|19TH CENTURY POLITICAL HISTORY
There was a time when no one lived in our
area. No individual, empire, or nation controlled
the region. The natural wildlife was abundant
on both sides of the Cascades.
For most of the past 14,000 years, only the
Native American lived in the area we now call
Washington. Individual tribes controlled small
areas. Both the coastal and plateau tribes had
similar organization. Individuals held tribal
leadership positions. Tribal leaders normally
included tribal chiefs, elders, council members,
and a shaman.
In the early 16th century, European countries
sent explorers to establish political claims in the
New World. Spain, Great Britain, and Russia
wanted to control the area we call Washington.
Their political struggle lasted from 1542 to 1889.
By the end of the 18th century, explorers sent by
the United States went on to establish political
claims to the Washington region.
The remainder of this chapter will describe
the events from 1542 to November 11, 1889 when
Washington was admitted as the 42nd state of the
United States of America.
Spanish Claims to Washington
In 1494, Spain and Portugal agreed to divide
the non-Christian world into two parts. The line
of demarcation divided the known world into
two halves. Portugal obtained all lands east of
the line of demarcation. These lands included
Africa, India, and a portion of Brazil.
Spain had “exclusive rights” to all lands
west of the Line of Demarcation. Spain now
controlled all of North and South America, except
for northeastern Brazil. Spanish sea explorers
sailed north along the Pacific coastline from 1542
to 1792. Spain had strong political claims to the
Pacific coastline, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and
the San Juan Islands.
However, Spanish sea explorers missed
many key features along Washington’s coast.
They never explored or claimed the mouth of the
Columbia River, Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay,
Hood Canal, Puget Sound, or any of
Washington’s inland areas. Spain also failed to
send land explorers to map the inland areas of
the region. The fact that these explorers never
sailed into these areas weakened Spain’s claim
to western North America.
Spain dropped its “exclusive rights” policy
in 1792 when Bodega y Quadra met with Great
Britain’s George Vancouver at Nootka Sound.
Spain’s political interest in the Oregon Country
The Adams-Onês Treaty was signed in 1819.
As a result of this treaty, Spain was forced to
drop any political claims north of the 42nd parallel.
This meant that Spain could no longer claim any
Map 12-1 part of the “Oregon Country.”
British Claims to Washington
Great Britain’s political claim to Washington
was very strong. British sea and land explorers
established British control over the Washington
area between 1577 and 1811. Great Britain’s four
major sea explorers were Sir Francis Drake, John
Meares, and captains James Cook and George
Vancouver. All of them strengthened Britain’s
claims to the Washington Territory.
Sir Francis Drake sailed along Washington’s
coastline to as far north as the Queen Charlotte
Islands. Captain Cook sailed south from Alaska
past Washington’s coast. John Meares sailed
near the mouth of the Columbia River. He entered
Willapa Bay and the northern Puget Sound area
near present day Everett. George Vancouver
explored the Hood Canal and Puget Sound areas.
He also sailed around a large island which would
later be named after him, Vancouver Island.
Great Britain’s land explorers included
Alexander Mackenzie, Peter Pond, Simon Fraser,
and David Thompson. They explored the region
of British Columbia, Canada. It was Thompson
who discovered the source of the Columbia
River. In 1808, he started to map the course of the
river to its mouth. It took him more than three
years to map the 1,245 mile long Columbia.
Great Britain clearly had a stronger legal
claim than the United States to present day
British Columbia and Vancouver Island. In fact,
Britain’s sea explorers and fur traders established
very obvious claims to western Washington.
Their claim covered all areas west of the
United States Claims to Washington
The United States was last to actively compete
for control of present day Washington. Four
American explorers strengthened the United
States’ claim to our area. They were Captain
Robert Gray, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark,
and Lieutenant Charles Wilkes.
In the summer of 1792, Captain Robert Gray
discovered Grays Harbor and the mouth of the
Columbia River. Gray’s discoveries, plus the
Lewis and Clark Expedition, gave the United
States first claim to the lower Columbia River.
On Lewis and Clark’s return journey, they
strengthened our country’s claim to the
southeastern corner of present day Washington
when they traveled south of the Snake River to
present day Clarkston, Washington.
In 1841-1842, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes
explored the lowlands of Puget Sound. He also
journeyed into eastern Washington. During the
period of 1811-1847, several American fur traders
and Christian missionaries explored and
established early forts, trading posts, and
missions in the area that is now Washington.
International Boundary Dispute
At the beginning of the 19th century, there
was no international boundary between Canada
and the United States. Great Britain and the
United States had differing views about the
location of the boundary. You may be asking
why Great Britain was involved in the decision?
Great Britain controlled all of Canada until
Canada’s independence on July 1, 1867. All
decisions regarding boundary disputes had to
be negotiated with Britain.
Where should the boundary be located? The
present day 4,000 mile boundary between
Canada and the United States took more than 70
years to establish through negotiations!
The War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent
The boundary dispute between Great Britain
and the United States was a major cause of the
War of 1812. There was no agreement on the
boundary between the two countries east of the
Mississippi River. The conflict centered around
who would have ownership of the Great Lakes.
The War of 1812 accomplished little.
However, the Treaty of Ghent, signed in 1815,
had two provisions that affected our region. One
provision stated that both parties must return all
possessions acquired by an act of war. The British
had acquired Fort Astoria, owned by the Pacific
Fur Company. The fort was returned to the
The second provision of the Treaty of Ghent
stated that the two nations must conduct
negotiations. The purpose was to establish a
boundary between Canada and the United States.
In 1817, the Rush-Bagot Agreement stated
the process of ending the long dispute. It called
for the countries to share ownership of the Great
Lakes. Later, in 1842, the eastern boundary
between Canada and the United States was
established. This was a result of the Webster-
Ashburton Treaty. These two agreements
established the boundary from the Atlantic Ocean
to the Lake of the Woods, Minnesota.
The Convention of 1818
The boundary was still unsettled from the
Lake of the Woods to the Pacific Ocean. The two
countries negotiated at the Convention of 1818.
They agreed that the 49th Parallel (the northern
boundary of the Louisiana Territory) would serve
as the international boundary. The boundary
ran from the Lake of the Woods to the Continental
Divide in the Rocky Mountains.
The Convention of 1818 stated that the British
and Americans would jointly occupy the
“Oregon Country” for ten years. Both countries
could encourage their citizens to settle in the
The Oregon Country (1818-1846)
The Oregon Country was located in
southwestern Canada and the Pacific Northwest
of the United States. The Oregon Country’s
northern boundary was 5440´ north latitude.
Its southern boundary was 42north latitude.
The Continental Divide was the eastern
boundary, and the Pacific Ocean bound Oregon
on the west.
The Oregon Country was a large area. It
included portions of today’s British Columbia
Province in Canada. Also included were the
present day states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho,
and the western portions of Wyoming and
Montana. The Oregon Country was formed in
1818. Four countries expressed claims to a part
of the area. Spain gave up its political claim by
signing the Adams-Onês Treaty. Obviously both
Great Britain and the United States wanted
political control. What was the fourth country?
Russia also had interests in the Oregon
Country. Russia owned Alaska and its southern
panhandle to 5440´ north latitude. In 1821, Tsar
Alexander I announced that the Russians would
Parallel. This extended Russian claims
southward from 5440´ to the 51st Parallel.
In 1823, President James Monroe issued the
Monroe Doctrine. This was in response to
Russia’s aggressive claims to the Oregon
Country. The Monroe Doctrine stopped Russia
from expanding its colonial claims in the Western
Great Britain supported the United States
doctrine. In 1824, Tsar Alexander I and the
Russians withdrew its proposed expansion to
the 51st Parallel. In 1867, Russia withdrew her
political claims to North America. Russia sold
Alaska to the United States for $7,200,000. The
price paid was just two cents per acre!
Joint Occupation (1818-1846)
Now only Great Britain and the United States
sought control of the Oregon Country. Both
countries could explore and develop the land.
Each tried to strengthen its respective claims.
How could the Oregon Country be fairly
divided between Great Britain and the United
States? Both countries realized that the Oregon
Country would be shared between them. Each
had very strong claims to certain areas but neither
could claim the entire region.
The United States wanted the 49th Parallel to
be extended to the Pacific Ocean. If Great Britain
agreed, the southern part of Vancouver Island
would have become part of the United States.
The British, in contrast, wanted the 49th
Parallel boundary to be extended to only the
Columbia River. The Columbia would become
the natural boundary to the Pacific Ocean. This
would have given Great Britain all areas of
Washington north and west of the Columbia
River. From 1818 to 1846, Great Britain’s official
policy was to encourage all American fur traders,
missionaries, settlers, and miners to live in areas
east and south of the Columbia River.
The Treaty of Oregon (1846)
When thousands of American pioneers began
moving into the Oregon Country, Great Britain
decided to settle the boundary issue. Americans
hoping to expand their country were supporting
“Manifest Destiny” and Polk’s 1844 campaign
slogan, “54 40´ or fight.”
Manifest Destiny was the belief that America
should own all the land from the Atlantic to the
Pacific. Many Americans were more than willing
to wage war to see its boundaries extended from
ocean to ocean.
On June 15, 1846, Great Britain and the United
States signed the Treaty of Oregon. The 49th
Parallel was extended to the main channel
separating Vancouver Island and the United
States’ mainland. The agreement allowed Great
Britain to control Vancouver Island. Both
countries would share the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The United States received all lands south of the
The San Juan Dispute (1859-1872)
The current United States-Canada
international border did not exist until 1872.
There are many islands between Vancouver
Island and the mainland of the North American
continent. The terms of the Treaty of Oregon
stated that the “main channel” was to be the
boundary. A problem arose. Was the main
channel the Haro Strait or the Rosario Strait?
Who owned the San Juan Islands? If the main
channel was the Haro Strait, then the San Juan
Islands belonged to the United States. If the
main channel was the Rosario Strait, then the
San Juans belonged to Great Britain. German
Kaiser Wilhelm I and a British pig would settle
the dispute over who owned the San Juan Islands.
Lyman Cutler was an American citizen. On
June 15, 1859 Cutler shot and killed a pig. This
pig belonged to a British citizen, Charles Griffin.
Cutler offered to pay ten dollars to Griffin. Griffin
refused; he wanted one hundred dollars. They
lived within the disputed area of the San Juan
Islands. So, in which country’s courts would the
incident be settled? The “Pig War” resulted. The
San Juans were occupied by British and American
soldiers from 1860 to 1872. Both built numerous
blockhouses and forts to defend their territory.
On November 25, 1872, Germany’s Kaiser
Wilhelm I finally settled the San Juan Islands
dispute. He declared Haro Strait as the main
channel between Vancouver Island and the
mainland. Through this decision, the United
States won ownership of the San Juan Islands.
The 4,000 mile international boundary
between the United States and Canada was now
complete. It took 80 years, many negotiations,
and even a dead pig to achieve its settlement!
Washington’s Road to Statehood
In 1846, few Americans lived north of the
Columbia River before the signing of the Treaty
of Oregon. The people who did live there had no
official government or rule of law. Americans
were governed by ship captains, overland
expedition leaders, managers of fur trading posts,
head missionaries, and wagon masters.
Finally, for those living south of the 49th
Parallel, they now lived on American soil. They
were under the control of the United States
government. However, for those Americans
living north of the Columbia River, there would
be no organized government until 1848. Congress
was very slow to create a territorial government
for those living south of the 49th Parallel. From
June 15, 1846 to August 14, 1848 there was no
territorial government or rule of law.
The Whitman Massacre on November 29,
1847 shocked Congress into action. The Oregon
Territory was finally established on August 14,
1848. Originally the Oregon Territory included
the present states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho,
and the western sections of Montana and
Several major issues faced Americans living
north of the Columbia River and the Willamette
River Valley. These issues eventually caused
Washington and its residents to seek separation
from the Oregon Territory.
Washington Territory 1853-1889
American citizens living north of the
Columbia River held two meetings. Both were in
regards to political separation from the Oregon
Territory. One meeting was held at Cowlitz
Landing in August 1852. The second meeting
was held at the so-called Monticello Convention
on November 25, 1852.
A formal petition was sent to Congress
requesting a separate territory for Washington.
Then a bill was introduced on February 8, 1853.
The bill was signed into law on March 2, 1853.
President Millard Fillmore’s signature created
the Washington Territory.
President Fillmore appointed Isaac Stevens
as the first territorial governor of the Washington
Territory. Olympia was chosen as the territorial
capital. The Organic Act established three
branches of territorial government. They were
the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
The Congress of the United States appointed all
territorial officials. The Washington Territory
existed from March 2, 1853 to November 11,
1889. It was a territory for more than 36 years.
Why did it take over 36 years for Washington to
become a state?
New territories of the United States had to
meet certain qualifications before they could
become a state. Washington and 34 other states
followed the procedures established by the
Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
There are many procedural steps to
statehood. The two most important are a
minimum population and a written state
Before statehood could be approved by
Congress, each territory needed a population of
more than 125,000 people. Once the population
requirement was met, then the residents of the
territory asked for permission to write a state
constitution. The drafted constitution had to be
approved by the voters of the territory. Finally,
it had to be approved by Congress.
Statehood was a short process for some states;
it was a long process for others. Oregon achieved
statehood in only 11 years. In contrast, it took
Washington 36 years to gain its statehood.
Why did it take Washington 36 years to
become a state? Several factors contributed to
this lengthy amount of time. Our population
grew very slowly. Dr. McLoughlin at Fort
Vancouver told pioneers to settle south of the
Columbia River. People were also fearful of
moving into the territory because of the Indian
Wars. The lack of railroads also slowed the
growth. The last factor was the length of time it
took to write an acceptable state constitution.
In 1850, only 1,201 white people lived in
Washington. The Indian Wars also discouraged
white settlement in the territory. Even in 1880
the population of the Washington Territory was
only 75,116. This was obviously short of the
125,000 population requirement.
With completion of three transcontinental
railroads and the end of the Indian Wars,
Washington’s total population exploded to over
300,000 by 1889. Once population requirements
were met, residents could attempt to write an
acceptable state constitution. Two constitutions
were written. Finally, in the summer of 1889, the
voters approved the second constitution.
Washington was admitted as the 42nd state
on November 11, 1889. President Benjamin
Harrison’s signature of the Presidential
Proclamation finalized the statehood process.
Establishing the United States-Canada
boundary and the political organization of
Washington were very difficult issues to resolve.
It took 80 years to settle the boundary dispute. It
took 36 years before the statehood process created
the state of Washington.
Originally, four countries claimed the Oregon
Country. Spain, Russia, Great Britain, and the
United States competed for this area. During the
early 1800s, Spain (1819) and Russia (1824)
dropped their claims to Oregon.
Great Britain and the United States each had
strong claims to the Oregon Country. Their sea
and land exploration led to permanent
settlements by both countries. From 1818 to
1846, the British and Americans jointly occupied
the Oregon Country.
In June 1846, the Treaty of Oregon split the
area between Great Britain and the United States.
Great Britain received all of Vancouver Island
and present day British Columbia north of the
49th Parallel. The United States received all lands
south of the 49th Parallel and the Strait of Juan de
Fuca. In 1872, the San Juan Islands became part
of Washington and the United States.
In 1848, the area south of the 49th Parallel was
organized as the Oregon Territory. In 1853,
Washington residents petitioned Congress to
become a separate territory. The Washington
Territory existed from 1853 to 1889.
Washington achieved statehood on
November 11, 1889. It became the 42nd state. The
city of Olympia has served as both the territorial
and state capital.