Whitworth, George F. (1816-1907)

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 3/15/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8113
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George Frederick Whitworth and his family were among the early pioneers to settle in the southern Puget Sound area. A native of England, he immigrated as a child with his family to the United States, eventually becoming a Presbyterian minister in Indiana. In 1853, he set forth for the Pacific Northwest as a missionary, hoping to establish a Presbyterian colony, which never materialized.  Nevertheless, Whitworth  established many churches and is considered the father of Presbyterianism in Washington. His leadership in education was no less significant: He was president of the Territorial University (University of Washington) and founder of Whitworth College, which relocated to Spokane after his death. In addition, he turned his prodigious energies to law, Indian affairs, farming, and the development of the area’s coal resources. As Clarence Bagley asserts in History of Seattle, “Probably no resident of Washington has left so deep an impress upon public affairs of so wide a range” (Gray, 18). Whitworth and others like him brought to their new Western environment a world view that was essentially Victorian, in which Christianity, education, government, and capitalism were all necessary to the advance of civilization.   

Early Life

George Whitworth was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, England, on March 15, 1816, to Matthew and Suzannah Whitworth. In 1828, he came to the United States with his parents and sister Emma, settling first in Mansfield, Ohio, where he learned harness making from his father. The family moved on to Terre Haute, Indiana, where the young man graduated from South Hanover (or Hanover) College. In 1838 he married Mary Elizabeth Thomson, a Kentucky descendant of Presbyterian ministers and missionaries. The couple settled in Lancaster, Ohio, where George Whitworth became the principal of a high school, but soon began studying law, practicing in Greensburg, Indiana, and Dayton, Ohio. In 1847, he completed a divinity course at New Albany Theological Seminary in Indiana, was ordained a Presbyterian minister and began serving churches in Indiana and Kentucky.

From his boyhood in England, George Whitworth had been fascinated by the Pacific Northwest, especially from accounts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Then during the 1840s, he became steeped in the lore of missionaries to the region, the Whitmans, Spaldings, Eells, and Walkers. He began conceiving the idea of forming a colony of Presbyterians to settle in the Puget Sound area. Education, as well as religion, would be a central feature of the endeavor. In the April 1852, issue of The Presbyterian Magazine he outlined educational intentions for the colony that would govern his founding philosophy for Sumner Academy and Whitworth College: 

 “It is intended that we shall ... establish a good parochial school for the benefit of the children and youth of the colony ... and no efforts will be spared to elevate the character of the school, and to make it an institution of learning of the highest grade … It shall be a settled principle, that no child or youth, connected with the colony, shall ever be permitted to grow up without the benefit of a good English education, and a thorough religious training” (Gray, 13).  

Although Whitworh enlisted some 50 families for the colony, none of them completed the trek to the Northwest. Reports of danger from Indians and disease dissuaded most: Cholera along the Oregon Trail had been especially devastating in 1852. As the time for departure approached, the number had dwindled to 15. Finally on May 11, 1853, only two families actually departed from St. Joseph, Missouri, with the Whitworths. However, the party caught up with two other wagons of the colony that had gone ahead through a miscommunication. Using Whitworth’s diary, U.S. Census and other sources, Karl M. Donaldson Jr., lists the following families as traveling with the Whitworth’s at some point: Edmund Richardson, John Carson, Clark Hay, and John Pitney. However, they all eventually abandoned the migration to the Northwest for other destinations.   

The Trek West

The Whitworth family band that completed the journey to Puget Sound consisted of George and Mary and their children James Edwin, Frederick, John Matthew, and Clara, Mary’s two nieces, her 70-year-old mother, and two young men named Bell. They were also bringing cattle and horses. For the first three months, the party rested themselves and their oxen (and listened to Whitworth preach) on Sundays, but rumored dangers in Indian country forced them to abandon the restful Sabbath and hasten the remainder of the journey. Later Whitworth would describe the overland journey as “in nowise remarkable” (Drury, 1). His diary records the usual Oregon Trail problems of weather, straying or sick cattle, difficult river crossings, mosquitoes, Indian alarms, and illnesses. At least there were no deaths among the Whitworth party from disease, accidents, or Indians.   

The family wintered in Portland, where Whitworth and Dr. J. S. Yantis established the First Presbyterian Church. On March 4, 1854, Whitworth himself arrived at Olympia, the new territorial capital of Washington. He soon took out a donation land claim of 320 acres north of  Olympia, where Governor Isaac Stevens was presiding over Washington Territory's first legislative session. Whitworth’s family joined him in May.

Church and Temperance

George Whitworth lost no time in organizing the First Presbyterian Church of Olympia, as well as churches in Grand Mound and present Chehalis, to which he rode circuit on horseback. During the Indian Wars of 1855-1856, he carried a gun while traveling to these congregations. George Whitworth is credited with establishing between 15 and 20 churches in the Pacific Northwest, including First Presbyterian Church of Seattle, founded in 1869. In 1890 his alma mater, Hanover College, awarded him an honorary doctor of divinity degree.   

Initially upon his arrival in Puget Sound and for many years thereafter, Whitworth was a leader in the Temperance Movement, enjoining absolute abstinence upon his followers. In 1854, he founded the first temperance society in the new territory, which advocated a law based on one enacted in Maine in 1851 prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor. He drew up a petition that the new territorial legislature referred to the voters in 1855. The measure failed with 564 votes in favor and 650 opposed.

In the 1860s Whitworth was active in the International Order of Good Templars, a fraternal organization that fostered woman suffrage as well as temperance. Out of this organization would emerge the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1874 Whitworth became the first president of the Washington Territorial Temperance Alliance, a coalition of temperance organizations and churches dedicated toward enactment of a territorial temperance law. However, by 1889, when prohibition had become an issue during the Washington State Constitutional convention, George Whitworth, Daniel Bagley, and other leaders of the earlier temperance movements were conspicuously absent. In fact, “when they made themselves available to subscription historians in a later decade, [they] failed to mention their activities for the old temperance cause” (Clark, 45).  

Making Ends Meet

Whitworth’s salary from Presbyterian Board of Home Missions and the Olympia Presbyterian Church was inadequate to support his family. Two more children had been born since the migration to Puget Sound: George F. Jr. and Etta.  In 1860 Whitworth petitioned the Presbytery of Puget Sound (local governing unit of the Presbyterian Church) to allow him to resign as pastor at Olympia and to engage in secular enterprises. In a resolution dated July 2, the Presbytery required him to submit a written statement of the “reasons, causes & circumstances necessitating this step.” 

In his attached defense, Whitworth stated (in third person, as the “undersigned”) that he “finds it impossible for him any longer to remain in the field he now occupies, by reason of the inadequacy of his support. The entire amount received from both the board and the church here does not furnish the one half of what is absolutely requisite to feed, clothe & educate his family ...”  The Presbytery allowed him to resign from the Olympia Church, but “resolved that ... we cannot approve of his abandoning even temporarily, the ministry of the Gospel ... unless compelled to do so from absolute necessity” and urged him to find another pastorate that would support his family. They did, however, acknowledge their “vast debt of gratitude” to Whitworth for “his untiring energy and self denial for the past six years in laboring in the Gospel Christ in their midst” (Presbytery).

The truth of the matter is that Whitworth had found it necessary to supplement his income modestly all along through his farm near Olympia and, as early as 1855, by operating a small private school, assisted by his wife, an experienced teacher. Soon after the 1860 Presbytery decision, the family moved to Whidbey Island, where George rented a farm near Coupeville, and, not surprisingly, founded another church and operated another school. Again his wife Mary Whitworth assisted him.  In 1863, they moved back to Olympia, where he became secretary of the Territory’s Indian Department. In that capacity, Whitworth is credited with drafting the second Nez Perce Indian Treaty, signed at Lapwai, Idaho, in 1863. 

In 1866 the Whitworth family moved to Seattle, where George lived until his death in 1907 at the age of 91. During the Seattle years, he worked as a surveyor of public and private lands and as an entrepreneur in the fledgling coal industry. Beginning in the 1860s he was instrumental in the development of the Newcastle, South Prairie, Renton, and Wilkeson coal mines, and, with the Reverend Daniel Bagley, was part owner of the Lake Washington Coal Company. For years he wrote on coal resources, attracting eastern investment to the industry.   

Whitworth the Educator

Soon after his arrival in the Pacific Northwest, George Whitworth had turned his attentions to educating the youth of the increasingly settled area. Over the years, he was involved in secular as well as religious-based education. In addition to operating private schools, he was, at various times from the 1850s to the 1870s, superintendent of public schools in Thurston and King counties.

In 1861, the University of Washington, or Territorial University as it was then called, opened in a single building in downtown Seattle. George Whitworth served as its president in 1866-1867 and again from 1874 to 1876. Further, Whitworth served on a committee to draft a school law for the territory. Professor Edmond S. Meany of the University of Washington would state later that “Whitworth had more to do with school law enactments of the Territory than any other one person” (Gray, 21).   

Founding Whitworth College

In 1883, George Whitworth, with four colleagues from Sumner and Tacoma, established the co-educational Sumner Academy, essentially a high school or preparatory school, thus reviving the idea he had for educating his colony. The fertile Puyallup Valley stretching west from the flank of Mt. Rainier was increasingly settled and needed such a school. For lack of a dedicated building, the first classes were held in the sanctuary of the Sumner Presbyterian Church on January 7, 1884, with its pastor, the Reverend George A. McKinlay, as head and with a board of trustees consisting largely of Presbyterian ministers. Although the school was heavily Presbyterian, its students were free to attend other churches. In 1889, the school got its own handsome wooden building, complete with turrets and mansard roof, largely underwritten by a loan from L. F. Thompson, a trustee and the Puyallup Valley’s leading hops grower. (Might there be a clue here to Whitworth’s waning zeal for Prohibition?)  George Whitworth’s leadership of the school, as chairman of the board of trustees for years, and later, as his fortunes improved, through financial contributions and travels for fundraising, helped to assure its survival.    

In 1890 the incorporators of Sumner Academy changed the name to Whitworth College and the school began offering a higher college-level curriculum based on that of eastern universities. The first catalog espoused principles of educating both “heart and mind” (Gray, 17) that have guided Whitworth College ever since. In 1899, the trustees voted to relocate the college to the more populous city of Tacoma, thus assuring a larger pool of students. There the trustees bought for the new campus the Allen C. Mason mansion and its grounds at Inspiration Point.  

Whitworth Moves to Spokane

In 1914, seven years after George Whitworth’s death, the Whitworth College was again relocated, this time across the state to Spokane. The school was literally recruited by Spokane boosters, especially railroad and real estate tycoon Jay P. Graves, who donated land for the campus near his estate on the Little Spokane River north of the city.

In Spokane, Whitworth College developed into a distinguished private institution of higher education, enjoying the enthusiastic support of the Spokane community and attracting students from many states and countries. George Whitworth would be gratified that the college he founded has maintained its affiliation with the Presbyterian Church and a strong commitment to its founder’s educational and religious values.  

Remembering George Whitworth  

In 1985 the American Presbyterian/Reformed Historical Sites Registry placed a monument at George Whitworth’s grave at the Lake View Cemetery, 1554 15th Avenue E, on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Many of his descendants, as well as Washington dignitaries, attended the memorial service held at the gravesite on September 17, 1985. There was considerable press coverage, and the mayors of Seattle and Spokane and the governor of Washington all proclaimed a George Frederick Whitworth Day.


Norman H. Clark, The Dry Years: Prohibition and Social Change in Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 22, 28, 29, 34, 45; Karl M. Donaldson Jr., “The Edmund Richardson Story and the 1853 Diary of the Reverend George F. Whitworth,” typescript, George Whitworth Collection, Whitworth College Archives, Spokane, Washington; Clifford Drury, “George Frederick Whitworth, Father of Presbyterians in Washington,” typescript, George Whitworth Collection, Whitworth College Archives;  Alfred O. Gray, Not By Might: The Story of Whitworth College, 1890-1965 (Spokane: Whitworth College, 1965), 11-33; Presbytery of Puget Sound, “Extract from Minutes, July 2, 1860,” typescript, George Whitworth Collection, Whitworth College Archives; Dale E. Soden, A Venture of Mind and Spirit: An Illustrated History of Whitworth College (Spokane: Whitworth College, 1990), 13-22; George F. Whitworth, “Diaries,” George Whitworth Collection, Whitworth College Archives.

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