Governor Isaac Stevens selects Olympia as capital of Washington Territory on November 28, 1853.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/15/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5054

On November 28, 1853, Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), the first governor of Washington Territory, issues a proclamation that names Olympia as the capital of the new territory.  Olympia, founded in 1850, is located in Thurston County on the shores of Budd Inlet, the southernmost extension of Puget Sound.  At the time, it is among the largest settlements in the territory.  Although it is subsequently surpassed in population and commercial prominence by other cities, Olympia retains its position as capital of the territory and later of the state of Washington.

Washington Territory was carved out of Oregon Territory by an act of Congress signed by U.S. President Millard Fillmore on March 2, 1853. President Franklin Pierce, who took office two days later, selected the territory's first officers, designating as governor Isaac Stevens, an engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers and a Democrat who had actively supported Pierce's campaign for the presidency.

Seat of Government

Before leaving Washington, D.C., in April 1853, Stevens wrote to Arthur Denny in Seattle, seeking advice on issues including the location of a capital for the territory. In addition to his duties as governor, Stevens sought and received command of a party surveying a railroad route from the Mississippi River to Puget Sound. As a result of the survey work, he did not reach Olympia until November 25, 1853.

Once he did, and after reviewing the census of the territory taken by U.S. Marshal J. Patton Anderson -- which reported only 3,965 inhabitants (Indians were not counted) -- and consulting leading citizens, Stevens selected Olympia as the seat of the new government. On November 28, 1853, he issued a proclamation calling for a Territorial Legislature to be elected on January 30, 1854, and assemble in Olympia on February 27.

Governor Stevens addressed the newly elected legislature on February 28, 1854, and the legislators set to work passing laws for the territory. Washington has long been a state, its population has grown exponentially, and uncountable changes have occurred since 1853, but Olympia remains the seat of the Washington legislature and government.


Sources: Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946), 159-62; Gordon R. Newell, So Fair A Dwelling Place (Olympia: The Olympia News Publishing Company, 1950), 7-11, 14-17; David Wilma, "Stevens, Isaac Ingalls (1818-1862)," HistoryLink Metropedia Library (www.historylink.org).

Related Topics:   Cities & Towns | Government & Politics

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