Washington State

Original Inhabitants

Native inhabitants have occupied the area that became Washington for over 11,000 years. They were most likely the descendants of Asians who had crossed a land bridge to North America at the end of the last ice age and had slowly worked their way south.

At the time of the Europeans` arrival, there were two major native groupings. One was located on the Columbia Plateau to the east of the Cascade Mountain Range and included such tribes as the Cayuse, Nez Percé, Okanogan, Palouse, Wenatchee and Yakima. Those Indians were semi-nomadic and sometimes had difficulty feeding themselves during long periods of adverse weather. The other group lived close to bodies of water — major rivers, Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. They included the Chinook, Clallam, Clatsop, Makah, Nisqually, Puyallup, Quinault, Salish and Snohomish. The Hoh River Indian Tribe occupied much of the northernmost Pacific coastline.

The arrival of the Europeans

The early discovery and exploration of both Washington and Oregon was carried out by Spanish and English mariners. The Spanish came first, sailing from their bases in Mexico and Central America, in search for a water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. Later, in 1775, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra and Bruno Heceta became the first Europeans to set foot on what would become Washington State, going ashore at Point Grenville in the present mid-coast area. The Spanish claim was intended to dissuade not only the English, but also the Russians who were based in present-day Alaska.

In 1778, Captain James Cook strengthened the English claim by sailing into Washington waters. Bad weather prevented him from going ashore, but he traded with accommodating natives for sea otter pelts before pressing farther north where he landed on Vancouver Island. Cook’s later reports on the abundance of fur-bearing animals did much to popularize the riches of the Northwest.

Ten years later, John Meares sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, reportedly naming that body of water for a crew member. The Strait was the entry way to a vast protected sound that was explored in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver. He named Puget Sound for one of his officers as well as provided names for Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and the San Juan Islands.

The first United States’ claim to present-day Washington came through the activities of Captain Robert Gray, a Boston fur merchant. In 1792, he sailed into both the mouth of the Columbia River and also into what became known as Grays Harbor. The American claim to the Northwest was enhanced in 1805 when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark descended the Columbia from the east and wintered at Fort Clatsop.

Early European settlement

The early European explorers of the Northwest spent only short periods ashore, if any, before returning to their ships. The fur traders and trappers, however, needed to be based on land in order to conduct their business. As early as 1810, a Canadian venture, the North West Company, established Spokane House in eastern Washington to conduct trade with Indians of that name. The following year, John Jacob Astor, a New Yorker, built a fur depot at Astoria and dispatched agents northward to establish what became known as Fort Okanogan, the first white settlement in Washington. Astor sold out his holdings to the rival North West Company at the outbreak of the War of 1812. At war’s end in 1815, the Northwest continued to be occupied by both British and American citizens. The Russian presence was never great and was formally surrendered a few years later. Spain was a declining power and largely preoccupied with independence movements throughout its Latin American empire.

In 1818, Britain and the United States avoided the difficult issue of the ownership of the so-called Oregon Country and chose to accept joint occupation for a period of 10 years; the agreement was then renewed without an expiration date. Clearly the dominant figure of his era was Dr. John McLoughlin, the chief agent for the Hudson’s Bay Company, who established Fort Vancouver on the north side of the Columbia River in 1825.

Missionary efforts were undertaken by both Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Oregon Country of the 1830s. Most of the activity was directed to the Willamette Valley, but an important medical mission was established at Waiilatpu near Walla Walla in 1836. Relations with the semi-nomadic Cayuse eventually soured, ending in a massacre in 1847.

The spirit of Manifest Destiny swept up many Americans in the early 1840s, influencing them to press the government for the removal of British from the Oregon Country. The most extreme expansionists called for the establishment of the international boundary at 54º 40’ north latitude — a location far north in today’s British Columbia. The cry of “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!" was an important factor in the election in 1844, but wiser heads prevailed. A treaty was signed between the U.S. and Britain in 1846 that established the boundary at the 49th parallel in the area from the crest of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. Vancouver Island, which extends south of the line, remained in British hands.

The Territorial stage

By act of Congress in 1846, the Oregon Territory was established, encompassing what today is Washington State. Joseph Lane served as the first territorial governor. The growing population in the northern reaches felt far removed from the seat of government and in 1853 was successful in pressuring Congress to create the Washington Territory. This new entity encompassed present-day Washington as well as portions of western Montana and northern Idaho. Olympia became the territorial capital and Isaac I. Stevens the first governor. Stevens devoted his energies to concluding treaties with resident tribes, offering money for the best lands in return for Indian agreement to relocate on remote reservations.

A prosperous new community was established at Port Townsend at the entry to Puget Sound and a small lumber town at Seattle. Minor gold rushes occurred in eastern Washington in the 1850s and 1860s.

Isaac Stevens was named governor of the Washington Territory in 1851 and began negotiating with the Indians with the objective of securing more land for white settlement. The Indians became dissatisfied with the negotiations and rose up in arms, initially defeating the regular army troops. Governor Stevens then called up a militia of a thousand men who subdued them. Some residents of Pierce County, viewed as sympathetic to the Indians, sought the protection of the courts. In response, Stevens declared a state of martial law, closed the courts, and arrested the chief justice.

Differences over the ownership of San Juan Island resulted in the so-called Pig War between the United States and Britain in 1859. More serious problems developed in a short war against the Yakima (1855-58) and later with the Nez Percé (1877).

The early statehood period

Tremendous growth occurred in the Washington Territory during the 1880s. The signal event was the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad to the Puget Sound area in 1883; two other transcontinental lines would follow in later years. Much of the labor for those ventures was supplied by imported labor, particularly Chinese. Relations between the races were often troubled and race riots occurred in Seattle, Tacoma and smaller communities.

Washington entered the Union as the 42nd state on November 11, 1889. Elisha P. Ferry, a former territorial official, became the first state governor. That year witnessed major fires in Seattle and Spokane, both of which rebuilt their cores with brick and stone structures.

Seattle in particular profited greatly by the discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1897. The growing community on Puget Sound became the chief point of departure and the major supplier of those headed for the gold fields. Development also was occurring across the Cascades where early irrigation projects enabled orchard and wheat ventures to replace cattle and sheep in some areas.

At the turn of the century, the western portion of the state was booming from the development of trade, shipbuilding and lumber. This prosperity was celebrated in 1909 in Seattle in the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, an early world’s fair. Farmers in the east, however, were plagued by low prices and suffered under the thumbs of what they regarded as predatory railroads. Protests developed under the banners of the Grangers and the Farmers Alliances. The Populist Party also experienced some success, yielding the governorship to John Rankin Rogers in 1896.

Washington workers turned increasingly to union representation in the closing decades of the 19th century, which established the base for later charges of labor radicalism. In 1909, a major confrontation occurred in Spokane where the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or more popularly, the Wobblies) staged speeches to protest unfair actions by employment agents. The city responded by arresting the speakers and protestors, but the IWW drew national attention by shipping in replacement demonstrators by rail.

Reform sentiment was strong during the Progressive period after 1900. The state responded by enacting workmen’s compensation and child labor laws, and by adopting the initiative, referendum and recall.

The Era of the world wars

The fighting in Europe in World War I brought prosperity to farmers and manufacturers in Washington State. Labor tensions continued and a tragic encounter occurred at Everett in 1916, when a boatload of IWW members were confronted by guards hired by the city; several were killed and dozens injured in the melee.

Following the end of the conflict, many workers were distressed by the loss of high-paying wartime jobs and organized a general strike in February 1919. The work stoppage lasted only a few days and was peaceful, but many in Washington and elsewhere feared that a Bolshevik-style revolution was under way. (See the Red Scare of 1919-20.)

The rigors of the depression in the 1930s were only slightly alleviated by steady demand for the products of farmers and food processors. Federal work projects, such as the beginning of construction on the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams, provided employment for individuals and vast advances in flood control, irrigation and electrical power generation.

The World War II era saw high demand for Washington’s agricultural products. Manufacturers fared well — ships, trucks, railroad cars, and aircraft in particular. In 1943, the Atomic Energy Commission began construction on the Hanford Reservation near Richland, a facility that concentrated on the conversion of uranium into plutonium. Among those not enjoying wartime prosperity were more than 15,000 Japanese-Americans who were forced by security concerns to relocate east of the Cascades.

Recent Events

  • King County passage of a series of Forward Thrust propositions in 1968, providing more than $350 million for parks, youth services facilities, highways, and a public stadium; a proposal for a rapid transit system was not approved by the voters. These facilities provided a major boost for the greater Seattle area.

  • The economy of western Washington was dealt a severe blow in 1971 when Congress decided not to fund construction of the Super Sonic Transport (SST). Boeing instituted widespread layoffs and a prominent billboard ruefully asked that the last person to leave Seattle turn off the lights.

  • The Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) was slated to construct five nuclear power facilities in the state, but cost overruns forced the agency into default in 1981, saddling Washington taxpayers with more than $2.25 billion in debt.

  • In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt upheld Indian rights to traditional fisheries, angering many sportsmen and commercial fishermen; the ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979.

  • The Hanford Nuclear Site was identified as the nation’s most contaminated. Cleanup is ongoing and costs are expected to total as much as $60 billion, with the work to be finished by 2035.

Among the most prominent of recent Washington political leaders were Warren G. Magnuson (1905-89), who served in the Senate from 1944 to 1981, and Henry M. “Scoop" Jackson (1912-83), a Senator from 1953 until his death. They were known as the “gold dust twins" for their ability to win lucrative defense contracts for their constituents, particularly shipbuilders and Boeing. Daniel J. Evans served as governor of Washington (1965-77), president of The Evergreen State College (1977-83) and as U.S. Senator (1983-89). Thomas S. Foley represented eastern Washington in the House of Representatives for 30 years, serving six years as Speaker.

Boeing relocated it corporate offices to Chicago in September 2001, but major production facilities remain in Everett and, at least for the immediate future, Renton. The state’s economy has changed markedly from earlier times; the dependence on aerospace has lessened as new job opportunities have developed in biotech, software and a variety of service occupations.

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