The area was occupied by the Wiradjuri people prior to white settlement. The first Europeans to set foot on the future townsite were the party of John Oxley who camped here in 1817 while engaged on one of the first inland expeditions. Oxley named the site 'Camp Hill' but was unimpressed with the clay soil, poor timber and swamps. In fact, he concluded, 'it is impossible to imagine a worse country'.
Nonetheless a run named 'Bogabigal' was established here around 1834. However, the town did not emerge until gold was discovered by Harry Stephens in June 1861 at what is now King George V Park (there is a memorial to that effect in the park).
The lure initially drew about 30 000 people to the Lachlan goldfields which centred on what was initially known as 'Black Ridge', after the ironbarks which once predominated. This tent city was later renamed 'Forbes', probably after Francis Forbes, the first chief justice of NSW.
The influx of people meant opportunities for service providers such as the Albion, the first hotel, which allegedly sold the greatest quantity of alcohol in Australia during the 1860s.
It has been claimed that, during the first two years, 8100 kg of gold were turned up although, by 1863, the population had declined to 3500 due to poor conditions, the small size of alluvial claims and seepage from the Lachlan River into the mine shafts.
Inevitably there were those who sought to lay their hands on the riches by easier methods. A number of bushrangers, including Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall and Johnnie Gilbert, worked together as a gang, harrying the area from 1862 to 1865.
Hall came to the Lachlan area when he was 12 and purchased a station in the Weddin Mountains in 1860. He was tried for armed robbery in 1862 but acquitted. Upon his return to the property he found his house burned down, his cattle dead and his wife had run off with a former policeman. Some say he was the victim of a police vendetta. At any rate there is no doubt that he became a full-time bushranger from that time.
In 1862 the gang pulled off the largest Australian gold robbery of the century near Eugowra. Hall was arrested but released when gang member, Dan Charters, refused to implicate his best friend. However, he was shot dead in a hail of gunfire about 20 km to the north-west of town on May 5, 1865 and is buried in the Forbes cemetery. Johnny Gilbert was killed shortly after and Frank Gardiner was released from gaol in 1874 on the grounds that he leave the country.
Although the bulk of the gold was soon removed the town did not fade away. It possessed the advantage of being located on the main overland stock route between Victoria and Queensland. Moreover, earlier pastoral activities were resumed and agricultural pursuits, particularly the growing of wheat, began to flourish, in large part due to French settlers J.B. Reymond and Auguste Nicolas who also developed a weir and irrigation system, established the first sawmill (1861) and the first vineyard and winery.
Forbes was declared a municipality in 1870. The first sheepdog trial in Australia, and possibly the world, was held here in 1872. The railway arrived in 1893 and the local economy expanded to include orchards and dairying. Agriculture was further enhanced with the construction of Wyangala Dam in 1935.
The Forbes Show is held in September, the Festival of Roses in November, the Jazz Festival in January and the Bush Traditions Folk Festival in August. The Forbes Hang-gliding Championships are held each January.