Ferry, Elisha P. (1825-1895)

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/08/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20777
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Elisha Ferry was the first governor of Washington state, the only two-term governor of Washington Territory, and the only person to serve as governor of both the territory and the state. He is the namesake of Ferry County in Northeast Washington. Born and raised in Michigan, Ferry practiced law for two decades in Illinois, where he was active in politics. A Republican, he was appointed surveyor-general of Washington Territory in 1869 by President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885). Grant named him territorial governor in 1872 and reappointed him in 1876. During the 1880s he worked in Seattle as a lawyer and then a bank officer. With the arrival of statehood in 1889, Ferry easily won Washington's first gubernatorial election. Heading the state's first government, he oversaw creation of many state institutions, but declining health limited his role and he died not long after his term ended.

Midwest Years

Elisha Peyre Ferry was born August 9, 1825, in Monroe, Michigan, the youngest child of Peter Peyre Ferry (1769-1845) and Ann Lloyd Jones Ferry (1794-1846), immigrants from France and England, respectively. Peter (originally Pierre) Ferry was a colonel in the French army, reportedly serving in Napoleon's cavalry, before emigrating to the United States in the early 1800s. Peter and Ann Ferry married in 1809 in New York, and were living in Connecticut when their first son was born two years later. By 1816 the family lived in the Sandusky Bay area on Lake Erie in northern Ohio, where Peter Ferry was the first Collector of Customs for the port of Sandusky. They moved to Monroe in 1822. Elisha, like at least some of his siblings, was given the same middle name as his father and evidently took pride in the family name -- he would continue the tradition with his children.

Elisha Ferry grew up and attended school in Monroe, where his father was a schoolteacher and served as Monroe County Treasurer and as a justice of the peace. Ferry studied law in his home town and then at Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was admitted to the bar in 1845 at age 20, and moved the next year to Waukegan, Illinois, where he lived and practiced law for two decades. In 1849, Ferry married Sarah Brown Kellogg (1827-1912). They had five children who lived to adulthood: Eliza "Lizzie" (1851-1935), James (1853-1914), Lincoln (1860-1911), Julia (1864-1894), and Pierre (1868-1932), each with the middle name "Peyre" like their father and grandfather.

In addition to his law practice, Ferry became active in politics. In the elections of 1852 and 1856 he served as a presidential elector, and in 1859 he was elected the first mayor of Waukegan. From 1861 through 1863 he was a bank commissioner for the State of Illinois. Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Ferry was appointed a colonel in the Union Army.  

Ferry's Civil War service proved to be pivotal in his career and life. As assistant adjutant-general on the staff of Illinois Governor Richard Yates Sr. (1818-1873), he worked on organizing, equipping, and "forwarding many Illinois regiments to the field and in the course of that duty made a friend of Gen. [Ulysses] Grant" (Dictionary of American Biography, 342). In 1869, shortly after his election as president, Grant -- who early in his career had himself served in Washington Territory -- appointed Ferry surveyor-general of the fast-growing territory. That brought Ferry to Washington, where he would rise to the highest office and spend the rest of his life.


In July 1869, Ferry and his family moved from Waukegan to Olympia, the territorial (and later state) capital of Washington, and he embarked on his duties as surveyor-general. The Office of Surveyor-General was established by the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which spurred American settlement of the Northwest by offering up to 640 acres of land free to American families who settled in what was then Oregon Territory. The surveyor-general organized and supervised the surveys that would locate and record land claims made by settlers. When Washington Territory was separated from Oregon in 1853, the new territory was given its own surveyor-general's office. Surveyors working for the surveyor-general laid out survey lines, eventually creating a grid across Washington of square "townships" each six miles on a side, consisting of 36 one-square-mile (640-acre) "sections," on which claims could be located. By the time Ferry took office, the surveyor-general's staff had another responsibility -- surveying the land along the routes of transcontinental railroads being built into the Northwest that Congress granted to the railroads as an incentive to build.

Ferry was a lawyer, not a surveyor, and there is no indication that he personally participated in survey work. The surveyor-general's office was a political patronage position, and Ferry was seen from the start as a political figure, plunging quickly into the territorial capital's political infighting. Like his patron, President Grant, Ferry was a Republican. So were most officials in Washington Territory at the time, but that did not preclude bitter conflicts among them. Ferry allied himself with Selucius Garfielde (1822-1881). Regarded as one of the era's greatest orators, Garfielde began his political career in Washington as a Democrat but, after sitting out the Civil War years in British Columbia, switched allegiance to the Republicans on his return. According to one historian, the next two Republican candidates for congressional delegate -- Seattle founding father Arthur A. Denny (1822-1899) and Alvan Flanders (1825-1884) -- won election "largely through the oratorical efforts of Selucius Garfielde" (Newell, 59). In 1865, Garfielde was appointed territorial surveyor-general and four years later he looked to win the delegate position himself.

Grant helped by appointing Flanders territorial governor, opening the congressional seat, which Garfielde won handily. That opened the surveyor-general office to which Grant appointed Ferry. Flanders was not a strong executive, and during his one year in office, "[i]t was conceded by most observers of the territorial political scene" that the newly arrived Ferry "was the real power behind the scenes at the capital" (Newell, 63). Ferry's behind-the-scenes power may have waned after Flanders was replaced as territorial governor in January 1870 by Edward S. Salomon (1836-1913), more competent and energetic than many who briefly occupied the office.

But Ferry remained active in the capital's political and social scene, which in 1870 was focused on the impending arrival of the Northern Pacific (NP) Railway's transcontinental rail line, then under construction from Kalama on the Columbia River to Puget Sound. As surveyor-general, Ferry had an official role in the arrival of the transcontinental line. Land surveys conducted under his direction would be used to locate the huge quantities of public land -- as much as half the total area (the odd-numbered square-mile sections in a survey) along a strip of land 40 miles on either side of the track -- that Congress promised the rail corporation on completion of construction as an incentive to build.

Ferry also, like many other territorial and local officeholders, both actively advocated the Northern Pacific's interests in territorial politics and represented local interests to the railway. Civic leaders in settlements around the Sound sought to have the transcontinental rail terminus, and the commerce and growth it would bring, located in their community. Those in Olympia, not only the capital but, at the time, the largest settlement and most important commercial center on the Sound, thought it natural that their city would be the terminus. But their counterparts in Seattle, Port Townsend, Tacoma, Steilacoom, and more argued on behalf of those locations.

In late 1870 Ferry headed a committee of Olympia civic leaders in discussions with railroad officials about the terminus and a rail connection to Olympia. Ferry and others also sought, without success at the time, to organize a local branch line from Olympia to the Northern Pacific tracks. But the NP kept building and in December 1871 railway officials announced plans to connect to Puget Sound at Budd Inlet, the southern arm of the Sound on which Olympia is located, (temporarily) cheering Ferry and his fellow Olympia boosters and spurring a (short-lived) boom.

The terminus location was not the only political issue roiling the territory in 1871. That fall saw a major push by the woman suffrage movement for women's voting rights. Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915) and national suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) made a two-month lecture tour of Washington and Oregon. It included a stop in Olympia, where Anthony addressed the legislature in support of a pending suffrage bill. Although many of the (all-male) territorial officeholders supported equal suffrage, Ferry was then an adamant opponent. He organized support for an anti-suffrage measure, which the legislature enacted, that affirmatively denied women the right to vote "until the Congress ... shall ... declare the same to be the supreme law of the land" (Newell, 66).

Territorial Governor

In 1872, Ferry's political ties brought him the ultimate prize in territorial politics. He and Garfielde persuaded President Grant to remove Salomon and appoint Ferry governor that April. Garfielde soon faded from the political scene, but for Ferry it was the beginning of what would be the longest gubernatorial tenure in territorial history. Later that year, the long-running dispute between the United States and Great Britain over possession of the San Juan Islands was resolved in favor of the U.S. In December Ferry visited the islands, "for the purpose of re-establishing the civil authority, in place of the divided military authority which had so long controlled there" (Snowden, 259).

By then it was evident that, despite repeated assurances, the Northern Pacific was not going to make Olympia its transcontinental terminus. Instead of continuing north to the capital city, the line under construction turned northeast to head farther up Puget Sound. Being bypassed transformed Olympia's recent boom into a bust, and in March 1873 civic leaders met to consider how to respond. The only way to ensure the city's economic survival seemed to be constructing a branch line to the NP tracks at Tenino, 15 miles south. But at the time they were unable to organize and fund such an effort.

Issues of the terminus and local connections to the transcontinental line dominated much of Ferry's first full year in office. In July 1873 the Northern Pacific announced that Tacoma would be the terminus, leaving civic leaders in Seattle and other would-be terminus cities as devastated as those in Olympia. In Seattle, as in Olympia, citizens quickly began planning their own rail line, originally envisioned as connecting Seattle with Walla Walla east of the mountains. Not long after announcing the terminus, the railway ran into problems of its own. In September, Jay Cooke and Company, the banking firm that financed the Northern Pacific, failed, triggering the nationwide Panic of 1873 and leaving the NP without funds to complete construction.

Although it was unclear in October 1873, when the territorial legislature met for the first time under Governor Ferry, whether the company would succeed in completing the transcontinental line, legislators proceeded to enact the territory's first laws relating to railroads. One required that they charge reasonable rates and prohibited charging customers differently for the same service. Another -- "evidently intended to be helpful to the enterprises in which the people of Olympia, Seattle and Walla Walla were then preparing to engage" (Snowden, 263) -- encouraged construction of new rail lines by exempting them from taxes until at least 15 miles were completed and in operation, and then taxing only the operating portion of the line.

In that legislative session, the first since the San Juan Islands dispute was resolved, Ferry supported residents of the islands, then part of Whatcom County, in their successful effort to win creation of San Juan County. Ferry also feuded with legislators over the appointment of a new public printer. He wanted the coveted contract awarded to Clarence Bagley (1843-1932), then editor of the Daily Courier, which just happened to be the only newspaper in the capital supporting Ferry and his faction. The rest, in the journalistic style of the day, regularly personally attacked and mocked Ferry and other opponents. Ferry had provided most of the initial funding when the Courier was established a few years earlier. Defying the governor's wishes, the legislature named as public printer Elisha Gunn, owner of the Transcript and one of Ferry's fiercest editorial critics. Ferry responded by declaring the legislative action null and void, announcing that Bagley was appointed printer by the new territorial secretary, Henry Struve (1836-1905), a Ferry ally who previously briefly owned the Courier and later served as Seattle mayor. Despite complaints from legislators, Bagley (who went on to write early histories of Seattle and King County, with favorable portrayals of Ferry) "enjoyed an all-time record tenure of 12 years" as public printer (Newell, 74).

Several Northern Pacific investors had put up money to continue building the transcontinental line, but by November that had run out and unpaid workers barricaded the tracks to block construction until they got their back wages. The workers sought Ferry's help, and the governor along with NP officials sought to appease them, although at one point he called out the militia to maintain order. Eventually a combination of some cash, promises of more, and scrip good at company stores in Tacoma convinced the workers to resume construction. The line was dedicated on December 16, 1873, and regular service began a few weeks later.

With the transcontinental line operating and legislative support for more rail construction in place, Olympia residents, with Elisha and Sarah Ferry at the forefront, revived efforts to build a branch line to the main tracks at Tenino. The governor helped lead a fundraising drive and Sarah Ferry organized leading women of the city to do their own cooking and housework so that male servants could take part in construction efforts. It was not just servants who personally helped build the branch line -- starting in April 1874 the city held a series of public work days in which businesses closed and "judges, lawyers, clergymen [and] doctors" worked alongside construction laborers (Ficken, Washington Territory, 113). But after four miles were cleared funds ran out, and it was not until 1877 that a new company organized by Governor Ferry resumed construction, ultimately completing Olympia's connection to the main line in 1878 midway through Ferry's second term.

Second Term and Seattle Interlude

Although Ferry had his critics, he was generally popular, and in 1876 President Grant appointed him to a second term. After the 1877 legislative session provided for a penitentiary to hold territorial convicts, who until then had been housed in county jails, Ferry contracted with longtime Thurston County Sherriff William Billings (1827-1909) to construct and operate the prison. Located in what was then Seatco (renamed Bucoda in 1889) in southern Thurston County, Washington's first penitentiary was notorious for its harsh conditions, with shackled inmates enduring long days of hard labor. It closed in 1887 when what is now the Washington State Penitentiary opened in Walla Walla.

Since long before Ferry arrived in Washington, there had been calls for the territory to become a state, but ballot measures authorizing a convention to adopt a state constitution were repeatedly defeated. A measure finally passed in 1876, and a constitutional convention was held in 1878. It prepared a constitution that voters approved but, despite advocacy by Ferry and other territorial officials, Congress did not then pass legislation enabling statehood.

Throughout his time as territorial governor, Ferry worked to strengthen territorial finances by ensuring that counties paid their share of taxes to the territory on time. Many did not, resulting in a $13,000 delinquency when Ferry took office, which despite his exhortations increased to nearly $70,000 by his last legislative session in 1879, when legislators finally adopted his proposal for legislation enforcing payment. Noting significant differences between counties in how property was valued for tax assessments, Ferry also argued for a board of equalization to ensure equal tax assessments across the territory, a reform that was eventually adopted.

Efforts to gain women the right to vote and to serve on juries continued during Ferry's governorship, but failed in the legislature, even though Ferry, despite his strong opposition to woman suffrage, indicated he would sign a suffrage bill if the legislature passed one. The effort succeeded in 1883, after Ferry had left office. Although the territorial supreme court invalidated the law four years later (not until 1910 was suffrage permanently adopted in Washington), the experience of women playing an equal role in civic affairs changed some minds:

"Sometimes the service they rendered was so satisfactory as to convert even the more vigorous opponents of the experiment, and among these was Governor Ferry himself, who after retiring from office as governor, returned to the practice of law at Seattle. He subsequently declared that he had found that women who had sat on the juries to hear and determine the cases in which he had been engaged, had given as careful attention to the evidence and the arguments, and had generally weighed them as accurately, and decided the issues involved, with as much good judgment as was ordinarily shown by male jurors" (Snowden, 275-76).

Ferry and his family moved to Seattle after his term ended in 1880, and he joined what became the law firm of McNaught, Ferry, McNaught, and Mitchell. He left private practice in 1887, when he became vice president of Puget Sound National Bank.

Elected Governor

Two years later, in 1889, when Congress finally authorized Washington to become a state, Ferry's popularity and record as territorial governor led the Republican Party, still dominant in the state, to nominate him as its candidate to become the new state's first governor. On October 1, voters (again all-male) approved the new state constitution drafted in convention earlier that year and elected the first state officials. Ferry easily defeated Democrat Eugene Semple (1840-1908), one of his successors as territorial governor, to become Washington's first elected governor. Statehood took effect on November 11, 1889, and Ferry was inaugurated one week later.

Ferry and the other newly elected officials and legislators quickly got to work establishing state offices and institutions, enacting laws, and appropriating funds. They did so with the new state in the midst of a major growth surge and economic boom. Washington's population was nearing 350,000, almost five times what it was a decade earlier. Much of that growth was in urban areas, with Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane, the top three cities, accounting for nearly one third of the state's total population. The rise of Seattle and Tacoma in particular reflected the rapid growth of rail lines, including a direct connection to Puget Sound across the Cascades via Stampede Pass, that funneled many more newcomers into Western Washington. More miles of rail line were built in Washington than any other state in 1889 and it remained in the top three for the next two years.

Railroads brought not just settlers but also money, as investors from the East Coast and even Europe poured money into Washington to fund railroads and additional development. Not surprisingly, large corporations and their investors had a sizable influence on the legislature, and the laws enacted tended to be business-friendly, which helped keep the flow of investment coming.

The state legislature itself did quite a bit of spending during its first session, which stretched from November 1889 into March 1890. Despite calls by Ferry and others to limit expenditures, that first legislature allocated close to $1 million, nearly double what the last territorial legislature had spent. Much of it went to new colleges that the legislature established around the state and Ferry approved despite his concerns about spending: "normal schools" for training teachers in Bellingham, Ellensburg, and Cheney and a school of agriculture and science in Pullman, now respectively the universities of Western Washington, Central Washington, and Eastern Washington, and Washington State University.

The legislature also established many other state institutions, including a land commission; commissioners of labor and of insurance; boards regulating doctors, dentists, and pharmacists; and a state military department. That newly established National Guard unit held its first encampment in June 1890 near American Lake in Pierce County at what was then called Camp Ferry in honor of the governor. The site, later named Camp Murray, became and remains the headquarters of the Washington National Guard. (A much-larger U.S. Army base, now Joint-Base Lewis McChord, was developed nearby.)

However, the legislature adjourned in March 1890 without creating new legislative districts for the next election in November 1890. As a result, Governor Ferry called a special session in September, limited to the redistricting, which was accomplished.

Ferry wasn't present for most of the second and final regular legislative session of his term, held in early 1891. In failing health, he sought to recuperate in the warmer climate of California, leaving Lieutenant Governor Charles Laughton (1846-1895) as acting governor. Legislators made a rare-at-the-time attempt to regulate transcontinental railroads, whose monopoly allowed them to charge farmers high rates, by requiring rates for grain shipments be reduced 15 percent, but Laughton vetoed the measure. When Ferry returned he was asked to call a special session so the legislature could override Laughton's veto, but the railroads, concerned about what other regulations legislators might adopt, lowered grain rates themselves and no session was held.

Ferry's health did not improve. He didn't seek re-election in 1892 and was succeeded by fellow Republican John H. McGraw (1850-1910). He moved back to Seattle with his family and spent his final years there. Elisha Ferry died on October 14, 1895, at 70. In 1899 the legislature named newly created Ferry County in his honor.


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