mover and shaker was quite common out West during this period. Kit Carson is often used as an example, with numerous communities out West named for him.

A.B. Florence may not have been as popular as Kit Carson. It is known that some Florence leaders were wary of “government folk.” It’s highly possible—state some accounts—that the serendipity of the sailing ship Florence sinking around this time allowed for this “local myth” to be created.

Either way, Campbell and many in this coastal community maintain that Florence was named for a piece of driftwood.

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