Taking stock of 150 years of Washington Territory

By Walt Crowley
Special to The Seattle Times


Just when you though it was safe to forget how to pronounce "sesquicentennial," along comes another 150th anniversary in local history: the creation of Washington Territory on March 2, 1853.

This latest milestone follows on the heels of the sesquicentennial of the arrival of Seattle's founding Denny Party on Nov. 13, 1851, and King County's official birth on Dec. 22, 1852.

The multiyear national and local observance of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition has already begun and will continue through 2006, and the city of Bellevue will celebrate its own semi-centennial on March 31 of this year.

Events marking the 150th anniversary of the creation of Washington Territory include:

Pacific Northwest Historians Guild "Conference on Territorial Life, 1853-1889," 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. tomorrow, at the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle ($35 registration).
Thurston County Territorial Commemoration, noon-4 p.m. Sunday, Temple of Justice, Olympia (free).

Outside of hardcore history buffs and other "annal-retentives," who should care about these round-number commemorations?

Actually, they provide useful opportunities to step outside the onslaught of current events and look back at how much or how little distance we have traveled as a regional community.

Secretary of State Sam Reed has taken the lead in organizing a yearlong observance of our territorial birthday. His office Web site, www.secstate.wa.gov, offers a concise timeline of the territorial epoch and a calendar of commemorative events in communities across the state.

HistoryLink.org, will also mark the occasion by launching its new online encyclopedia of Washington history next week.

More than just a political stepping stone on the path to statehood, the separation of Washington from the older Oregon Territory was a seminal event in defining our distinct character and destiny. It was also an audacious declaration of independence by a handful of settlers who had only just arrived north of the Columbia River.

On Aug. 25, 1851 just three years after Oregon Territory's creation and months before the settlement of Seattle two dozen or so residents living north of the Columbia River met at Cowlitz Landing to plan a territory of their own. They reconvened at Monticello on Nov. 25, 1852, to formally petition Congress to establish "Columbia Territory."

Oregon's territorial government had no objections and encouraged the effort for self-government by establishing new counties including Thurston, Jefferson, King and Pierce in 1852. Indeed, Oregonians seemed happy to rid themselves of their rambunctious northern neighbors. Congress also welcomed the petition, but changed the new jurisdiction's name to Washington Territory to avoid confusion with the District of Columbia. So we became the "Other Washington" instead of the "Other Columbia."

President Millard Fillmore signed the territory's birth certificate on March 2, 1853, and his successor, Franklin Pierce dispatched Gen. Isaac Stevens to govern a vast swath of land stretching from the Pacific to Western Montana. His main task was to wrest control of this "wilderness" from the thousands of Indians who had called it home for millennia. One and a half centuries later, we are still arguing over the rights and obligations established by the treaties Stevens negotiated with local tribes.

Washingtonians made their mark in other ways. Unlike Oregon, they welcomed African Americans, who would make early and important contributions to the area's development.

The new territory almost made more history in 1853 by enfranchising women in its new constitution. The motion failed by a single vote, and the campaign for women's suffrage would occupy territorial politics for decades to come.

The territory's last year in 1889 was a blast literally as fires leveled the downtowns of Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver and Ellensburg. Undaunted, some 350,000 Washingtonians celebrated statehood on Nov. 11.

As Robert Ficken documents in his new history of Washington Territory (WSU Press, 2002), the period between 1853 and 1889 was no mere intermission in the region's evolution. The seeds were planted for today's major industries and cities, and many of today's ongoing social and political movements and conflicts were pollinated by a steady influx of entrepreneurs, reformers, visionaries and immigrants from around the world.

Washington's collective genome was well established, in short, long before it formally joined the Union, and the most startling aspect of the territorial period is how familiar it seems.

History has a way of reminding us that we're never quite as modern as we imagine ourselves being.

So take a moment on March 2, 2003, to remember the folks who marked our territory a century and a half ago. You might recognize yourself among them.

Walt Crowley is executive director of www.HistoryLink.org, the online encyclopedia of Seattle, King County, and, soon, Washington state history.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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