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The state of Washington in the 1850s


Isaac Ingalls Stevens
Isaac Ingalls Stevens

Before the United States acquired the Oregon Territory, most people had settled in the Willamette Valley, but soon after 1848 settlers headed north into present-day Washington to establish homes. Communities to the north of the Columbia River and on the rim of Puget Sound such as Seattle, Oysterville, and Port Townsend became populated. The settlers there complained that it was hard to participate in Oregon Territory government and requested a closer, more convenient capital.

Congress acted on their petition, and on March 2, 1853, the Washington Territory was established, which also included northern Idaho and western Montana. The first governor for the 3,965 white settlers was Isaac Ingalls Stevens, a West Point graduate and a veteran of the Mexican War (1846-1848). Olympia was selected as the capital.

One of the new territorial government’s first tasks was negotiations with the Native Americans. From 1854 to 1855 Stevens negotiated treaties with different Native American peoples. These negotiations have been criticized for a number of reasons. Stevens chose the Native American representatives with whom he negotiated, and these were not always the leaders of the peoples involved. In addition, these treaties were written in English and had to be translated, which was done orally because the Native Americans did not have written languages. Frequently, these translations had been repeated several times before the tribal group heard the text of the treaty; consequently, they may not have had accurate knowledge of the treaties to which they agreed. Finally, Americans did not understand Native American definitions of authority or attachments to the land.

By 1855 Governor Stevens had induced the majority of Native American groups to sign treaties that confined them to relatively small reservations.

The Native Americans regretted having signed the treaties. The Spokane and Palouse groups living near Colville felt betrayed when prospectors crossed into reservation territory looking for gold in 1858. The Native Americans attacked and the army was sent to protect the prospectors. In another example, settlers moved onto Native American land before Congress had ratified the treaties. This situation drove Native American peoples to attack American settlements. From 1855 to 1859 a series of wars were fought between Native Americans and settlers in Washington. Eventually all the tribes were defeated and removed to reservations. Congress ratified the treaties in 1859.

Settlers in Washington planted wheat and vegetables, gathered berries, caught salmon and halibut, killed wild game, and built houses and furniture from the cedar and fir trees. Most industry was located on the west side of the state while agriculture was located on the east side. The discovery of gold in Idaho and British Columbia brought miners through the Washington Territory after 1857. They often went to buy provisions in Walla Walla, the largest city in the territory until 1880.

The settlers believed that inadequate transportation was the chief obstacle to the territory’s growth and agitated for a railroad. A local railroad line went through Walla Walla in 1875. The Northern Pacific completed the link between the East Coast and Puget Sound in 1883.

The establishment of transcontinental railroad service brought an influx of new settlers. The population, which had been growing slowly, jumped from 75,116 in 1880 to 357,232 in 1890. In particular, the black, Chinese, and Japanese populations grew as these groups took advantage of employment opportunities with the railroad. In 1882 Congress passed anti-Chinese legislation, which resulted in hardship and discrimination for the Chinese living in Washington state. Anti-Chinese riots broke out in Seattle, Tacoma, and other towns in 1885, as the Chinese, who had been brought to the United States to work on the railroads, were blamed for an economic downturn in the early 1880s. "Washington" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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