Washington is admitted as the 42nd state to the United States of America on November 11, 1889.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 3/01/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5210
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On November 11, 1889, Washington becomes the 42nd state of the United States of America when U.S. President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) issues a proclamation declaring that its "admission ... into the Union is complete." The news is immediately telegraphed to Olympia, setting off celebrations in the new state's capital, where elected officials and citizens have been waiting with increasing impatience for word that Washington is finally a state after 36 years as a territory. For much of that time, Washingtonians showed little interest in becoming a state, and Congress evidenced little interest in admitting the territory, but that had changed by 1889. In February, Congress approved legislation authorizing Washington and three other territories to become states and, on October 1, Washington voters approved a state constitution and elected state officeholders. All that remains is for Harrison to sign the proclamation making Washington a state, but he is not satisfied with the paperwork initially received from territorial officials. New certified documents reach the White House on November 11 and, after additional last-minute delays, Harrison signs the proclamation with a pen made of Washington gold.

36 Years a Territory

Washington Territory was created in 1853 when Congress split what is now the State of Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana off from Oregon Territory, which had been created five years earlier in 1848. When Oregon was admitted as a state in 1859, the rest of what is now Idaho and portions of what is now Wyoming were briefly added to Washington Territory. Washington was reduced to its current boundaries in 1863 when Idaho Territory was created.

By the time it achieved statehood, Washington had spent 36 years as a territory, longer than any of the 41 states admitted before it and more than three times as long as neighboring Oregon. (Five states admitted subsequently -- Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii -- would exceed Washington's 36-year tenure as a territory.) There are a variety of reasons for the length of time it took Washington to become a state. Especially in the territory's early years many new settlers, focused on establishing homes, communities, and businesses, had little interest in the politics of statehood. At least four times in the late 1860s and early 1870s voters rejected proposals to call a convention to adopt a state constitution. Partisanship also played a role. When a constitutional convention was finally held in 1878 and voters went on to approve the state constitution it drafted, Washington was reliably Republican. The U.S. Congress, then controlled by Democrats who were not eager to admit a state that would give its votes to their opponents, declined to pass an act enabling Washington's admission.

However, as historian Robert Ficken notes, the biggest political obstacle to statehood during most of Washington Territory's existence was based on geography: "Washington was not, in fact, politically viable. The complete lack of communications over the Cascades prevented unity, in politics and economics" (Washington Territory, 2). Divisions -- political, economic, cultural, and more -- between Eastern and Western Washington have continued to exist well into the twenty-first century, but the lack of communication Ficken cites was virtually total. There were not even wagon roads, let alone rail lines, across the mountains during most of Washington Territory's existence, just trails "utilized only by the annual cattle drive and occasional packer" (Washington Territory, 156). Unable to trade or even communicate directly with each other, the growing settlements on each side of the mountains looked elsewhere. Those in Western Washington, most on Puget Sound with easy access to the sea, did business largely with California. Eastern Washington farmers shipped their produce to, and received supplies from, Portland, Oregon, along the Columbia River, by boat or rail. Even when the first transcontinental rail line finally reached Puget Sound at Tacoma in 1873, it came via Portland, not over the mountains.

Ready for Statehood

That changed dramatically in 1887 with the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad's line from Eastern Washington over the Cascades via Stampede Pass to Tacoma. Direct trade between the regions boosted the economies on both sides of the mountains and brought many more immigrants from the eastern United States. Washington's population, which had been increasing throughout the decade, boomed, with the majority of the growth in the Puget Sound region.

With the territory economically unified and booming, local regional rivalries were put aside, at least temporarily, and calls for statehood increased. The national political stars aligned too. Republicans retook the U.S. Senate from the Democrats in 1886, and in the 1888 presidential race Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland (1837-1908). Although Harrison would not take office until March 1889, Republicans in the senate quickly introduced legislation to admit North Dakota and South Dakota as states. To the surprise of some, Democrats responded to the seeming inevitable admission of those and more new states by ensuring that they received some of the credit -- they added Washington and Montana to the enabling legislation.

Both houses of Congress passed the act enabling Washington, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana to seek statehood on February 20, 1889, and President Cleveland signed it two days later on Washington's Birthday. Those four would become the first states admitted to the union since Colorado in 1876, with the Dakotas on November 2 and Montana on the 8th preceding Washington by a few days.

The enabling act set forth the steps that Washington had to take to become a state: Citizens were to elect delegates to a constitutional convention who would draft a proposed state constitution, which would then have to be approved by voters in the same election in which they elected the state's first officials. To begin the process, three territorial officials -- Governor Miles C. Moore (1845-1919), Chief Justice Cornelius H. Hanford (who would go on to write an early history of Seattle), and Secretary of State O. C. White -- apportioned the territory into 25 districts, each of which chose three delegates in an election held on May 14, 1889. The 75 delegates elected represented a range of professions, most had some political experience, and they were, according to Ficken, "more impressive than those sent to the 1878 convention" (Washington Territory, 207).

The convention opened in Olympia, the territorial capital, on July 4 and held almost daily sessions through August 24, when the proposed constitution was completed. Most provisions in the document generated relatively little controversy. Three quite controversial matters were omitted from the main document and presented separately to voters: whether the state should adopt woman suffrage, giving women the right to vote (the main draft constitution specified that only men could vote); whether alcohol prohibition should be implemented; and the location of the state capital, with several cities, including North Yakima and Ellensburg, seeking to challenge Olympia for the honor.

The proposed constitution went to the voters on October 1, 1889. As expected, it was approved by a wide margin. The separate articles to adopt woman suffrage and prohibition were both soundly rejected, while the contest for the capital was left undecided because no city received a majority. (Olympia, which remained capital in the interim, would win a run-off vote the following year.) Also as expected, the Republican ticket, headed by gubernatorial candidate Elisha P. Ferry (1825-1895), who had served two terms as territorial governor in the 1870s, dominated the races for the first state offices. Republican John L. Wilson (1850-1912) was elected the state's first voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives -- as a territory, Washington had sent only non-voting delegates to Congress. And Republicans won commanding majorities in both houses of the new state legislature.

Last-minute Delays

While the results were clear soon after the vote, several formalities remained before Washington could be admitted as a state and the new officials assume their offices. The enabling act named the territorial governor, chief justice, and secretary of state as a canvassing board to determine the official results of the vote on the constitutional matters, with the governor required to certify the results and the constitution to the president, who would then issue the proclamation making Washington a state. Getting that all accomplished to the satisfaction of President Harrison took longer than anticipated, to the frustration of many newly elected officials and other Washingtonians.

For starters, vote counting was delayed by a series of storms that downed telegraph wires around the territory. Not until October 21 were Governor Moore, Chief Justice Hanford, and Secretary of State White able to meet and finalize the returns. In a letter to President Harrison dated October 23, Moore certified the canvassing board's actions and the election results. In addition, Hanford prepared a certificate for the copy of the constitution being submitted to the president, but only White signed that certificate. On October 25, Moore dispatched J. W. Robinson (1855-?), an attorney and owner of the Olympia Tribune (and later mayor of Olympia and a Thurston County superior court judge), to carry the certified returns and constitution to the national capital.

A cross-country train journey at the time took about a week, so by the first days of November the territorial and soon-to-be state officials in Olympia were expecting news by telegraph that the admission proclamation had been signed, but they heard nothing. On November 3, Governor Moore and Governor-elect Ferry jointly telegraphed President Harrison asking him to issue the proclamation. The next day, to their dismay, Harrison telegraphed Moore that the enabling act required that the governor certify "to the copy of said constitution," but the constitution was only certified by the secretary of state, adding "Send another copy certified by you" ("A Fatal Error ...").

Although Moore, Ferry, and virtually all officials in Olympia believed that Moore's October 23 letter constituted the required certification, that same day the territorial governor quickly signed a new certificate, attached it directly to a copy of the constitution, and mailed them off to the president. He also telegraphed the text of the new certificate to Harrison, in hopes that having the text and knowing the official document was on the way would be sufficient. It was not; Harrison telegraphed back that he would await the actual new certificate. And the president was not swayed by Moore's November 5 telegram urging that his October 23 letter substantially complied with the certification requirement. All of this telegraphic exchange was reprinted in full on the front pages of newspapers across the territory.

The new certified documents arrived in Washington, D.C., on Monday, November 11. Moore's messenger J. W. Robinson and Representative-elect John Wilson went to the White House at 9:30 that morning expecting Harrison would soon sign the statehood proclamation, but the waiting continued, much to the dismay of "impatient men at Olympia and other places asking why the delay" in a steady stream of telegrams ("Washington a State ..."). After they had been at the White House for more than six hours, it turned out that the proclamation, which U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine (1830-1893) also had to sign, was still at Blaine's house. Although Harrison's private secretary suggested that Washington might need to wait another day for statehood, Wilson and Robinson persisted, sending a note to Blaine asking him to sign the proclamation that day, and the Secretary of State "walked to the White house a half hour later with the document in his hand" ("Washington a State ...").

Admission Is Complete

When the signing finally took place at 5:27 p.m. Eastern time on November 11, 1889, it was a ceremonial, if brief, event. Harrison and Blaine used "a pen of gold from the Washington mines, in a holder of ebonized laurel made in Washington for the especial purpose" to sign the proclamation ("Washington a State ..."). In the document, after a series of "Whereas" clauses setting forth the details, President Harrison did "declare and proclaim the fact that the conditions imposed by congress on the state of Washington to entitle that state to admission to the Union have been ratified and accepted, and that the admission of said state into the Union is complete" ("Washington a State ...").  

Wilson immediately telegraphed home that Harrison had signed the proclamation and Washington was a state, and Blaine followed with a telegram to Governor Moore and Governor-elect Ferry announcing the signing and including the full text of the proclamation, which was soon printed in newspapers around the new state. In Olympia, Moore sent a message to the capitol building, where both houses of the legislature were in session. The announcement in the senate chamber that the proclamation had been signed touched off a raucous and rapidly expanding celebration:

"There was a moment of dead silence, followed by a roar which shook the ancient wooden capitol. Jubilation spread from the senate to the house and then down Main street to the town. The cannon, which had been charged for days awaiting the great event, fired unceasing salvos and the male populace rushed to the town's 14 saloons" (Newell, 124).

Although Washington was now a state, it would be another week before the new state government was fully installed. That time was spent preparing elaborate ceremonies for the inauguration of Governor Ferry and the other newly elected state officers and an official celebration of statehood, which all took place on November 18.


"Washington a State: Proclamation Signed with a Pen of Native Gold," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 12, 1889, p. 1; "Why Does He Wait? President Harrison's Proclamation Still Delayed," Ibid., November 5, 1889, p. 2; "Wilson's Big Vote," Ibid., October 23, 1889, p. 2; "Governor Moore Annoyed," Spokane Falls Review, November 14, 1889, p. 1; "Inaugural Ceremonies," Ibid., November 14, 1889, p. 1; "A Fatal Error: The Delay in Admitting the State Explained," Ibid., November 7, 1889, p. 1; "Special to the 'Herald,'" The Yakima Herald, February 21, 1889, p. 3; "J. W. Robinson, of Olympia ...," Vancouver Independent, October 30, 1889, unpaginated (copy available at UW Law Digital Commons website https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/waconst_news/130/); Robert E. Ficken, Washington Territory (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2002), 1-3, 140-43, 156-65, 200-12; Robert E. Ficken, Washington State: The Inaugural Decade, 1889-1899 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2007), vi-vii, 2-3; Gordon R. Newell, Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen (Seattle: Hangman Press, 1975), 121-24, 133, 137; Clinton A. Snowden, History of Washington: The Rise and Progress of an American State, Vol. 4 (New York: The Century History Company, 1909), 267-70, 383-90; "Wilson, John Lockwood," U.S. House of Representatives website accessed February 16, 2022 (https://history.house.gov/People/Detail?id=23931); "States by Order of Entry Into the Union," Infoplease website accessed February 18, 2022 (https://www.infoplease.com/us/states/states-by-order-of-entry-into-the-union); "Pennsylvania of the West," Washington Secretary of State website accessed February 22, 2022 (https://www.sos.wa.gov/legacy/washington-1889/pennsylvania-of-the-west.aspx); "Selected Transcriptions and Images from Olympia Tribune Souvenir Issue 1891," Olympia Historical Society and Bigelow House Museum website accessed February 22, 2022 (https://olympiahistory.org/selected-transcriptions-from-olympia-tribune-souvenir-issue-1891/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington State Constitutional Convention delegates frame constitution stipulating that voters must be male, but append separate woman suffrage and Prohibition amendments on August 17, 1889" (by Paula Becker) and "Idaho: When It Was Part of Washington" (by John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 22, 2022). Note: This entry replaces a previous entry on the same subject.

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