Washington State History

Washington, which was known as Oregon Country at the time, was open to both British and American settlers and traders until the 1840s. James K. Polk, the Democratic candidate for U.S. President in 1844, ran under a platform using the “Fifty-four forty or fight” slogan. That was a reference to the latitude and longitude of the northern border of Oregon. Soon after that, in 1846, the 49th parallel was agreed upon as the official boundary between Canada and the United States and it still is today. Two years after that, in 1848, Congress created Oregon territory, which included parts of what are now Montana and Wyoming, in addition to all of present-day Idaho, Washington and Oregon. At that time, the capital of the territory was located in Willamette Valley and it was difficult for the capital officials to govern such a large area.

More than 1,000 people lived in the portion of Oregon Territory located to the north of the Columbia River, according to the 1850 census. The majority of those people were from Tennessee, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois or Indiana. The area now known as Seattle first began to be settled in 1850. Within 5 years, the population of that area had grown to about 500 people.

People began to want to create a separate territory west and north of the Columbia River, as the population in the Puget Sound area increased. That led to Congress designating a certain area as Washington Territory in 1853. That covered present-day Washington, as well as parts of what are now Montana and Idaho. It extended from the east side of the Columbia River all the way to the Rocky Mountains.

It was geographically difficult to control what was then Oregon Territory because it was so big. Communication issues and different population pockets throughout the territory meant that it made sense for Washington Territory to be separated from Oregon Territory. The Pacific Republic was also created. Since the capital of Oregon Territory, Salem, was so far away from Puget Sound, settlers didn’t think that their interests would be protected by the Oregon Territory’s system of government. So, on March 2, 1853, Washington Territory officially came into existence.

The 1870s and 1890s brought the railroads and the telegraph to Washington Territory. That meant that Washington was dealing more with the United States. So, it began to petition for statehood. In 1889 it officially became a state.

Those immigrating or migrating to the area near the Columbia River mainly traveled along the Mullen Road. That started at Fort Benton, Montana and ended at Walla Walla, Washington. However, it wasn’t used as a means of settling in the eastern part of the state. Instead, most people heading that way got off the Oregon Trail at Hermiston, Oregon. Then they crossed the Columbia River and claimed land in areas close to the water using donation land claims. When the country to the east of the Cascade Mountains opened up, in 1858, many people migrated to the “Inland Empire.” Then, in 1860, there was a gold discovery near Clearwater River. Miners went up the Columbia and into Walla Walla and then picked up trails into the areas where the mines were.

In the 1860s, Washington Territory really experienced a population boom, with the population just about doubling. The population of Washington Territory also grew quite a bit in the late 1880s. Between 1887 and 1890 it is estimated that more than 100,000 people came to the area to settle. On November 11, 1889, Washington gained statehood and by 1900 it had a population of about 518,000 people.

Seattle became what was known as a “jumping off point” for the Alaska gold rush in the early 1900s. In the 1930s, as Washington was digging itself out of the Depression, it gained hydroelectric power, thanks to the Works Projects Administration (WPA). The state grew thanks to defense contracts during World War II. However, the creation of relocation centers in the eastern part of Washington meant trouble for Japanese-Americans in the area.

Although the time period around WWII was difficult for Washington, it quickly began to grow and recover after the war ended. In fact, the Worlds’ Fair of 1962 was held in Seattle. As the 1900s came to a close, biotechnology and other forms of technology helped to create more jobs in Washington. Around that time, environmental activism also became a growing issue in the state, as people tried to balance urban living with the wonders of nature all around them.

Washington Ethnic Group Research

The Native American population of Washington included the Yakima and Nez Perce tribes, as well as others. They were often involved in conflicts with settlers who moved to the area. However, wars with European settlers were nothing compared to the European diseases that devastated the Native Americans in Washington. The Native Americans in the Columbia Valley suffered the most. They were almost entirely wiped out within only 3 years or so of the time that the European settlers came to the area.

The United States government created agencies to govern the Native Americans in the state of Washington and control and manage their affairs. Tribal council records, school records, letters, land ownership records and similar documents with useful genealogical information were recorded and cataloged by those agencies. The National Archives-Pacific Alaska Region now holds those records and the FHL also has some of them on microfilm. Some of those agencies are the following:

Colville Agency, Nespellem, Washington (1874-1964) – This agency was created for the Colville Reservation in 1872 and it later governed the Coeur d’Alene Reservation and the Spokane Reservation

Puyallup Agency, Tacoma, Washington (1885-1920) – This agency came about as a merging of the Quinault Agency and the Nisqualli and Skokomish Agency in 1888. It covered many tribes, including the Clallam, Skalallam, Nisqualli, Chehalis, Squaxin Island, Quinaielt and Puyallup tribes.

Spokane Agency, Spokane, Washington (1885-1950) – This agency governed the Spokane Reservation and began in 1912. It included tribes like the Wenatchi, Kutenai and Kalispell, as well as several others.

Taholah Agency, Taholah, Washington (1878-1950) – This agency handled the affairs for all tribes located to the west of the Puget Sound and it was established in 1914. The Neah Bay Agency is a part of the Taholah Agency. The Taholah Agency handled the Hoh, Makah, Chehalis, Ozette, Quileute, Shoalwater, Quinaielt, Skokomish and Nisqualli tribes’ affairs between 1933 and 1950.

Tulalip Agency, Tulalip, Washington (1854-1950) – This agency handled the affairs for Mukleshoot Reservation, Swinomish Reservation, Tulalip Reservation, Lummi Reservation and Port Madison Reservation. The Puyallup Agency administered the affairs of the Cushman Indian School and came under Tulalip Agency control in 1922.

Yakima Agency, Toppenish, Washington (1859-1964) – This agency handled the Yakima, Nez Perce, Bannock and Paiute affairs.