McGraw, John H. (1850-1910)

  • By Junius Rochester and David B. Williams
  • Posted 12/28/2016
  • Essay 3435
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John H. McGraw was elected Washington state's second governor in 1892. He arrived in Seattle from Maine during the 1870s at the age of 26, and got a job as a clerk in the Occidental Hotel. He joined Seattle's tiny police force and that was the beginning of his successful Pacific Northwest career in law enforcement, business, and politics. He became police chief, then King County sheriff -- the anti-Chinese riots in 1886 occurred on his beat. He studied law, and ran for governor on the Republican ticket. As governor he supported the University of Washington and the Lake Washington Ship Canal Project. After serving as governor, he joined the 1897 gold rush, then returned to Seattle, and went into real estate. He was one of Seattle's leading businessmen, and served as president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Early Life

Born on October 4, 1850, in Penobscot County, Maine, John McGraw arrived in Seattle in 1876 broke and friendless. While growing up in Maine, McGraw's father drowned, his mother remarried, and he found himself running a general store at age 17. That early management experience helped get him a job as clerk in Seattle's old Occidental Hotel. From there he joined the tiny Seattle police force.

John McGraw's Seattle police job was occasionally exciting. Those young years, in a bachelor, wide-open town, saw the toleration of a certain level of lawlessness. On January 17, 1882, businessman George B. Reynolds was threatened by two armed men as he walked down the street. Reynolds refused to cooperate with the robbers and was fatally shot in the chest. Reynold's murder aroused Seattleites who caught the suspects and turned them over to authorities.

A mob formed, demanding custody of the accused. Seattle Chief of Police McGraw and King County sheriff Lewis Wykoff (1828-1882), both of whom were armed, held firm, but the next morning at the preliminary hearing the mob grabbed the prisoners and hanged them from two maple trees in Occidental (Pioneer) Square. Then they returned to the jail, extracted another prisoner, and hanged him as well. (Wykoff died suddenly of heart disease two days later.)

The 1886 Anti-Chinese Riots

After serving as police chief, McGraw was elected King County sheriff. The great events of that period of service were the anti-Chinese riots. Chinese men had built the railroads of the West, and at first their labor was appreciated. However, by the 1880s, anti-Chinese agitators felt threatened by their cheap labor, and cast their anger in racist terms. Chinese laborers had been murdered in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and in King County's Issaquah Valley. Chinese had been threatened and driven out of Tacoma.

On Sunday morning, February 7, 1886, an anti-Chinese committee drove Seattle's Chinese community to the dock at the foot of Main Street with the intention of loading them on the steamship Queen. Governor Watson Squire issued a proclamation ordering the mob to desist and disperse, which was ignored. The Home Guard was called out the next day and meetings of substantial citizens were held, including Sheriff McGraw, to quell the growing lawlessness.

When a posse was formed, Sheriff McGraw and others took charge. Deputies fired shots into the mob, and one man died of his wounds. Nearly 200 Chinese were forced to leave on the steamship for San Francisco, and another 150 departed the following week.

George Kinnear, who participated in the events as a captain of the Home Guards, wrote that "Sheriff John H. McGraw was present during the whole affair and no officer ever performed his duties more faithfully and efficiently."

Law and Politics

Following three terms as King County Sheriff, John McGraw undertook the study of law. In 1887, he entered into a law partnership with Roger S. Greene and C. H. Hanford. With public service in his veins, he ran successfully as an ardent Republican for governor and was elected in 1892.

One of the central issues of the election was a proposal for a Lake Washington Ship Canal. McGraw, whose main support base was in Seattle, supported the canal, whereas voters in the rest of the state -- most of whom were Democrats -- opposed the project. Opponents derided it as the "Seattle Ditch," claiming that the money could be better spent elsewhere. "Condemnation of the canal means victory, not defeat. It means that the state of Washington will show King [County] that no locality can demand that the interests of that locality be advanced at the expense of other portions of the state" (Aberdeen Herald).

Ground for the canal was broken in 1909 and work on the locks (Ballard Locks) started in 1911. The canal and locks officially opened on July 4, 1917.  

During his term as governor, McGraw was considered "a zealous friend of the university [of Washington]," leading the effort to purchase a tract of land for $28,313.75 that became catalyst for the future campus. The cornerstone of the first building was laid during ceremonies on July 4, 1894. That structure was called the Administration Building, soon changed to Denny Hall.

With an eye on Seattle's business, which he would join late in life, Governor McGraw signed a bill authorizing the filling of the Duwamish tideflats, present site of Seattle's busy Harbor Island.

Similar to many Pacific Northwesterners, McGraw was bitten by the "gold bug" following the July 17, 1897, arrival from Alaska of the steamship Portland with its "ton of gold." Following his term as governor, and a spell of ill health, McGraw headed north as a first class passenger aboard the famous Portland on her return trip to Alaska. In 1900, he returned without striking it rich, but wiser and in better health.


Forming a general fire and real estate firm called McGraw, Kittinger and Case, John McGraw became a player within Seattle's business establishment. He served as president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and was the first president of the organized association of commercial bodies of Pacific Coast cities.

During this period, McGraw also showed an interest in regional history by financially supporting his friend Edmond S. Meany's project to write an abridged version of Captain George Vancouver's voyage along the Pacific Northwest coast. (Meany had been one of McGraw's proteges in the Republican Party.)

In late September 1909, during Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition ceremonies, Governor McGraw rode in a Winton car beside the large -- 300 pounds -- presence of United States President William Howard Taft (1857-1930). The exposition was held on the University of Washington campus during the summer of 1909. It was Seattle's first world's fair, and drew more than three and a half million visitors.

John McGraw died in 1910. After his death, a bronze statue of him, made in Paris by sculptor Richard E. Brooks, was erected in Seattle's Times Square. He is buried on Queen Anne Hill in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery near pioneers David Blaine and Daniel Bagley.


C. H. Hanford, Seattle and Environs: 1852-1924 (Chicago and Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924); History of Washington, The Evergreen State: From Dawn to Daylight Ed. by Julian Hawthorne (New York: American Historical Publishing Co., 1893); Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County, Washington (Chicago-Seattle: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929); James R. Warren, King County and its Queen City: Seattle (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1981); Clinton A. Snowden, History of Washington: The Rise and Progress of an American State (New York: The Century History Company, 1909); George Kinnear, Anti-Chinese Riots at Seattle, WN, February 8th, 1886 (Seattle: Privately Printed, 1911); Nard Jones, Evergreen Land: A Portrait of the State of Washington (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1947); George A. Frykman, Seattle's Historian and Promoter: The Life of Edmond Stephen Meany (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1998); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998); Murray Morgan, Skid Road (New York: The Viking Press, 1951); "Lynch mob hangs three men in Seattle on January 18, 1882," HistoryLink Timeline Library ( See also Steven E. Houchin, “McGraw Square: Tribute to a Self-Made Man,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History 23, No. 2 (Summer 2009), 10-12; "The Republican Ticket," Aberdeen Herald, September 1, 1892, p. 2.
Note: This essay, originally posted in 2001, was substantially revised and expanded on December 28, 2016.

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