On November 11, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison declared Washington the forty-second state in the Union. Less than fifty years after pioneers began entering the Pacific Northwest via the Oregon Trail, the United States borders extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. Spanish and British explorers landed on the Northwest coast in the 1770s; American explorers followed. In 1818, the United States and Britain jointly occupied the “Oregon Country,” of which Washington was a part.
In 1844, presidential candidate James K. Polk urged an aggressive stance with regard to ownership of the land below the 54th parallel. The slogan “Fifty-four Forty or Fight” became a rallying cry of the Polk campaign. Two years later, the U.S. and Great Britain signed the Oregon Treaty setting the Canadian-American border at the 49th parallel and granting the United States territory that included present-day Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. In 1848, Congress designated this newly acquired area the “Oregon Territory.”
Racial exclusion laws prompted the first settlers to venture into the Washington region. In 1844, George W. Bush, a man of African-American or possibly East Indian ancestry on his father’s side (his mother was Irish), was among the early pioneers to Oregon Country. He and his family left Missouri, a slave state, which forbid nonwhites from possessing land and becoming citizens. They set off with their friend, Michael Simmons and his family, along with three other white families on the Oregon Trail.
The Bush and Simmons parties soon learned that the Oregon Provisional Government also prohibited black people from owning property. Bush’s party evaded control of the provisional government by crossing the Columbia River and heading north—away from the American settlers and their government. They settled in late 1845 on land that was under the purview of Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company—where the restrictive laws were not actively enforced. This land was later named Tumwater, of which Olympia, the state capital of present-day Washington, traces its settlement. The 1846 Treaty of Oregon, however, brought this land under the Oregon Territory’s discriminatory laws.
Bush, a generous man and friends with many of the new territory’s legislators, was now without a clear legal claim on land that he and his family had cultivated. Members of the first session of the Washington Territorial Legislature voted unanimously to petition Congress to validate Bush’s title to his land. Congress read twice and committed a bill on January 30, 1885, “An Act for the Relief of George Bush, of Thruston County, Washington Territory.” The bill passed on February 10, 1885.
With fertile rivers, dense forests, and a natural harbor, the land offered riches to those willing to work. Yet, the region gained slowly in population. Friction with the Cayuse Indians discouraged some settlers while discovery of gold in California lured others. By 1850, natural resources and ready access to California’s growing market spurred migration to Washington. Officially a part of Oregon Territory, popular agitation resulted in the organization of Washington Territory in 1853.
Visiting the West in 1865, newspaper editor Samuel Bowles admired Washington’s lush forests and economic potential. He called the area around Puget Sound, already dotted with saw mills, the “great lumber market of all the Pacific Coast.” Little Olympia he wrote, “puts on the airs and holds many of the materials of fine society; and entertained us at a most comfortable little inn.” Noting the delicious meals he enjoyed there, Bowles joked:
If there is one thing, indeed, more than another, among the facts of civilization, which the Pacific Coast organizes most quickly and completely, it is good eating….When the Puritans settled New England, their first public duty was to build a church with thrifty thought for their souls. Out here, their degenerate sons begin with organizing a restaurant, and supplying Hostetter’s stomachic bitters and an European or Asiatic cook. So the seat of empire, in its travel westward, changes its base from soul to stomach, from brains to bowels.
Our New West (Hartford, CT: Hartford Publishing, 1869), 462.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920
During the period 1878-89, Congress consistently rejected appeals for Washington statehood despite its growing population. Denial of statehood was largely due to a concern that the lack of an interstate railroad connection would interfere in the effective governance of Oregon as a state. More significantly, the legislators hesitated to disturb the delicate balance of Democrats and Republicans in Congress by creating another state. Finally, a decade after its initial request, Congress admitted Washington into the Union along with Montana and the Dakotas.
“California as I Saw It”: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900 contains personal accounts of travels in the West, including one by journalist Edward S. Parkinson. His Wonderland; Twelve Weeks in and Out of the United States details a cross-country trip he took during the spring and summer of 1892. Parkinson admired Washington’s natural beauty:
The shore of Puget’s Sound, on each side, is densely wooded with forests of pine, fir and hemlock, beginning at the water’s edge and reaching to the snow-line on the high mountains. The landscape forms a most beautiful picture of water, forest and snow-capped mountains.
Edward S. Parkinson,
Wonderland; Twelve Weeks in and Out of the United States,
(Trenton, NJ: MacCrellish & Quigley, 1894), 169.
“California as I Saw It”: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900
- Use the “Zoom View” feature to examine the literary map of Washington Writers featured in the exhibition Language of the Land: Journeys Into Literary America.
- Search these collections on Washington to view more photographs of the natural splendor of the state:
- Search on Washington Territory in American Indians of the Pacific Northwest External link to read reports from the Office of the Commission of Indian Affairs about the territory and the various Indian reservations.
- Search on Washington State in Map Collections to view maps of the area in the late nineteenth century.
- Read more of Samuel Bowles’ Our New West in The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
- Search “California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900 on Washington Territory for personal recollections of the times.
- Read the speech of Mr. J. A. Seddon in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 concerning American settlers in Oregon.
- Read the Today in History entry on the Oregon Territory to learn more about settlement in the area.
- Search in Oregon Newspapers in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers to explore aspects of Oregon’s history.