Washington, State of

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WASHINGTON, STATE OF, has a wide variety of environments, from the lush San Juan Islands in the northwest to prickly pear cactus scattered in the high desert along the Snake River in the southeast. The rugged coastal Cascade Mountain range separates the urbanized Puget Sound region from the less-populated eastern portion of the state. Early settlements were constrained by the difficulty of passing over the mountains, resulting in a coastal region that relied on oceangoing international trade and an interior that relied on river transport and later railroad links to markets for agricultural, timber, and mining products.

White Exploration and Settlement

The Spanish captain Juan Pérez explored the seacoast by ship in 1774, but he made no settlements on land due to scurvy and bad weather. Other Spanish explorers attempted a presence, but scurvy and weather continued to restrict them. The Spanish established a fur trade post at Nootka on Vancouver Island, which led to conflict between Spain and Britain, resulting in the Nootka Convention of 1790 and Spain's eventual withdrawal from the Pacific Northwest. After the British captain James Cook's voyage to the Pacific Northwest in 1778, Americans entered the lucrative Pacific fur trade, selling Alaskan sea otter furs to China. The American Robert Gray was the first to identify and sail up the Columbia River, naming it after his ship, in 1792. That same year, George Vancouver explored the body of water he called Puget's Sound for Britain.

The Columbia River, which enters the state at the Canadian border and runs south to form the state's southern border, was a river route for early fur traders who entered the region immediately after the Lewis and Clark Expedition discovered the river and used it to reach the Washington coast on 14 November 1805. British fur traders made the earliest attempts at settlement, establishing outposts at the mouth of the Columbia River. After the War of 1812, Britain and the United States agreed to share the region, which was called the Oregon Country. By 1824, the British Hudson's Bay Company controlled the area, building Fort Vancouver on the north side of the Columbia and shipping furs to London. The company established forts and corporate farms but prohibited settlers. By the 1840s the fur era was over, and the Hudson's Bay Company moved operations north to British Columbia.

In 1836 the first Americans to settle in Washington came overland to establish Protestant missions to the Indians. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Henry and Eliza Spalding, and William Gray established mission stations at Waiilatpu, near Walla Walla in the south east corner of the state, and near Lapwai, Idaho. Two years later, reinforcements arrived overland, establishing another mission station near the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Colville. In 1838, Catholic priests from Canada began a series of missions in the region, assisted by the Jesuit Pierre Jean De Smet. American immigrants soon followed, and in 1843 a thousand came by wagon train to the region. Most settled in Oregon's Willamette Valley. In 1847, five thousand passed through the Whitman's mission at Walla Walla, bringing measles, which were caught by both whites and the local Indians. When the whites recovered and the Cayuse did not, the Cayuse thought they were being poisoned and attacked, killing the missionaries and several other Americans. As a result the missions were closed and Americans evacuated from the region. A period of white-Indian wars ensued.

Territory and Early Statehood

Most Americans settled south of the Columbia River during this time, thinking it would be the U.S.–Canadian boundary. In 1846 one party, led by a black cattleman from Missouri, George Washington Bush, located near

today's Olympia, because Oregon citizens prohibited any blacks, free or slave, from settling in Oregon. Bush and thirty others established the first private settlement in the state. In 1853, Washington became a territory, with four thousand American residents who want edit named Columbia. Congress thought that would be too easily confused with the District of Columbia and instead named it after the first president. Olympia was designated the capital, and Isaac Stevens was appointed governor. Stevens immediately set out to sign treaties with Indian tribes in 1854 and 1855, to gain legal title to their lands in exchange for goods and promises.

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, by allowing 320 acres of homestead land free to white males and an additional 320 to their wives, encouraged white settlers and resulted in few minorities coming to the area to settle. Gold discoveries in the 1850s and 1860s, particularly in Idaho and British Columbia, brought rushes of immigrants to the region and created markets for supplies. The California gold rush created a demand for lumber, fueling the saw mill industry around Puget Sound. The surge in settlement led to increased conflict with the area's Native inhabitants and a series of Indian wars from 1856 to 1859.

On 8 September 1883, the Northern Pacific rail line connecting Puget Sound at Tacoma with the Great Lakes was completed. The Northern Pacific was financed by government grants of public lands in forty-mile-wide sections on either side of the rail line. The government deeded every other section to the railroad upon completion of each twenty-five miles of track, keeping the alternating sections of land public. This checkerboard of ownership extended across the region. The Northern Pacific opened up its lands to settlers, and a rush of immigrants recruited from Germany, Britain, and Scandinavia between 1880 and 1910 gave a distinct ethnic makeup to the region. At the same time, thousands of railroad laborers were recruited from China, which created animosities after railroad construction ended and competition for available jobs ensued. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited importing Chinese labor; Japanese and Filipino laborers were then recruited to fill jobs in the fish canneries and logging camps of Puget Sound. In 1885–1886, anti-Chinese riots broke out in Seattle and Tacoma, and many Chinese were expelled.

In 1889, Washington was admitted as a state along with North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana under the Omnibus Bill. During the Progressive Era, an alliance of labor, farmer groups, and middle-class urban reformers pushed Washington to the forefront of national reform, enacting changes between 1907 and 1914 that included the right to voter initiative (which allows citizens to pass laws through a petition process), referendum (which allows voters to reject laws passed by legislators), and recall, as well as woman's suffrage, a direct primary, child labor laws, worker's compensation, the eight-hour workday for women, and prohibition.

By 1910, wheat was the most profitable crop across eastern and central Washington. Whitman County in the Palouse region of eastern Washington was identified as the wealthiest county per capita in the United States. Wheat in burlap sacks was carried by steamboat to Portland or shipped by rail to ports at Tacoma and Seattle. By 1900 apple orchards were significant in the Yakima, Wenatchee, and Okanogan Valleys. Apple growers also relied on rail to reach distant markets.

Competition between Portland and Seattle for seagoing markets, as well as between Seattle and neighboring Tacoma, influenced regional development. Seattle boosters exploited the Klondike gold rush in 1897, promoting the city as the jumping-off point for gold seekers stampeding to the Yukon and Alaskan goldfields. Seattle passed Tacoma in the census of 1900 and Portland in 1910, to become the premier city in the region.

Union Radicalism and World War I

In the early twentieth century, most wage earners were single men, employed in logging, agriculture, or mining. Jobs were seasonal and low-paying. Many workers joined the International Workers of the World(IWW), pressing for labor reforms. The "Wobblies" sought to overturn capitalism by consolidating all trades into "one big union," a worldwide effort to organize industrial workers.

Resistance to U.S. entry into World War I was widespread in Washington. Farmers, labor, and German Americans resisted. The Wobblies led protests against the war, to the chagrin of lumber companies and the federal government. The Sedition Act of 1918, which made criticizing the war a crime, silenced the IWW by imprisoning many of its spokespeople. War hysteria fostered by propaganda resulted in losses of First Amendment rights, so the Wobblies led "free speech fights," reading aloud the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. Authorities and business owners reacted violently, inciting mobs that beat up demonstrators. The violence culminated in two tragic incidents, the Everett Massacre in 1916 and Centralia Massacre in 1919. In the latter, an American Legion parade to commemorate the war's end disintegrated into an attack on the IWW labor hall by an estimated thousand residents. The IWW member Wesley Everest was kidnapped from jail and lynched. Mob action against Wobblies followed in several towns, and support for the IWW faded.

The Seattle General Strike in February 1919 created intense anticommunist hysteria, which spread across the nation. It came at the end of the war, when workers demanded wage increases that had been suspended during the war. It was the first general strike to hit an American city, and alarmed citizens thought that the Bolshevik Revolution might spread to the United States. The strike faded after a week, from opposition and ineffective leadership, but it left an indelible mark on the nation, and in Washington State it led to the Centralia Massacre later that year.

World War I brought economic vitality to the state: the demand for wood to build airplanes and ships caused lumber prices to soar; wheat exports to Europe were profitable; and a fledgling aircraft industry began. William Boeing received federal contracts to build military aircraft, but after war's end those disappeared. The company hung on, however, and came to prominence in the next war. The end of World War I brought about the general collapse of an economy suddenly deprived of foreign or government orders. Sawmills closed and wheat farmers were in debt and facing drought. Union demands faded along with job opportunities. The Depression of the 1930s hit rural Washington in the 1920s.

The Depression and World War II

By the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployment in Seattle was 40 to 60 percent; in some lumber mill towns along the coast it reached 80 percent. The national average was 25 percent. A severe drought hit the western states in 1928, lasting twelve years. Like the dust bowl of the Midwest, Washington endured dust storms in the Columbia Basin for years. Devastating forest fires erupted at the same time. Transients moved to the area seeking opportunity, resulting in thousands of migrant farm workers in squatters' camps.

In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted federal projects to construct hydroelectric dams at Bonneville and Grand Coulee on the Columbia River. In 1937, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) was created to market the electricity generated by those dams at minimal wholesale rates. Cheap, abundant electric power would stimulate the stagnant regional economy and raise the standard of living. A federal program to promote electric power ensued, utilizing Woody Guthrie singing "Roll On, Columbia," among other songs promoting the project. That song became the state's official folk song in 1987.

Legislation allowing labor organizing resulted in heavy involvement in labor unions, with resulting strikes and battles between opposing factions, both from outside and within unions. The state became one of the most heavily unionized in the nation. World War II revived the declining fortunes of the region, with a surge in manufacturing and production due to Washington's unique Pacific Coast ports and Columbia River drainage. Cheap hydropower was instrumental in building aluminum plants in the state, which supplied the Boeing Airplane Company, revived with federal aircraft orders. Henry J. Kaiser built massive shipyards, employing thousands in the war effort. When the war broke out in the Pacific, Washington's ports became vital to national defense, supplying operations in the Pacific. Overnight, farms, fish, and lumber were replaced by vigorous aluminum, airplane, and ship industries.

In 1939, President Roosevelt began the secret Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. One component was constructed at Hanford, Washington, an isolated semi desert farm town. The Hanford Nuclear Facility was built to produce plutonium, necessary to bomb construction, by processing uranium in reactors cooled with vast amounts of fresh water, using huge amounts of electric power. Hanford was isolated—near Grand Coulee Dam for cheap electricity, and along the Columbia, a source of fresh water. Thousands of men and women arrived to live and work at Hanford, but newspapers censored the goings-on to maintain secrecy. Even workers had no idea what they were working on. Speculation was considerable, but few knew their purpose until the atomic bomb was dropped in Japan, ending the war.

The war transformed the state. Seattle became a bustling industrial center, with a large influx of African Americans who arrived to work in wartime factories, pushing the number of African Americans in Seattle to 30,000. Mexican men had been brought to the state as farm laborers under the Bracero program, which ended with the war. Nearly 40,000, Braceros were working in the Northwest between 1943 and 1947. An influx of Chicanos from southern states occurred during the war, boosting the state's Hispanic population in rural towns.

During the war, Japanese Americans who lived along the coast were ordered to relocate to the nation's heartland, out of fears they would assist the Japanese war effort against the United States. Federal authorities moved those who refused to relocate to the Minidoka Relocation Center, near Twin Falls, Idaho. Ten thousand Japanese Americans lived there during the war. They were allowed to return home in 1944. In 1988, Congress passed a reparations bill that gave $20,000 and an apology to each of the individuals relocated during the war. The bill was inspired by a court decision that evolved from the efforts of the University of Washington law student Gordon Hirabayashi, who refused to move, was convicted, and persisted with appeals through the court system.

Since World War II

When the war ended, Washington residents feared a repeat of World War I's drastic effect on the economy. There had been eighty-eight shipyards and boatyards, employing 150,000 people; Boeing had employed almost 50,000 people in Seattle during the war. Those jobs were gone, but a building boom ensued across the nation, fueled by pent-up demand and the GI Bill, which provided home loans to returning veterans, creating demand for Washington lumber. Thousands of jobs were created in sawmills and logging.

The Cold War boosted Washington's economy with federal defense contracts for aircraft and Minuteman missile construction going to Boeing. Aircraft manufacturing was boosted by the Korean War and later by the Vietnam War. In Hanford, research on atomic weapons continued, expanding until the greatest number of nuclear weapons were built at Hanford between 1956 and 1963. The interstate highway system, begun in 1956, improved Washington's transportation links with other states through Interstate 90, which runs from Seattle to Boston, and Interstate 5, which runs from Canada to Mexico. Federal dam-building projects accelerated, and a dozen new dams were built on the Columbia and Snake Rivers after 1950. For two decades, well-paid dam construction jobs were created with over $100 million in federal funds. The ensuing "slackwater" turned Clarkston into an inland port, where barges carrying wheat, paper pulp, and logs load to move down the Snake to the Columbia, for export at Portland. The dams included the Columbia Basin Project, intended to provide irrigation for family farms; by the completion of the project, however, most irrigated farms were large-scale, corporate entities. The irrigation project eventually watered 550,000 acres of land and resulted in major food-processing plants locating in the region.

Washington pioneered health care delivery with the first health maintenance organization (HMO) in the nation, formed at the end of World War II in Seattle. Labor union members and farmers joined together, forming a cooperative of four hundred members, to purchase a clinic and hospital. The Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound(now known as Group Health) was widely copied across the nation. Members pay a monthly fee for health services from physicians hired by the organization. Another national trend started in Washington when the Northgate Shopping Center opened north of Seattle in 1950. It was the first regional shopping center in the world, with more than a hundred shops, a hospital, and movie theater. Similar centers spread across the country.

By the 1970s, the state was facing major environmental issues. Judge George Boldt of the federal district court in Tacoma ruled in 1974, in United States v. Washington, that the state's Indian population was entitled to fish at their "usual and accustomed place," as stated in the treaties Governor Isaac Stevens had worked out in 1855. Ignored for over a century, the treaty language was important because environmental issues had become paramount. Judge Boldt determined that the Indians should receive half the annual catch from Washington waters. A landmark decision, it has shaped Indian-white relations as well as driven environmental protection practices for the logging, mining, and construction industries. In 1974, Spokane was the site for a World's Fair dedicated to the environment. In 1962, Seattle's World's Fair had been a response to the Russian launch of Sputnik and the beginning of the Cold War space race; a bit over a decade later, the environment was becoming the issue. As if to punctuate nature's continuing importance, one of the state's volcanoes, Mount Saint Helens, erupted in 1980, covering several states with volcanic ash and killing fifty-seven people. In February 2001, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Seattle and Tacoma, damaging buildings, streets, and bridges.

By the end of the twentieth century, effects from many of the major projects were being felt. Irrigation water had increased production, but at the cost of profit. Prices for many products, such as apples, were at historic lows. When drought hit, irrigation water and hydroelectric power were both in limited supply, putting a crunch on the region's economy. Aluminum plants halted production, selling their contracted electricity instead. The dams nearly devastated the annual runs of migrating salmon, interfering with movement both upstream to spawn and downstream to mature in the ocean. Hanford, a major entity in the central part of the state, became suspect after years of radiation releases into both the air and the Columbia River. Wheat growers no longer found a profitable export market as countries like India, former customers, now began exporting, too. Wheat prices were at historic lows, supported with extensive federal subsidy payments to growers.

In the 1990s, Seattle became a center for the computer software industry and the headquarters of the Microsoft Corporation, founded by the Seattle native Bill Gates. Many computer-and Internet-related firms located in the Puget Sound region.

Washington voters elected mostly Republicans between 1900 and 1930. Between about 1940 and 2000, they chose mostly Democrats for Congress, with the governorship roughly balanced between Democrats and Republicans. The 2000 census figures ranked the state fifteenth in population, with 5,894,121 residents, a 21 percent increase from 1990. The state had 441,509 Hispanic residents, 322,335 Asians, 190,267 African-Americans, and 93,301 Native Americans.


Green, Michael, and Laurie Winn Carlson. Washington: A Journey of Discovery. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2001.

Hirt, Paul W., ed. Terra Pacifica: People and Place in the Northwest States and Western Canada. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1998.

Schwantes, Carlos Arnaldo. The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Stratton, David H., ed. Washington Comes of Age: The State in the National Experience. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1992.

Laurie WinnCarlson

See alsoBoeing Company ; Columbia River Exploration and Settlement ; Hudson's Bay Company ; Industrial Workers of the World ; Microsoft ; Mount St. Helens ; Puget Sound ; Seattle ; Tribes: Northwestern .

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