by Edward Echtle
The Olympia area presents numerous opportunities to learn about the people and places of our past. In rural areas, many historic places survive relatively unchanged from the earliest days of settlement. Museums, historic houses and cabins, archaeological sites and interpretive markers present the curious traveler a varied menu of sights representing the rich history of Washington’s past.
For centuries the Chehalis, Cowlitz, Nisqually, and Squaxin peoples made their homes on the inlets, prairies, and valleys of the South Sound region. Abundant shellfish beds, salmon streams, and edible plants allowed native peoples to prosper and develop a rich cultural heritage with intricate social and economic ties. At the Squaxin Island Museum, visitors can learn about life in the South Sound Country prior to European contact. Cultural artifacts combine with oral history to give visitors a look at the continuity of native life up to the present day. Other museums such a the Lewis County Historical Museum (Chehalis) and the Cowlitz River Valley Historical Society and Old Settlers Museum (Morton) display artifacts of native life collected by early settlers. South of Olympia, the Mima Mounds Natural Preserve invites visitors to walk through a restored example of a prairie ecosystem like those cultivated by natives for centuries. Through periodic controlled burns, natives promoted the growth of camas root and other food and medicinal plants on these prairies.
Contact and Fur Trade
When outsiders first entered of what is now known as Puget Sound, they marveled at the immense old growth forests that blanketed the shorelines and inland valleys. An expedition commanded by British Captain George Vancouver in 1892 was the first documented exploration of the South Sound waterways by Europeans. Lieutenant Peter Puget, who accompanied Vancouver, led a long boat survey party and produced the earliest charts of the area.
By the 1830s, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River and began scouting a location for an outpost on Puget Sound to conduct trade with the natives. They followed an ancient trade route north, the shortest distance between the Cowlitz River and Puget Sound. This trail became the main north-south trail for travelers in the area, known as the “Cowlitz Trail.” The HBC built the “Nisqually House” trade post adjacent to the village of the Sequalitchew band of the Nisqually people, near what is now the town of Dupont. The Dupont Museum displays artifacts and images relating to the fort.
At Cowlitz Prairie, near present day Toledo, the Hudson’s Bay Co. also established Cowlitz Farms and Mission to solidify their claim to the region and to diversify their business beyond the fur trade toward agriculture. Despite their efforts, the numbers of Americans entering the territory soon outstripped the numbers of HBC employees. Today the site of Cowlitz Mission is still a Catholic Church and its cemetery is the last resting place of many of the earliest Europeans in the area.
By the 1840s, American settlers who traveled the Oregon Trail were pushing northward across the Columbia River. They too followed the Cowlitz Trail, which settlers saw as a northern extension of the Oregon Trail. Among the earliest arrivals in what is now Washington was John R. Jackson, who located just on the prairie just north of Cowlitz Farms. The small cabin, now known as the John R. Jackson House, was an important stop on the Cowlitz Trail and served as the first American courthouse north of the Columbia River.
In 1845 the Simmons-Bush Party were the first Americans to settle on Puget Sound and founded the community of New Market, now Tumwater. Pioneer George Bush, a “mulatto” arrived in Oregon to find that white settlers banned non-whites from locating there to avoid the contentious politics of the slavery issue. Rather than separate, the band of pioneers moved north beyond the reach of the exclusion law. Later, white settlers asked Congress to secure Bush’s claim to his land. The George Bush Historical Marker located on the Bush’s original homestead land tells the story. Other Blacks also settled in the South Sound Country. An early African American homesteader named George Washington settled the area that is now Centralia and platted the town.
The city of Chehalis started life as “Saunders Bottom,” a rather soggy stop along the Cowlitz Trail. Earlier, settlers founded the town of Claquato on the west side of the valley on higher ground and constructed the Claquato Church in 1858, one of the oldest still standing in Washington. When the Northern Pacific Railroad built tracks through Chehalis in 1872, settlers relocated to be nearer the station, leaving the town of Claquato relatively unchanged to the present.
In Centralia the Joseph Borst Home is another of the few surviving structures from the early settlement period. Located at the Cowlitz Trail ford in the Chehalis River, the Borst’s homestead also served as a stop on the trail. Daniel R. Bigelow was another early arrival whose family home survives today as Bigelow House Museum. Bigelow arrived in 1851 after crossing the Oregon Trail fresh from Harvard Law School. His new neighbors immediately solicited his help in organizing the territory of Washington where he served as one of its first legislators. Other early arrivals included Nathaniel Crosby (grandfather of Bing Crosby) who settled in Tumwater in the 1860s and operated a store. The Historic Crosby House ca1860 is now part of the Tumwater Historic Park. Hidden away near Rochester is the site of the 1850s Miller Brewer House, lost to fire in 2017; interpretive signage tell its story. In Lacey, the Jacob Smith House now serves as a community center. All of these give visitors a glimpse of early settler domestic life in the Puget Sound country.
Arriving along with American and European settlers, Chinese immigrants also lived and worked in the area. Despite sparse mention in local histories, they filled an important need for seasonal labor. The Chinese worked as oyster gatherers, road builders, hop-pickers, and in logging camps and lumber mills. Due to the low numbers of women in the early west, they also filled the role of launderers, house servants, and cooks. At Olympia, there was a community of Chinese living in “Chinatown” near the downtown core long before railroad construction began in the area. A marker located at Olympia’s Heritage Park gives details.
In 1854 Isaac Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory met with native leaders to negotiate secession of their lands to the US. The first meeting was held at Nisqually, at the council grounds on the banks of She Na Nam creek. During the winter of 1855-56 some natives rebelled against the settlers because they had not agreed to the treaty. In response, the settlers formed volunteer militias and constructed a number of forts, including the Borst Blockhouse at Centralia. Monuments mark the location of other forts in the area including Fort Eaton and Chambers Blockhouse near Lacey, Fort Henness near Rochester, and Rutledge Blockhouse south of Tumwater. During the short but violent conflict both sides committed armed combatants to the field and tragedy resulted. In January 1856 natives laid siege to Seattle for an entire day, killing two. In April, volunteer militia forces massacred the entire population of a Nisqually village. The Puget Sound War ended with the capture of Leschi and the surrender of Quiemuth, both Nisqually leaders instrumental in organizing the native resistance. An unknown assailant murdered Quiemuth while he was under guard in Governor Stevens’ office in Olympia; Leschi endured two controversial trials over his role in the conflict. Bent on retribution, settlers convicted Leschi as a murderer despite his status as a combatant in a war. Leschi was hanged near Fort Steilacoom in February 1857, yet his fight for treaty rights and native sovereignty remains an immediate issue to the present. In 2004 a special “Historical Court of Inquiry and Justice” reviewed the facts of the case and found Leschi not guilty of the charges for which he was executed.
From the start, creating an economic industrial base for trade was a priority for settlers. The Deschutes River Falls at Tumwater was the draw for the Simmons-Bush party as a power source for industry. There, settlers built the first American sawmill and gristmill on Puget Sound.
The maritime trades played a critical role in the early development of the South Sound region. Early settlers found overland travel much more arduous than water travel. Most families in the area owned at least one canoe, usually procured from local natives through barter or sale. By the 1850s there was regular trade with the outside world as ships arrived and departed carrying passengers and merchandise. Soon after, steamboats proliferated on Puget Sound, serving as the main form of transportation. At the Mason County Historical Museum you can learn about the early sternwheelers that served Shelton and South Puget Sound.
Among the earliest industry in the area was production of lumber for export. As settlement in the Northwest grew, so did the demand for building materials. Soon, logging operations pushed deep into the forested hills of the South Sound Country. The Lewis County Historical Museum, Mason County Historical Museum, and the Tenino Depot Museum, all display tools, photos, and artifacts tracing this key part of the region’s development.
By the early 1870s, passenger and freight railroad construction was underway in the area. The Northern Pacific built its main line from Kalama on the Columbia River to Tacoma on Puget Sound, closely following the Cowlitz Trail route through the South Sound country. The Lewis County Historical Museum, and the Tenino Depot Museum are both housed in classic depots dating from the heyday of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Each contains artifacts and photos documenting the importance of railroads to the region.
Agriculture was another important industry. At Yelm, citizens formed an irrigation district and built a canal system that provided water to numerous local farms on Yelm Prairie from the 1920s to the 1960s. The Yelm Historical Museum displays information on the impact of this development and information on early settlers and the founding of the community. In Boistfort Valley, west of Chehalis, hop growing became a major economic force as it did in other parts of western Washington in the late 1800s. Hop drying barns still survive, now converted for other uses. Dairy and chicken farming also played a large role in the area’s development. The town of Winlock was once the “Egg Capital of the World” shipping tons of poultry products over the years. Exhibits in the Winlock Historical Museum trace the history.
By the 1890s, sandstone quarries at Tenino provided building material used throughout the American west. Tenino’s distinctive sandstone business district developed as a way to promote the industry and to make the town more fireproof after devastating blazes destroyed the business district. Many buildings in the area use the stone in their construction, including the east wing of the old State Capitol Building in downtown Olympia. However, by the 1920s, poured concrete construction largely replaced Tenino sandstone due to its lower cost.
Early settlers saw public education as a key component of a democratic society and took great pains to provide their youth with education opportunities. One and two-room schoolhouses once dotted the region, serving the children of nearby families in all grades simultaneously. Few examples of these remain today. One very intact example is the Gate City School, near Rochester. Recently, citizens rescued the historic Ticknor School from destruction, relocating it next to the Tenino Depot Museum. Another display at the Joseph Borst Home recreates just such an early schoolhouse. The Lacey Museum and the Winlock Historical Museum also display artifacts, documents and memories of school life in the area. Currently the Rainier Historical Society is refurbishing its historic 1915 school as a community center.
The Twentieth Century
By the early 1900s, new immigrants came by steamships and by train to live and work in the South Sound Country. Scandinavians, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Asians, and others arrived to fill the growing need for labor. Working conditions for these laborers was harsh and wages low. Labor unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as “Wobblies” found avid followers among these men who came to America looking to better their situation. The IWW, known for its wildcat strikes and work slowdowns, fought for better conditions and a standard eight-hour work day. Their activities generated a great deal of ill-will toward them by business owners. These tensions erupted into violence in 1919 when WWI veterans raided the Centralia IWW Hall in 1919. The Wobblies shot four veterans and in the ensuing violence a mob lynched IWW member Wesley Everest. A memorial to the dead veterans and a nearby mural commemorating the Wobblies is in Centralia’s George Washington Park.
Planned company-owned towns with homes designed to accommodate families replaced the formerly all-male bunkhouse camps that typified early industry . Despite the loss of industries that created them, towns such as Dupont, and Ryderwood remain relatively intact, containing much of their original character. Other company towns including Bordeaux, (lumber) Tono, (coal) and Vail (lumber) withered when the companies closed their operations. The Dupont factory, founded in 1912, produced explosives for World War I. Ryderwood, built by the Long-Bell Lumber Company, was designed as a model family-friendly community. Driving the magnanimity of companies to create such community however was a desire to subvert the power of the labor unions. Companies such as DuPont and Long-Bell hoped that family men were less likely to strike. The DuPont Museum tells the story of the town and its workers and families.
As the pace of industrial development quickened on Puget Sound so did the call for faster means to transport raw materials to processing. In 1910 the tugboat Sand Man began her long career on Puget Sound as one of the numerous tugs transporting logs, coal, and anything else that needed hauling. Sand Man was one of the first tugs to use a gasoline engine, making her a very modern and fast vessel. Sand Man remained a work boat until only recently, before she was restored in 2002. The Sand Man Foundation maintains the tug at Olympia’s Percival Landing Park for public viewing.
By the early Twentieth Century, many citizens became interested in preserving and marking historical Sites connected to the early settlement era of Washington. Ezra Meeker of Puyallup conducted a much publicized retracing of the Oregon Trail for the purpose of placing historic markers. Meeker traveled west to east, dedicating historic markers along the way.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought Federal Funding for public works projects. Washington State Parks were among the many beneficiaries of programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Millersylvania State Park, Rainbow Falls State Park, and Lewis and Clark State Park all have buildings, roads, trails, bridges, and other structures built by the CCC.
Few events had the impact on the South Sound area as the World Wars. During both World War I and World War II, Americans and immigrants streamed into the area to work in wartime industry. Ship building, logging, agriculture, and numerous other industries switched into high gear, producing record amounts of goods. Most importantly, families threw themselves into the war efforts, by either serving in the military or as home front volunteers. At the Veterans Memorial Museum in Chehalis artifacts, documents and oral histories combine to preserve the memory of the sacrifices of those who served. In Tumwater, the Olympic Flight Museum exhibits aircraft from several conflicts. The airport itself is also historic, having served as a satellite base for nearby McChord Air Field during WWII. The US Air Corps stationed a squadron of P-38 Lightnings here and used the area for air combat training.
The visitor to Washington State’s South Sound Country will find these sites and others relating to the rich history of the area, its people, places, and settlements. Individually, these stories offer an intimate view of family life, business relations, and community involvement. Together, the historic sites in the South Sound Country represent the diverse heritage representative of the larger history of Pacific Northwest, offering a more complete understanding of the origins of today’s communities.