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Washington Territorial Legislature approves King County's present-day boundaries on January 31, 1867.
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On January 31, 1867, the Washington Territorial Legislature approves the present-day (2006) boundaries of King County (with subsequent minor adjustments). One of the Territory's first eight counties, King County originally stretched from the crest of the Cascade Range to the Pacific Ocean. It presently embraces 2,126 square miles and is home to 1.8 million residents.
Under Two Flags
Great Britain and the United States pursued exclusive claims to the Pacific Northwest until 1818, when they agreed to “joint occupation” of “Oregon Country.” American settlers soon outnumbered their British counterparts -- who were chiefly Hudson’s Bay Company employees, agents, and their families -- and organized a rump “Oregon Provisional Legislature” in May 1843, in defiance of British rights and claims. Two months later, on July 5, that body divided the vast region now occupied by British Columbia and the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and portions of Montana and Wyoming into four districts: the Tuality, Yamhill, Champoeg, and Clackamas. The latter encompassed Puget Sound and stretched to the crest of the Rockies, including most of present-day Washington state, all of Idaho, western Montana, and eastern British Columbia.
On August 18, 1845, the Vancouver District was carved out of the Clackamas District. On December 21, 1845, Lewis County was separated from the Vancouver District. (The name Vancouver District was changed to Vancouver County on December 22, 1845, and then to Clark County on September 5, 1849.) Lewis County included the area north of the Columbia River and west of the Cowlitz River and extended north to 54 degrees 40 minutes north latitude, the southern border of Russian America. The slogan “54-40 or fight” became a rallying cry for Americans, including President Polk, who laid claim to all of the Pacific Northwest.
On June 15, 1846, the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Oregon, a compromise by which Great Britain ceded its claims below the 49th parallel. Congress officially established Oregon Territory, which included all of the future states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and portions of Montana and Wyoming, on August 14, 1848.
Oregon Territorial Imperative
On January 12, 1852, the Oregon Territorial Legislature carved Thurston County out of Lewis County. Thurston County's boundaries were as follows:
"Beginning at the north-west corner of Pacific County, and running along the northern boundary line of said county, to the north-east corner thereof; thence continuing due east course to the summit of the Cascade range of mountains; thence along the summit of said range, in a northerly direction to the boundary line between the United States and the British possession; thence in a westerly direction along said boundary line to the Pacific ocean; thence in a southerly direction along the coast to the point of beginning" (Abbott and Carver, p. 76).
On December 21, 1852, the Oregon Territorial Legislature in Salem passed "An Act to create and organize the County of King" partitioning King County out of what had been part of Thurston County. King County thus became a county in Oregon Territory, with Seattle as its seat of government. When King County was established its borders were drawn as follows:
"Commencing at the north-east corner of Pierce County: thence north along the summit of the Cascade Mountains to a parallel of latitude passing through the middle of Pilot Cove: thence from the point last aforesaid west along said parallel of latitude to the Pacific Ocean: thence south along the coast to a point due west of the head of Case's Inlet; thence from the point last aforesaid east to the head of Case's Inlet; thence east along the northern boundary line of Pierce county to the place of beginning" (Abbott and Carver, p. 77).
Thus, in its first incarnation, King County stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and the waters of Puget Sound flowed through its center without a land bridge to link east and west. This awkward configuration did not survive for long.
What’s In a Name?
When the act to create and organize the county was initially read into the official record the name Buchanan was given to the county, honoring James Buchanan (1791-1868), who would be elected president of the United States in 1856. Buchanan, Secretary of State and Minister to Britain under President James K. Polk (1795-1849), had negotiated the 1846 Treaty of Oregon that settled the boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain in the Pacific Northwest.
On a second reading of the act, however, it was amended to strike out Buchanan's name and substitute the phrase "King: in honor of W. R. King of Alabama." Senator William Rufus de Vane King (1786-1853) had just been elected Vice President on the Democratic ticket with President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869). King was also a close friend of Buchanan, the only bachelor to be elected President of the United States. He took the oath of office while visiting Cuba but died of tuberculosis en route to Washington, D.C. (As detailed later in this essay, in 2005 the State of Washington officially renamed the county to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)
Washington Territorial Rule
President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) signed the act creating Washington Territory on March 2, 1853. It originally comprised eight counties: King, Island, Jefferson, Pierce, Thurston, Pacific, Lewis, and Clark (the new legislature added an “e” to the latter, then removed it in 1925). The Washington Territorial Legislature began subdividing these initial counties in 1854 and by 1860 King County had been nearly reduced to its current dimensions.
Meanwhile, Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859 with its present-day borders, and Washington Territory inherited the remainder of the former Oregon Territory, including all of Idaho and western sections of Montana and Wyoming. President Abraham Lincoln established the Washington boundaries we know today by signing the law to create a separate Idaho Territory On March 4, 1863.
On January 9, 1866, the southern border of King County was altered as follows:
"From where the fifth standard parallel line strikes the main land near the head of Commencement Bay, thence east along said parallel line to the middle of the main channel of White river thence up the middle of the main channel of the White river to the forks of White river and Green Water, thence up the middle of the main channel of Green Water, to the summit of the Cascade Mountains" (Abbott and Carver, p. 105).
On January 31, 1867 the Washington Territorial Legislature adjusted King County's boundaries for a final time. The boundaries were described as follows:
"Commencing where the fifth standard parallel line strikes the land near the head of Commencement Bay: thence east along said parallel line to the middle of the main channel of White river; thence up the middle of the main channel of the White river to the forks of White river and Green Water; thence up the main channel of Green Water to the summit of the Cascade Mountains; thence northerly along said summit to the south-east corner of T. no. 27 N, R 11 E, it being a point due east of the north-east corner of T26, R 4 E; thence west to Admiralty Inlet, Colvo's Passage and Commencement Bay, to the fifth standard parallel and place of beginning" (Abbott and Carver, p. 109).
The Washington Territorial Legislature confirmed these boundaries without alteration on December 2, 1869. King County’s outline has remained virtually unchanged ever since, although the wording of the boundary description has become more specific over time. A 1901 election adjusted the water boundary line between King and Pierce counties.
King County Today
The law describing King County's boundaries currently (2006) states:
"King county shall consist of the territory bounded as follows, to wit: Beginning at the point of intersection of the center of East Passage (also known as Admiralty Inlet) on Puget Sound and the northerly line of the Puyallup Indian Reservation (projected northwesterly); thence southeasterly in a straight line along said northerly line of Puyallup Indian Reservation and same extended to a point on the east line of section thirty-one, township twenty-one, north, range four east, Willamette Meridian; thence south along said east line of section thirty-one, township twenty-one, range four east, Willamette Meridian, to the township line between township twenty north and township twenty-one north (being the fifth standard parallel north); thence east along said township line between township twenty north and township twenty-one north to the middle of the main channel of White river, near the northeast corner of section three, township twenty north, range five east, Willamette Meridian; thence upstream along the middle of the main channel of White river to the forks of White river and Greenwater river; thence upstream along the middle of the main channel of the Greenwater river to the forks of the Greenwater river and Meadow creek; thence upstream along the middle of the main channel of Meadow creek to the summit of the Cascade mountains, at a point known as Naches Pass, said point lying in the southwest quarter of section thirty-five, township nineteen north, range eleven east, Willamette Meridian; thence northerly along the summit of the Cascade mountains to a point on the township line between township twenty-six north and township twenty-seven north, said point lying near the north quarter-corner of section three, township twenty-six north, range thirteen east, Willamette Meridian; thence west along said township line between township twenty-six north and twenty-seven north to the middle of the channel known as Admiralty Inlet on Puget Sound; thence southerly along said middle of channel known as Admiralty Inlet through Colvo's Passage (West Passage) on the west side of Vashon Island to a point due north of Point Defiance; thence southeasterly along middle of channel between Vashon Island and Point Defiance (Dalcos Passage) to a point due south of Quartermaster Harbor; thence northeasterly along middle of channel known as Admiralty Inlet to point of beginning. King county is renamed in honor of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr." (RCW 36.04.170)
The final sentence of this state statute was added by Senate Bill 5332, signed into law by Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) on April 19, 2005. Nine years earlier, on February 24, 1986, the King County Council had re-designated King County to honor the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). But in order for this change in namesake to become official it had to be signed into state law. For eight consecutive years, State Senator Adam Kline sponsored legislation to authorize the name change and State Representative Eric Pettigrew sponsored the bill in the State House of Representatives. With the 2005 signing King County was officially renamed in honor of Martin Luther King.
HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Oregon Territorial Legislature creates King County and names Seattle county seat on December 21, 1852," (by Walt Crowley), "Britain cedes its claims to the Pacific Northwest by signing the Treaty of Oregon on June 15, 1846" (by Walt Crowley), and "King County redesignates county name in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. on February 24, 1986" (by Patrick McRoberts), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed June 18, 2006); Clarence Bagley, History of King County, Washington (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929); Newton Carl Abbott and Fred E. Carver, compiled by J. W. Helm, The Evolution of Washington Counties (Yakima: Yakima Valley Genealogical Society and Klickitat County Historical Society, 1978); "Clackamas County," Provisional and Territorial Records Guide, Oregon State Archives website accessed June 18, 2006 (http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/provisionalguide/ClackamasCounty.html); "King County Profile," Washington State 2005 Data Book website accessed June 18, 2006 (http://www.ofm.wa.gov/databook/county/king.asp#01general); Engrossed Senate Bill 5332, Washington State Legislature website accessed April 23, 2005(www.leg.wa.gov/pub/billinfo); RCW (Revised Code of Washington) 36.04.170; Katrine Barber, "Oregon Story of Statehood," Oregon Historical Society website accessed April 25, 2011 (http://www.ohs.org/visit-ohs/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=7337)
Note: This essay was modified and expanded on November 5, 2010, and amended on April 25, 2011, to correct the date of Oregon statehood.
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Oregon Country originally extended from Russian America to California, as shown in this 1846 map
Territories of Washington and Oregon included the future states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and a portion of Montana, as shown in this 1853 map
Washington Territory, 1853-1859
Courtesy Fuller, A History of the Pacific Northwest
Washington Territory, 1859-1863
Courtesy Fuller, A History of the Pacific Northwest
Washington Territory, 1863-1889
Courtesy Fuller, A History of the Pacific Northwest
Vice President William Rufus de Vane King (1786-1853), original eponym for King County
Courtesy C. H. Hanford, Seattle and Environs