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Illinois River name came from prospectors

I came to Southern Oregon from the Midwest, and one thing I've yet to understand is how the Illinois River in Josephine County got its name. There is no place in all of Illinois that looks anything like that river and the rugged country it runs through.

 — Dale K., via email

Place names don't always reflect the reality of the landscape, Dale.

The Europeans who settled North America often felt the need to give new names to places to replace the ones that already were used by Native Americans. Unfortunately, they weren't always original. Consider the number of streams named Elk Creek, and all the Trout Lakes scattered across the Western states.

They also tended to name things after the places they came from or places they were familiar with. Consider New York, New Jersey, New South Wales (Australia), and New Caledonia (in the Pacific Ocean).

Remembrance of things past seems to be the source of the Illinois River's name. "Oregon Geographic Names, " that encyclopedic account of place names and their origins, says the river was named by the three Althouse brothers, John, Phillip and Samuel, who emigrated to Oregon in 1847 from Peoria, Ill., and settled around Albany.

When gold was discovered in Southern Oregon, the brothers came south and looked for riches in the river they named for their home state — never mind that it looked nothing like the flat prairie they left behind. Maybe they were homesick.

Their family name survives in Althouse Creek and Althouse Mountain, near the Oregon/California border.

— Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.