History of Washington

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Washington state flag

Washington's current flag.

Washington became the 42nd state in 1889. In the 1850s, the state named two of its counties Pierce and King, partly to get attention, and possible early statehood, from President Pierce and his Vice President, William Rufus King. Since then, King County has officially been renamed for Martin Luther King


Prior to the arrival of explorers from Europe, this region of the Pacific Coast had many established tribes of Native Americans, each with its own unique culture. Today, they are most notable for their totem poles and their ornately carved canoes and masks. Prominent among their industries were salmon fishing and whaling. In the east, nomadic tribes travelled the land and missionaries such as the Whitmans settled there. The earliest known human habitation of Washington took place at approximately 10,000 BCE, 5,000 to 3,000 years after massive floods in the Columbia River carved the Columbia Gorge. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Pacific Northwest was one of the first populated areas in North America, with animal and human bones 13,000 years old being found across the state.

It is estimated that before the arrival of Euro-Americans in this region, there were 125 distinct Northwest tribes speaking 50 languages. Throughout the Puget Sound region, there were numerous small tribes that subsisted primarily on salmon, halibut, shellfish, and whale. While seafood was a mainstay of the native diet, cedar trees were the most important building material. Cedar was used by these tribes to build both longhouses and large canoes. Even clothing was made from the bark of cedar trees. The natural abundance of the region allowed many tribes to develop complex cultures.

It was the Columbia River tribes, however, that became the richest of the Washington tribes through their control of Washington Falls, which was historically the richest salmon fishing location in the Northwest. These falls on the Columbia River east of present-day The Dalles were part of the path millions of salmon took to spawn, and there Native Americans would spear and deep-net the fish to preserve them for the winter. Some Native Americans still fish for Columbia River salmon as they once did, perched on wooden platforms and using dip nets.

At Ozette, in the northwest corner of the state, an ancient village was covered by a mudflow, perhaps triggered by an earthquake about 500 years ago. More than 50,000 well-preserved artifacts have been found and cataloged, many of which are now on display at the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay. Other sites have also revealed how long people have been there. Thumbnail-sized quartz knife blades found at the Hoko River site near Clallam Bay are believed to be 2,500 years old.


The first European record of a landing on the Washington coast was by Spanish Captain Don Bruno de Heceta in 1775 on board the Santiago, part of a two-ship flotilla with the Sonora. They claimed all the coastal lands up to the Russian possessions in the north for Spain.

In 1778, British explorer Captain James Cook sighted Cape Flattery, at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but the straits would not be explored until 1789 by Captain Charles W. Barkley. Further explorations of the straits were performed by Spanish explorers Manuel Quimper in 1790 and Francisco de Eliza in 1791, then by British Captain George Vancouver in 1792.

The Spanish Nootka Convention, of 1790, opened the northwest territory to explorers and trappers from other nations, most notably Britain and then the United States. Captain Robert Gray (for whom Grays Harbor County is named) then discovered the mouth of the Columbia river and, beginning in 1792, he established trade in Sea Otter pelts. In 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition entered the state on October 10.

American-British WashingtonEdit

In the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty, Spain ceded their original claims to this territory to the United States. This began a period of disputed joint-occupancy by Britain and the U.S. that lasted until June 15, 1846 when Britain ceded their claims to this land with the Treaty of Oregon.

Washington ColonyEdit

Due to the migration along the Oregon Trail, many settlers wandered north to what is now Washington State and settled the Puget Sound area. The first settlement was New Market (now known as Tumwater) in 1846. In 1853, Washington Territory was formed from part of Oregon Territory.


Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam was the largest dam in the world at the time of its construction

Washington became the 42nd state in the United States on November 11, 1889.

Early prominent industries in the state included agriculture and lumber. In eastern Washington, the Yakima Valley became known for its apple orchards while the growth of wheat using dry-farming techniques became particularly productive. The heavy rainfall to the west of the Cascade Range produced dense forests and the ports along Puget Sound prospered from the manufacturing and shipping of lumber products, particularly the Douglas fir. Other industries that developed in the state include fishing, salmon canning and mining.

By the turn of the 20th century, the state of Washington was one of dangerous repute in the minds of many Americans. Indisputably as "wild" as the rest of the wild west, the public image of Washington merely replaced cowboys with lumberjacks, and desert with forestland. Sentiments of socialism were so strong that Franklin D. Roosevelt's postmaster general James Farley quipped in 1936, "There are forty-seven states in the Union, and the soviet of Washington."

For a long period Tacoma was noted for its large smelters where gold, silver, copper and lead ores were treated. Seattle was the primary port for trade with Alaska and the rest of the country and for a time possessed a large shipbuilding industry. The region around eastern Puget Sound developed heavy industry during the period including World War I and World War II and the Boeing company became an established icon in the area.

During the depression era, a series of hydroelectric dams were constructed along the Columbia river as part of a project to increase the production of electricity. This culminated in 1941 with the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest in the United States.

World War IIEdit

During World War II, the Puget Sound area became a focus for war industries with the Boeing Company producing many of the nation's heavy bombers and ports in Seattle, Bremerton, Vancouver, and Tacoma available for the manufacturing of ships for the war effort. In eastern Washington, the Hanford Works atomic energy plant was opened in 1943 and played a major role in the construction of the nation's atomic bombs.

Contemporary WashingtonEdit


On May 18, 1980, following a period of heavy tremors and eruptions, the northeast face of Mount St. Helens exploded outward, destroying a large part of the top of the volcano. This eruption flattened the forests for many kilometers, killed 57 people, flooded the Columbia River and its tributaries with ash and mud and blanketed large parts of Washington in ash, making day look like night.

On January 30, 2006, Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law legislation making Washington the 17th state in the nation to protect gay and lesbian people from discrimination in housing, lending, and employment, and the 7th state in the nation to offer these protections to transgendered people. Initiative activist Tim Eyman filed a referendum that same day, seeking to put the issue before the state's voters. In order to qualify for the November election the measure required a minimum of 112,440 voter signatures by 5:00 p.m. June 6, 2006. Despite a push from conservative churches across the state to gather signatures on what were dubbed "Referendum Sundays," Eyman was only able to gather 105,103 signatures, more than 7,000 signatures short of the minimum. As a result, the law went into effect on June 7, 2006.

See alsoEdit

History of the west coast of North America

External linksEdit

  • University of Washington Libraries: Digital Collections:
    • Albert Henry Barnes Photographs 302 images from the turn of the 20th century documenting the landscape, people, and cities and towns of Western Washington.
    • Pacific Northwest Olympic Peninsula Community Museum A web-based museum showcasing aspects of the rich history and culture of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula communities. Features cultural exhibits, curriculum packets and a searchable archive of over 12,000 items that includes historical photographs, audio recordings, videos, maps, diaries, reports and other documents.
    • Prosch Washington Views Album 101 images (ca. 1858-1903) collected and annotated by Thomas Prosch, one of Seattle's earliest pioneers. Images document scenes in Eastern Washington especially Chelan and vicinity, and Seattle's early history including the Seattle Fire of 1889.
    • Washington State Localities Photographs Images (ca. 1880-1940) of Washington State, including forts and military installations, homesteads and residences, national parks and mountaineering, and industries and occupations, such as logging, mining and fishing.
    • Washington State Pioneer Life Database A collection of writings, diaries, letters, and reminiscences that recount the early settlement of Washington, the establishment of homesteads and towns and the hardships faced by many of the early pioneers.
  • Secretary of State's Washington History website
    • Classics in Washington History This digital collection of full-text books brings together rare, out of print titles for easy access by students, teachers, genealogists and historians. Visit Washington's early years through the lives of the men and women who lived and worked in Washington Territory and State.
    • Washington Historical Map Collection The State Archives and the State Library hold extensive map collections dealing with the Washington State and the surrounding region. Maps for this digital collection will be drawn from state and territorial government records, historic books, federal documents and the Northwest collection.
    • Washington Historical Newspapers
    • Washington Territorial Timeline To recognize the 150th anniversary of the birth of Washington, the State Archives has created a historical timeline of the Pacific Northwest and Washington Territory. With the help of pictures and documents from the State Archives, the timeline recounts the major political and social events that evolved Washington Territory into Washington State.

This page uses content from the English language Wikipedia. The original content was at History of Washington. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with this Familypedia wiki, the content of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons License.

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