1900 Census: The 12th federal census reveals that population has grown in every county in Washington state, cities have gotten bigger, and populations of women and minorities have grown.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 3/03/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9332

The details of the 1900 federal census are in some respects different and less comprehensive than they have become in recent decades. There were fewer and less precise classifications for minorities. Far fewer women worked outside of the home, and a far larger percentage of the total population lived down on the farm.  Every census provides both a demographic snapshot and a sociological glimpse of its era. Census takers in 1900 used some terms that would be used today, such as "urban" and "rural," and others that would not, such as "negro" and "colored," although those were considered terms of respect at that time. For the most part, this summary of the 1900 census uses the terminology of its day.

Census: Overview

The 1900 U.S. Census revealed that every county in the State of Washington saw an increase in population since the previous census in 1890. The total population of Washington state in 1900 was 518,103, an increase of 160,871 (45 percent) from the 1890 count of 357,232. The total increase included 2,531 Indians living on reservations in 1900. The increase between the pre-statehood year of 1880, when the territory's population was just 75,116, and the 1900 count was a whopping 590 percent. In 1900 Washington was the 33rd most populous state in the union, moving up one slot from the 34th position it held in 1890. Today (2010) it ranks 24th.

The 1900 population density in Washington, which has a land surface of 66,880 square miles, was 7.7 persons per square mile, up from 5.3 in 1890.

Population and Growth: Counties

In 1900, Washington had 36 counties, three fewer than our present-day 39 counties. The largest counties in terms of population in 1900 were:

  • King                          110,199
  • Spokane                     57,542
  • Pierce                         55,515
  • Whitman                     25,360
  • Whatcom                    24,116
  • Walla Walla                 18,680
  • Skagit                         14,272
  • Yakima                       13,462
  • Clarke                         13,419
  • Lincoln                        11,969

In terms of population growth measured by percentage increase in population, the five fastest growing counties from 1890 to 1900 were:

  • Snohomish      175.8 percent
  • Okanogan        170.3 percent
  • Yakima            153.8 percent
  • Adams             130.7 percent
  • Stevens           129.3 percent

Measured by numerical population growth, the five fastest growing counties between 1890 and 1900 were:

  • King                45,918
  • Spokane         20,055
  • Snohomish     14,968
  • Yakima             6,814
  • Walla Walla       6,456

Population and Growth: Cities and Towns

Here are the three incorporated cities and towns in Washington with populations over 25,000 in 1900, and comparisons with their 1890 populations:

  • Seattle     1900: 80,671       1890:  42,837   (+88 percent)
  • Tacoma   1900: 37,714       1890:  36,006   (+5 percent)
  • Spokane  1900: 36,848       1890:  19,922   (+85 percent)

Here are the next seven largest incorporated cities and towns in Washington in 1900, all with populations under 25,000, and comparisons with their 1890 populations:

  •  Bellingham      1900:    11,062    1890: 8,135    (+36 percent)
  •  Walla Walla     1900:    10,049    1890:  4,709   (+113 percent)
  •  Olympia          1900:     3,863     1890: 4,698    (-18 percent)
  •  Aberdeen        1900:     3,747     1890: 1,638    (+129 percent)
  •  Pt. Townsend  1900:     3,443     1890: 4558     (-24 percent)
  •  Yakima           1900:     3,154     1890: 1535     (+105 percent)
  •  Vancouver      1900:     3,126     1890: 3545     (-12 percent)

In the 1900 census 270,477 persons (52.2 percent of Washington's population) were living in the state's 90 incorporated towns and cities. Of these, 155,233 (57.4 percent) lived in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane, the only three cities at time with populations greater than 25,000.

In the 1890 census, 170,977 persons (33 percent of Washington's population) lived in the state's 67 incorporated towns and cities. Of these, 78,843 (45.9 percent) lived in Seattle and Tacoma, the only two cities at that time with populations greater than 25,000.

Population Distribution: Urban

For purposes of the 1900 federal census, "urban population" is defined as those persons living in incorporated towns and cities with populations greater than 4,000. It should be noted that many incorporated towns and cities had populations of fewer than 4,000. Thus, the total population of "incorporated towns and cities" (270,477) is significantly greater than the population of "urban areas," which includes only those cities and towns with 4,000 or more residents (188,750).

The decade between 1890 and 1910 showed a modest increase in the number of people living in urban areas when expressed as a percentage of total state population:

  • 1900 urban population: 188,750 persons (36 percent of total state population)
  • 1890 urban population: 120,865 persons (34 percent of total state population)

However, the numerical increase in urban residents between 1890 and 1900, when expressed as a percentage, gives a different picture:

  • Percentage increase in urban population from 1890-1900: 56.2 percent

Population Distribution: Semi-rural and Rural

The 1900 census board could not accurately determine a truly "rural" population by simply subtracting urban dwellers (defined as those living in towns and cities of 4,000 or more) from the total population, as this method would not take into account the large number of people who lived in smaller (under 4,000) incorporated towns and cities.

To address this issue, the board created an intermediate classification of the "semi-rural," which included everyone who lived in incorporated towns and cities of less than 4,000 total population, reasoning that a count of the truly rural population could be obtained by subtracting from the state's total population all those living in the defined urban and semi-urban settings.

  • Semi-rural population 1900:    81,727
  • Semi-rural population 1890:    50,112
  • Increase 1890-1900:              31,615 (63 percent)
  •  Rural population 1900 :          247,626
  •  Rural population 1890:           186,255
  •  Increase 1890-1900:             61,371 (33 percent)

Population Characteristics: Sex

At the start of the twentieth century males greatly outnumbered females in Washington state.

  •  1900 male population:             304,178
  •  1890 male population:             221,566
  •  1890-1900 increase:               82,612 (37.3 percent)
  •  1900 female population:         213,925
  •  1890 female population:         135,666
  •  1890-1900 increase                78,259  (57.7 percent)

Although the growth in male population between 1890 and 1900 was numerically higher than that of females, the percentage of the population that was male declined by 3.3 percent over that same decade, while the female percentage increased by an equal amount.

  • 1890 male percentage of total population:      62 percent
  • 1890 female percentage of total population:   38 percent
  • 1900 male percentage of total population:      58.7 percent
  • 1900 female percentage of total population:   41.3 percent

Here is another way to view the data:

  • In 1890, there were 61,231 females in Washington state for every 100,000 males.
  • In 1900, there were 70,329 females in Washington state for every 100,000 males.

Population Characteristics: General Nativity

The census takers at the start of the twentieth century used the term "General Nativity" to distinguish between U.S. residents born in America ("Native Born") and those who had immigrated from elsewhere ("Foreign Born"). Counts from that era reflect the large number of immigrants still flooding onto America's shores, but also show that the native-born population was growing at a much faster rate than that of the foreign-born:

  • 1900 Washington state native-born population:      406,739 (78.5 percent)
  • 1900 Washington foreign-born population:             111,364 (21.5 percent)
  • 1890 Washington state native-born population:      267,227 (75 percent)
  • 1890 Washington state foreign-born population:      90,005  (25 percent)
  • Increase in native-born population 1890-1900         139,512 (+52.2 percent)
  • Increase in foreign-born population 1890-1900         21,359  (+28.7 percent)

This demographic shift from foreign-born to native-born is more dramatically illustrated by comparing the decade from 1880-1890 to that from 1890-1900:

  •  Percentage increase in foreign-born population, 1880-1890:   469.5 percent
  •  Percentage increase in foreign-born population, 1890-1900:     28.7 percent

Yet a third comparison is useful:      

  • In 1890, there were 33,681 foreign-born people in Washington state for every 100,000 native-born.
  • In 1900, there were 27,880 foreign-born people in Washington state for every 100,000 native-born.

Population Characteristic: Race

The census board of 1900 used the term "Color" to refer to racial classifications, and the terms "White" and "Negro" to distinguish between European Americans and those of African descent.

The 1890 census had subdivided African Americans into subcategories of "negroes, mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons," but found the distinctions "of little value" and noted that the data  were "misleading" as to "the extent to which the races have mingled."  In any event, for the 1900 census the bureau kept it simple, counting only "Whites" and "Negroes."

  •  1900 Washington state white population:      496,304
  •  1900 Washington state Negro population:     2,514
  •  1890 Washington state white population:      340,829
  •  1890 Washington state Negro population:     1,602
  •  Percentage increase, whites, 1890-1900:        45.6
  •  Percentage increase, Negroes, 1890-1900:     56.9
  •  Number of Negroes per 100,000 whites, 1890:  470
  •  Number of Negroes per 100,000 whites, 1900:  507

When it came to other people of color, the 1900 census interpreted the category "Colored" to include "people of negro descent, Japanese, Chinese, and Indians," while the category "Negro" included only "people of negro descent." This resulted in African Americans being counted as both "Colored" and "Negro." By subtracting the total "Negro" population from the total "Colored" population, one would be left with a number representing the Chinese, Japanese, and India populations, lumped together.

The following breakdown gives an idea of the 1900 minority population by sex Washington's three largest cities and towns:

  •  Seattle colored males:             3,568
  •  Seattle colored females:             288
  •  Seattle negro males:                  212
  •  Seattle negro females:               194
  •  Spokane colored males:             566
  •  Spokane colored females:          181
  •  Spokane negro males:               222
  •  Spokane negro females              154
  •  Tacoma colored males:            1,070
  •  Tacoma colored females:            174
  •  Tacoma negro males:                 201
  •  Tacoma Negro females:             106

The 1900 federal census provides both a snapshot of Washington state's population at that time, and a glimpse of the society that those numbers represent.


"Twelfth Census of the United States -- 1900: Census Reports Volume I -- Population Part I," United States Census Bureau website accessed March2, 2020 (http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/33405927v1_TOC.pdf); "Decennial Population Counts for the State, Counties, and Cities: 1890 to 2000," State of Washington Office of Financial Management website accessed March 2, 2010 (http://www.ofm.wa.gov/pop/decseries/).
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.

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