Washington Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Like its southern neighbor Oregon, Washington is divided into two distinct geographical parts, a wet, forested western portion and a semiarid east.

History of Washington

Like its southern neighbor Oregon, Washington is divided into two distinct geographical parts, a wet, forested western portion and a semiarid east. Washington’s forests made it one of the nation’s great timber producers, while its dry eastern portion requires extensive irrigation for agricultural productivity. While it shares geographical features with Oregon and Idaho, making up the Pacific Northwest region, Washington’s social and political complexion has its own unique qualities. On reason is that unlike Oregon, Washington was not first settled by farmers.

After the earliest period, in which its white inhabitants were predominantly trappers, Washington’s early history was dominated by extraction industries, such as gold mining and logging. Later, toward the end of the nineteenth century, large industry brought with it conflict between big business and big labor, which affected the state’s social character. Later still, after the middle of the twentieth century, industries that prospered in the state on account of the Cold War left their own indelible imprint on the state’s economy, society, and politics.

Early History

The early history of the area that became Washington was dominated by the struggle for control of the region by Great Britain, Russia, and Spain, followed by the United States. By 1775 Spain was sending expeditions up the Pacific coast, mainly to secure a buffer zone between Russian and British claims and its Mexican territory. Russia asserted claims far distant from Alaska, sending landing parties as far south as California. While Spain and Russia dropped out of the competition by the end of the eighteenth century, Britain opposed its former colonies, now a scrappy young republic. The Americans, for their part, strengthened their claims to the region when, after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived and wintered by the Pacific at Fort Clatsop.

In 1792, the Americans sent Captain Robert Gray to the northwest, where he discovered the Columbia River and named it after his ship. In the same year, Britain sent an expedition led by George Vancouver to the region. Members of the expedition of British Captain James Cook had already discovered the value of sea otter pelts bought from American Indians and sold profitably in China. By 1818 the two nations agreed to share the region. The Pacific North West Company dominated the fur trade until 1821, when it merged with Hudson’s Bay Company, which remained the most influential non-Indian power in the area until 1846.

Native American peoples occupied a key position in the fur trade, especially in the beginning, before white trappers appeared in any numbers and before Indian populations became depleted. Native Americans provided sea otter pelts and other furs to white traders in exchange for manufactured goods, especially those made of metal, unknown in Indian cultures. These included tools that added to the Native Americans’ ability to produce goods for themselves. Indians benefited from material goods, but their contact with whites proved catastrophic, since they contracted smallpox and other diseases that decimated their numbers. It has been estimated that the population of Native American peoples on the northwest coast declined during the century following 1774 from about 200,000 to about 40,000, or some 80 percent. Moreover, by the 1820’s sea otters were nearly extinct.

By 1810 a second phase of the fur trade began, increasingly dominated by Europeans and centered on beaver and similar mammals. This trade was focused on inland areas and required European trading companies to establish forts and interior avenues of transportation. News of the area finally took hold of the American imagination in the East and Midwest after the success of fur-trading companies illustrated the possibilities of internal development. The stage was set for the arrival of immigrants in large numbers.

The Anglo-American condominium begun in 1818 lasted into the 1840’s. By then, however, the U.S. westward expansion, with its drive to possess the continent as its manifest destiny, brought hundreds, then thousands of American settlers to the region. In the early 1840’s, Hudson’s Bay Company, which was interested in commerce, not settlement, moved its base of operations northward, focusing on the area that became British Columbia. Although American nationalists sought lands north of the fifty-fourth parallel, the United States, negotiating in 1846 with far-stronger Britain, settled for the forty-eighth parallel as a boundary. Two years later Oregon Territory, including what became Washington, was established.

From Territory to State

After the establishment of Oregon Territory in 1848, the population north of the Columbia River grew rapidly. Accordingly, in 1853 the Territory of Washington was formed. A decade later, gold strikes in the eastern portion led to its breaking off to become separately organized as Idaho Territory. Except for adjustments in Puget Sound’s San Juan Islands, Washington’s boundaries were now fixed. Sentiment for statehood strengthened during the Civil War, and in 1867 the territorial legislature urged Congress to admit a new state. Not until 1889, however, did Congress pass the required legislation for statehood, admitting Washington into the Union.

As it was growing toward statehood, Washington experienced an ugly social and moral pathology, in the form of anti-Chinese racism. When economic downturns arrived, labor unions made scapegoats of Chinese laborers, who arrived after 1840. Chinese were reviled for driving down wages, and serious incidents occurred, especially in the mid- 1880’s in Seattle, Tacoma, and other cities, when Chinese workers were driven out. As a result, the Chinese population in the Pacific Northwest dropped sharply.

If few Chinese could resist ill treatment, the same was not always true of the state’s Native American peoples. Prophetic religious visions encouraging American Indians to live by their old customs were one form of resistance. Suing in the courts was another. Such attempts at peaceful resolution of disputes followed the armed conflicts that occurred, for example, between 1855 and 1859, when the influx of miners after gold strikes alarmed the Indians. Relations between settlers and Indians were complicated by the fact that there were different points of view not only among federal government, settlers, and the Indians, but within each group as well. Tribes or subtribal bands sometimes fought among themselves over policy toward white society.

Policy toward the American Indians reflected both idealism and self-interest, resulting in the reservation system. Reservations were designed both to separate tribal societies from the settlers and to “civilize” them, that is, to adapt them to the European ways, “detribalizing” and assimilating them to American society. Native American children were taken to boarding schools for this purpose. The treaty system that reflected this policy was unreliable, however, partly because the U.S. Senate frequently rejected treaties. Moreover, not all tribal members agreed with the treaties as negotiated, and discontent and confusion sometimes followed their signing. Treaties signed in 1854 and 1855 failed to prevent the conflicts of 1855-1858. Both wars and considerable crime broke out between American Indians and settlers between 1850 and 1880. Efforts were made to reform the reservation system and assimilation policy, to little effect. After the 1930’s, however, the goal of assimilation was reconsidered. By the 1970’s, Native Americans were having considerable success defending tribal rights in the courts.

The 1880’s to 1945

Washington inaugurated its statehood with a government that reflected its past as a frontier society. As the frontier distrusted political power, especially executive power, so did the state. Accordingly, Washington’s constitution called for a plural executive, with a number of elected offices, rather than a single, all-powerful governor. These included, besides governor and lieutenant governor, a secretary of state (chief elections officer), an attorney general, a treasurer, an auditor, and others.

The state’s politics in the next decades followed national trends as well as homegrown movements. Populism and radical parties and sects arose between 1880 and 1920, making a lasting impact. Reformers were influential because the state saw itself in a formative, malleable stage of collective life. The state’s constitution showed strong Populist influence, distrusting big business by banning gifts or loans of public money and credit to private enterprise. The constitution’s bill of rights protected individual rights even more than the federal Bill of Rights. Not surprisingly, the People’s Party candidate for president received 22 percent of the vote in 1892.

The Progressive movement also deeply affected Washington, as it did its southern neighbor. Around the turn of the century, like Oregon, Washington voters gained the powers of initiative, referendum, and, later, recall elections. Municipal ownership of utilities and urban planning became public policy, and nature conservation, a recurring feature of the state’s politics, appeared. In addition, radicalism and utopianism had some influence; the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a Marxist party founded in Chicago in 1905, was active on the political fringes prior to and just after World War I.

By the Depression years of the 1930’s, radicalism was a spent force, and, as elsewhere in the nation, federal policies attempted to come to the state’s rescue. In building dams and in other projects, federal spending became an essential element in the state’s economy, prefiguring what was to come. The most important single project was the Grand Coulee Dam, but other dams were constructed. In addition, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was active in parks and forests; and there existed public housing and irrigation projects, among other federal programs.

Power generated from the Columbia River Basin was essential for the defense industries that sprang up during the war years. Among them were atomic development works at Hanford, where the plutonium for the nation’s first atomic weapons was produced. Later it was discovered that the Hanford nuclear reactor also produced much radioactive waste that endangered both people and the natural world.

Postwar Economy and Politics

After World War II, many thought the state’s economy would suffer badly from the nation’s military stand down, but they were mistaken. The advent of the Cold War brought further defense spending to Washington, including additional development of the Hanford atomic facility. By the 1950’s the Boeing Company near Seattle was receiving large contracts from the Pentagon. Federal spending also helped the state with the continuing development of hydroelectric power and crop-irrigation facilities through dam construction. Thanks to voter loyalty, the state was gaining influence in Washington, D.C., through the reelection of its senators Warren Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson, sometimes called “the senator from Boeing.” Later, Representative Tom Foley became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

To celebrate the success of the state and its principal city, a world’s fair was held in Seattle in 1962. Its futuristic free-standing tower, known as a Space Needle, became an icon of forward-thrusting technological prowess and self-confidence and was widely imitated around the world. As might be expected, the influence of the Boeing Company on the exposition was widely noticeable.

Later decades, however, saw a different side of Washington’s success, as environmentally conscious activists sought to counterbalance the influence of timber and other industries. This was especially evident as the state’s nuclear-power board defaulted on bonds used to build nuclear reactors, all but one of which were never completed. This was also evident as early as 1974, when Spokane opened Expo’74, the world’s first environmental world’s fair. By the end of the century, Washington was economically thriving on a balance of “high-tech” industries such as Boeing and Microsoft, tourism, and agriculture. Although anti-Asian sentiment was long outdated, civil rights issues for African Americans remained. Environmental problems, such as the decline of salmon, a state icon, also remained, and there was marked resistance to further economic development that would endanger the state’s natural environment.

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