Pioneer Association of the State of Washington

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 2/01/2001
  • Essay 2952
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In 1871, King County formed a local pioneer association that became the genesis of a wider organization. In 1883, a number of settlers met in Olympia, Washington, to form a Territorial pioneer association. Today's Pioneer Association of the State of Washington, a descendant of the 1883 group, meets in a historic brick building on Seattle's Madison Park waterfront. Any citizen of the state of Washington with a pioneer ancestor who arrived in the area prior to November 11, 1889 -- the date of statehood -- is eligible for membership.

By Wagon Trail and Rail

America's great Westward migration during the 1830s to 1880s moved along wagon trails and then aboard the new transcontinental railroads. Settlers filled up the rich land in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, established settlements along the Columbia River, surrounded the Marcus and Narcissa Whitman mission in the Walla Walla Valley, Washington, and then crept northward to Puget Sound country and the Columbia Plateau.

Following the establishment of the Canadian-United States boundary in 1846, and the passage of the Donation Land Law in 1850, the immigrant rush became a deluge. With the arrival of families and the shared experience of being "first," settlers experienced a feeling of pride. To celebrate that pride, and remind pioneers of their shared struggles, commemorative meetings were held and commemorative organizations were formed. The largest of those surviving organizations is the Pioneer Association of the State of Washington.

Quilting Bees and Picnics

The first local pioneer association was probably formed in King County, Washington, in 1871. Quilting bees, picnics, corn husking contests, and Euro-American versions of Indian potlatches were typical programs at the early annual meetings. During Territorial days -- 1853-1889 -- the meetings were more serious, introducing the names and backgrounds of surviving pioneers, writing local histories, establishing permanent meeting places, scheduling speakers.

On October 10, 1883, a number of settlers met in Olympia to formally establish a Territorial pioneer association. At that meeting it was agreed that anyone coming to Washington Territory before January 1, 1856, was eligible for membership. (They were referring of course only to settlers and other pioneers, not to the Indians who lived here.) The 1856 date closely followed several important events: In 1852, King County was established; in 1853 Seattle was named King County's seat of government; also in 1853 a bill was introduced in Congress to create the "Territory of Columbia," later changed to "Washington" in honor of the nation's first president.

Following the signing of Indian treaties between 1853 and 1855, white-Indian confrontations erupted. The so-called "Battle of Seattle" occurred on January 26, 1856. Columbia River and Eastern Washington disruptions continued into the 1870s. During this same period, Euro-American in-migration picked up speed and farms, ranches, and towns were established. A local "history" and shared experience was taking place. In other words, pioneers had something in common to talk about and to record.

Meeker's Hop Farm

Most Pioneer Association meetings took place in Tacoma during the 1880s, although attempts were made to move the annual event from town to town. Forty-three members of the fledgling Pioneer Association met in October 1883, to adopt a constitution and by-laws. Alexander S. Abernathy was elected president. The July 1884 meeting convened with an attendance of 254 pioneers and their families. At the 1885 meeting, Ezra Meeker (1830-1928) and the Northern Pacific Railroad invited pioneers on a tour of Puyallup Valley - most likely to see Meeker's hop farm.

When the Pioneers met at Yesler's Hall in Seattle in 1886, Judge Orange Jacobs made formal application to the Territorial group on behalf of the King County Pioneer Association to merge the two organizations. His petition was accepted, the constitution was revised, and a secretary was appointed to keep track of deceased members.

Also at the 1886 meeting, Francis Henry suggested that the new association gather material pertinent to the region's history. (Henry, called Olympia's "town wit, cartoonist and writer of satirical verse" by historian Gordon Newell, authored a poem titled "The Old Settler," which was later used by restaurateur and Pioneer Association member Ivar Haglund. It included the famous line: "I laugh at the world and its shams, as I think of my happy condition, surrounded by Acres of Clams.")

Several speakers addressed individual Pioneer meetings. The events sometimes lasted an entire day and were attended by several hundred people. Excursions were taken to the Frye Opera House, Black Diamond, Port Townsend's Chimacum Lodge, a formal garden - "Smith's" - in Renton, and the capitol grounds in Olympia.

Historic, Scientific, Literary, Monumental, Societal

Major changes occurred in 1895. The official name of the organization was changed to "The Pioneer Association of the State of Washington." The organization was described as "historical, scientific, literary, monumental and social." Seven trustees were elected and the constitution was again revised. Membership was now open to those who had resided in the Territory prior to January 1, 1870 (again, not referring to Indians).

In a grand gesture, membership was also open to pioneers who had lived in California, Oregon, Idaho, or British Columbia during the same period of time. Dues were established at $1 a year. For two dollars, "Honorary Membership" could be granted to residents who had lived in the Territory or State for at least 21 years.

Regional historian and University of Washington professor Edmond S. Meany took a particular interest in the Pioneer Association. At a June 8, 1898 meeting of the pioneers, Meany toasted attendees with the words: "All honor to you, our patriarchs! May the evening of your lives be filled with joy, and comfort, and love, as was the morning filled with sorrow, and danger, and savage hatred." The latter reference was to early Indian-white relations, a commonly held view of early pioneers.

The McGilvra Contribution

In 1902, Judge John McGilvra (1827-1903) and his wife Elizabeth (Hills) McGilvra donated a lakeshore lot in Madison Park, near their own "Laurel Shade" home, for use by the Pioneers. Although disputes erupted between the Association and McGilvra's son, Oliver, over property lines and taxes, the Pioneers now had a land base.

The 1904 annual meeting, held at the new McGilvra site, was attended by 600 guests. Historian Lucile McDonald described the scene:

"As the diners finished they adjourned to Madison Park for a program in the pavilion. Members swapped yarns, sang old songs, took a roll call of the oldest present and went for a boat rides on Lake Washington. Transactions and addresses that year filled a 52-page yearbook" (Pioneer Association archives).

McDonald noted that the 1904 meeting was "one of the last gatherings of the real pioneers."

Pioneer Hall

Sarah Loretta Denny, in 1908, bequeathed $20,000 to the association for construction of a headquarters. Pioneer Hall was built and a committee of women members organized the cobblestone fireplace and sandstone mantel with the inscription "Auld Lang Syne." Three members of the pioneer Denny family attended the hall's June 7, 1910 dedication ceremonies.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Association membership increased despite the deaths of most true pioneers. That growth was caused by the relatively liberal admission of lineal descendants of pioneers with members qualifying if they or their pioneer ancestors arrived in Washington before November 11, 1889, the date of statehood. For example, the 1937 reunion was held at the Masonic Temple so that 1,000 members and friends could be seated. More than 2,000 guests came to the 1940 reunion at the Seattle Civic Auditorium.

Auxiliary organizations grew out of the Association. In 1911, the Native Daughters of the Pioneers in Washington was founded, dropping the word "native" in 1922. In 1937, a statewide incorporation of Daughters was established, the Seattle group being designated Chapter No. 1. The Daughters continue to serve the association, especially maintaining historical displays and records on the hall's second floor. Another organization, a women's auxiliary, was formed in the 1920s. It met separately from the Association in such venues as the YWCA and the Olympic Hotel.

Despite the death of true pioneers, the advent of television and other forms of entertainment, and an influx of newcomers to the state, a revival of the Pioneer Association occurred in the 1960s. Under the presidency of Albert S. Balch, a serious attempt was made to find descendants of pioneers and a new membership directory was produced with the help of grand old pioneer Joshua Green. During this period, repair and restoration of Pioneer Hall was also undertaken. In 1970, the hall was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today's (2001) Pioneer Association has a membership of more than 1,000. Several bequests have resulted in a healthy treasury. Annual salmon bakes are held on the lawn of Madison Park, across the street from Pioneer Hall. An active board is undertaking a long-range plan, improvements are being made to the handsome hall, and meetings include entertainers, speakers, and reminiscences.


Pioneer Association of the State of Washington, Archives, (Seattle, Washington); Junius Rochester, From the Territory of Columbia to Madison Park: A Brief History of the Pioneer Association of the State of Washington (Seattle: in possession of Junius Rochester and the Pioneer Association, 1996); George A. Frykman, Seattle's Historian and Promoter: The Life of Edmond Stephen Meany (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1998); Cornelius H. Hanford, Seattle and Environs, Vol. 1, (Chicago and Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924).

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