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Milestones for Washington State History -- Part 1: Prehistory to 1850

HistoryLink.org Essay 5366 : Printer-Friendly Format

This is a brief chronology of the milestones of Washington history. Part 1 begins at prehistorical times and goes to 1850. Search the HistoryLink.org database for more detail on selected events.

Before 1700
  • Most of present-day Washington lies under the Pacific Ocean until a giant island now called the Okanogan Terrane collides with North America about 100 million years ago. This was long before our species, Homo sapiens, evolved on Earth.
  • A second “micro-continent” rams North America to create Western Washington and the volcanic Cascade Range about 50 million years ago.
  • Vast flows of lava well up to create the Columbia Plateau about 15 million years ago.
  • Ice Age glaciers begin spreading over most of Washington about two million years ago.
  • Human beings evolve in Africa about 160,000 years ago.
  • Human beings arrive in North America via a land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska. This was once thought to be 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. But archeological evidence is pushing the date back, perhaps even to 30,000 years ago. It is also likely that some of the First Peoples of North America arrived from Asia by boat.
  • As the Ice Age ends about 15,000 years ago, a series of huge “Spokane Floods” unleashed by breaking ice dams carve the Grand Coulee, and the retreating Vashon Glacier leaves behind Puget Sound.
  • Some scholars believe that Chinese and Polynesians explorers may have reached North America by sea, and the British privateer Sir Francis Drake may have explored the Washington coast in 1579.
  • In 1625, Michael Lok publishes an account by a Greek navigator named Juan de Fuca, who claimed to have entered the fabled “Northwest Passage” (linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans) during a Spanish expedition in 1592.
  • In the first written record of an event that took place in the Pacific Northwest, Japanese scribes record a tsunami caused by giant earthquake in the Pacific Northwest on January 26, 1700 (later confirmed through geological evidence).


  • Danish navigator Vitus Bering explores and claims Alaska for Russia in 1741.
  • Spanish explorer Juan Perez sails north from San Blas, Mexico, and claims all of the Pacific Coast south of Russian America (modern Alaska) at 54 degrees 40 minutes latitude in 1774. Juan Perez makes the first European record of the Washington coast.
  • Spanish explorers Bruno Heceta (Hezeta y Dudagoita) and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, sailing north from Mexico, explore the coast of Washington in 1775. On July 12, 1775, a small group lands at the future Grenville Bay and claims the Pacific Northwest for Spain. Later that day seven of Heceta's crewmen become the first Europeans to die in the future state of Washington when they are killed by Quinault warriors while attempting to land. Heceta names the place Punta de los Martires (Point of the Martyrs). The two vessels  continue north. On the return trip, on August 17, 1775, Heceta maps the Washington coast including the mouth of the Columbia River, but does not enter the Great River.
  • Continental Congress of the 13 British colonies (future United States of America) passes the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The American Revolution (1777-1783) forms the context for Spanish and British exploration of the Pacific Northwest. These nations are traditional enemies, and Spain supports the American colonies in their rebellion against England.
  • British explorer James Cook names Cape Flattery on March 22, 1778. His reports prompt the arrival of European fur trappers and traders by sea and land.
  • Smallpox and other diseases introduced by Europeans ravage Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest during the 1770s.
  • British fur trader Charles W. Barkley enters and names the Strait of Juan de Fuca, believing it to be the Northwest Passage, in 1787.
  • George Washington is inaugurated as first President of the United States of America on April 30, 1789.
  • Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper explores the Strait of Juan de Fuca as far east as the San Juan Islands in 1790 and lands at Neah Bay to secure Spanish claims to the Olympic Peninsula region on August 1, 1790.
  • Under threat of war from Great Britain, Spain signs the Nootka Concession opening its Pacific Northwest territories to other nations' explorers and traders in October 1790 (the United States inherited Spain’s original claims under a separate treaty in 1819, leading to “joint occupancy” with Britain until 1846).


  • Spanish explorer Francisco Eliza charts the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Strait of Georgia in 1791.
  • Spanish circumnavigate the San Juan Islands in 1791.
  • British Royal Navy Capt. George Vancouver names Point Grenville, which the Spanish had named Punta de los Martires (Point of the Martyrs), on April 28, 1792.
  • Spanish explorer Salvador Fidalgo establishes the first European settlement in Washington, Nunez Genoa, a short-lived fort at Neah Bay, in May 1792.
  • Captain Robert Gray enters Grays Harbor on May 7, 1792.
  • Captain Robert Gray becomes the first non-Indian navigator to enter the Columbia River, which he later names, on May 11, 1792.
  • British explorer George Vancouver and his officers Peter Puget and Joseph Whidbey begin charting Puget Sound on May 19, 1792.
  • Joseph Whidbey circumnavigates Whidbey Island in June 1792.
  • Dionisio Alcala Galiano and Cayetano Valdez lead Spain’s final expedition into Pacific Northwest waters in June 1792, when they meet British explorer George Vancouver.


  • Lewis and Clark Expedition enters the present state of Washington on October 10, 1805.
  • Lewis and Clark Expedition reaches the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers on October 16, 1805. They reach the Pacific Ocean on November 7, 1805.
  • Members of Lewis and Clark expedition vote in the first recorded election in the Pacific Northwest on November 24, 1805.
  • Fur trader David Thompson explores Pend Oreille River in September and October 1809.
  • The North West Company establishes Spokane House in 1810.


  • John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Co. establishes Fort Okanogan in 1811.
  • John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company establishes Fort Spokane in 1812.
  • Great Britain and the United States sign the Treaty of Joint Occupation of Oregon on October 20, 1818.
  • Spain cedes its original Pacific Northwest claims to the United States in the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819.


  • Hudson’s Bay Company establishes Fort Vancouver on March 19, 1825.
  • Hudson’s Bay Company establishes the first sawmill in future Washington near Vancouver 1827.


  • Hudson's Bay Company establishes Fort Nisqually, first non-Indian settlement on Puget Sound, in April 1833.
  • Beaver, Puget Sound’s first steamship, sails from Fort Vancouver on June 18, 1836.
  • Marcus and Narcissa Whitman establish a mission at Waiilatpu on October 16, 1836.
  • Catholic missionaries Francis N. Blanchet and Modeste Demers arrive at Fort Vancouver on November 24, 1838.
  • Catholic missionary Father Blanchet stays on Whidbey Island on May 26, 1840.


  • Fr. Peter DeSmet, SJ, and other Jesuit missionaries enter the Pacific Northwest in 1841.
  • Wilkes begins first American survey of Puget Sound on May 11, 1841.
  • American settlers in Oregon declare a provisional government on May 2, 1843.
  • Provisional government of Oregon Territory creates Clark County, covering all of present-day Washington, on August 20, 1845.
  • Oregon creates new Lewis County for Western Washington on December 19, 1845.
  • Irish American Michael T. Simmons and African American George Bush and their families establish the first U.S. settlements north of the Columbia near Tumwater in 1845.
  • Edmund Sylvester and Levi Smith stake a claim on the future site of Olympia in October 1846.
  • Britain cedes claims to the Pacific Northwest by signing the Treaty of Oregon on June 15, 1846.
  • Measles epidemic devastates Cayuse tribe in 1847.
  • Whitman Massacre at Waiilatpu on November 29, 1847.
  • Congress creates Territory of Oregon on August 14, 1848.
  • Oregon settler militia and Indians clash at the Battle of The Dalles on January 8, 1848.
  • Fr. Pascal Ricard and Oblate monks establish mission in present-day Olympia on August 28, 1848.
  • First crude irrigation ditch is dug in Yakima County in 1849.
  • U. S. Army’s Fort Steilacoom established in 1849.
  • U.S. troops establish Columbia Barracks at Fort Vancouver in 1849.
  • Oregon Territory census counts 304 non-Indian residents north of the Columbia River in 1849.
  • American customs inspector seizes the British ship Albion, whose crew is cutting timber at Discovery Bay, on April 22, 1850.
  • Pope Pius IX creates Diocese of Nesqually (now Archdiocese of Seattle) on May 31, 1850.
  • Isaac Ebey becomes first permanent settler on Whidbey Island in 1850.
  • Donation Land Claim Act takes effect on September 11, 1850.
  • Hudson’s Bay Co. establishes a fishing station on San Juan Island 1850.
  • Settler population in North Oregon is 1,049 persons in 1850.

To go to Part 2, click "Browse to Next Essay" below.

For the sources documenting these events, review detailed essays in HistoryLink databases.
Note: This chronology was updated and corrected on March 14, 2007.

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Spokane Chief Garry (1811?-1892), 1892
Photo by Sherman Blake, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. L-

Snoqualmie Chief Pat Kanim (ca. 1808-1858), ca. 1855
Photo by George N. Moore, Courtesy MOHAI

Historic tribes of Western Washington
Courtesy Ruby & Brown, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific NW

First map of the mouth of the Columbia River, discovered and drawn by Bruno de Hezeta and named Bahia de la Asuncion, August 17, 1775
Courtesy Archivo General de Indias, Sevilla

Salmon Fishing at Chenook, 1857
Sketch by James G. Swan The Northwest Coast

Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), ca. 1807 Portrait by Charles Willson Peale
Courtesy National Park Service

William Clark (1770-1838), ca. 1810
Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, Courtesy National Park Service

Fort Walla Walla, 1841
Sketch by Joseph Drayton, Courtesy Fuller, A History of the Pacific Northwest

Fort Nisqually, ca. 1840
Courtesy UW Special Collections (NA4130)

Marcus Whitman (1802-1847), idealized portrait based on 1847 sketch
Courtesy National Park Service

Narcissa (Prentiss) Whitman (1808-1847), idealized portrait based on 1847 sketch
Courtesy National Park Service

S.S. Beaver on Puget Sound in the mid-1800s
Courtesy British Columbia Archives

George Washington Bush (1790?-1863), n.d.
Courtesy Henderson House Museum

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