Thurston County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 11/15/2006
  • Essay 7979
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Thurston County is located in Western Washington, on the southern end of Puget Sound, often called the "South Sound." It is the eighth smallest county in the state, with a total land mass of 727 miles, but also the eighth most populous county, with a population of 207,355 counted in the 2000 United States Census. Thurston County is named after Samuel R. Thurston, in 1849 the first delegate to Congress from the new Oregon Territory, part of which later became Washington. In 1845 the county became the site of the first American settlement north of the Columbia River when Michael Simmons (1814-1867) settled near Tumwater Falls. In 1853 the town of Olympia was chosen as the territorial (later state) capital, but battles would rage over this choice for the next century. During the county's first century lumber and its byproducts rather than state government played the leading economic role. In 1954, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that state government offices must have their headquarters in Olympia, and soon state government dominated the county’s economy, while its lumber industry faded to a fraction of its former glory. Thurston County's population boomed beginning in the early 1970s, transforming the towns of Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater into a small metropolis of its own and attracting migration from the larger cities to the north of Tacoma and Seattle.

First Peoples

Native Americans had been residents of southern Puget Sound long before the first documented white settlers passed through in 1792. Archaeological excavating and carbon dating procedures have established a human presence at Tumwater Falls on the Deschutes River as far back as 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. The Nisqually and Squaxon tribes gradually established themselves in the area. They built a settlement of longhouses at the falls, which they called Tum-wa-ta, meaning “strong water,” and wintered on a peninsula they called Cheet-Woot (the present-day site of Olympia).

The Native Americans found their primary food source from the water, particularly salmon and shellfish; they either caught the fish in shallow water in the inlets or skimmed the deeper waters in canoes carved out of large cedar logs. They also hunted game such as elk and deer both for meat and to make clothing from the pelts. Roots, camas bulbs, and berries also were a staple of the diet.

During the warmer months, Indians lived in lightweight homes that often had a portable mat roof made from tule reeds and cattails. The portable roofs were a logical extension of the migratory life of root-gathering and berry-picking that dominated the late spring and summer months. Winter homes were more substantial, built with heavy red-cedar posts (sometimes carved and painted). The roof boards of these homes were alternately concave and convex to allow rain water to run off. These boards were also adjustable to let more light into the homes in good weather, and to custom fit the size of the smoke holes needed for each home.

Exploration and Settlement

Though some Native American legends claim others might have explored Puget Sound (at least as far south as Commencement Bay) as early as 1750, the first documented exploration of Puget Sound was headed by British captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) in May 1792. On May 20 Lieutenant Peter Puget and Master Joseph Whidbey began a six-day exploration of the southern sound. Puget found the Indians he encountered to be friendly and honest, and wrote in June 1792: “They beheld the approach of our boats with out the least apprehension or evident signs of fear ... . The conduct of these people impressed me with a high idea of their honesty” (Palmer).

White explorers next visited the area in the 1820s when scouts of the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company passed through, looking to establish a trading post on Puget Sound. The Hudson’s Bay Company subsequently established Fort Nisqually -- the first European settlement on Puget Sound -- in April 1833 near Sequalitchew Creek on the Nisqually Delta, but on the eastern side of the Nisqually River, in today’s (2006) Pierce County. Still, this nearby settlement would, a decade later, provide a helping hand in the establishment of the first American settlement in Washington -- in the future Thurston County.

In May 1841 United States Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) arrived in Puget Sound. He conducted a survey of the sound and named several landmarks, including Budd Inlet, named after one of the officers in the survey expedition.

In October 1845 Michael Simmons settled near Tumwater Falls and established the first American settlement in what would become the state of Washington. With Simmons was his friend, African American George Bush, and other settlers. They survived the first winter with help from nearby Fort Nisqually. Simmons built a grist mill and a sawmill at the site and called his settlement New Market as a way of letting all know that Hudson’s Bay Company now had competition.

In October 1846 Levi Smith and Edmund Sylvester arrived from New England and built a cabin on a peninsula called by local Indians Cheet-Woot. This would later be Olympia.

Thurston County Forms

In August 1848 Congress established Oregon Territory, which included the future state of Washington. By 1850 there were more than 300 non-Indian inhabitants north of the Columbia River, and as the new communities on and near the southern shores of Puget Sound began to grow, so grew the need for a local organized government and a new county. Simmons (in honor of Michael Simmons) was proposed as the name of the new county.

Instead, Thurston was chosen as the new county’s name and Olympia was chosen as the county seat. The Oregon Territorial Legislature carved the new county out of Lewis County on January 12, 1852. The early Thurston County was considerably larger than it is today, covering territory from west of the Cascades to the coast and north to the Canadian border. However, other counties were quickly formed from parts of Thurston County and by 1877 it had been reduced to its present size.

Thurston County’s name came from Samuel R. Thurston (1816-1851), the first delegate to Congress in 1849 from the new Oregon Territory, who had made a name for himself during his brief tenure in office defending the territorial rights of the northern part of Oregon Territory against the claims of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

State Government and County Seat

By the early 1850s settlers living north of the Columbia River felt they had little in common with their southern neighbors and also felt they were largely ignored by the Oregon Territorial Government. The settlers first wrote Congress in 1851 and asked for a new territory, but Congress did not act.

The second attempt was more successful. Late in November 1852, the New Territory Convention met in Monticello (near present-day Longview in Cowlitz County) and the delegates drafted a petition to form a new territory to be called Columbia out of Oregon Territory north of the Columbia River. Citizens south of the river did not object, and the bill was introduced in Congress in December. As the bill went through Congress, the name of the proposed territory was changed from Columbia to Washington, partly to avoid confusion with the District of Columbia and partly to honor George Washington. Both the House and Senate approved the bill, and President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), in one of his last acts as president, signed it on March 2, 1853, creating the Territory of Washington (which at that time also included northern Idaho and a small slice of northwestern Montana).

President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) took office two days later. He appointed Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) as the territorial governor. Stevens arrived in Olympia in November 1853. He consulted leading citizens (including Arthur Denny of Seattle) on various issues, including the choice of location for the seat of the new government. Stevens picked Olympia as the territorial capital, and called for a territorial legislature to be elected on January 30, 1854, and to meet in Olympia on February 27.

The 1855 Legislature was called upon to vote on the location of the state government. Vancouver and Olympia were in the running. Arthur Denny (1822-1899) gave an impassioned speech to the Legislature extolling the virtues of Olympia, and Olympia won. But was only the beginning of the capital battle.

A Capital Battle

As early as 1859 a bill was introduced into the Territorial Legislature to move the capital to Vancouver, but it failed. Another such bill was introduced when the Legislature again convened in December 1860, and this time it passed. The Territorial Supreme Court would eventually decide the validity of that bill. But during the 1860 legislative session, the Legislature also passed a second bill providing that territorial voters should decide the capital location in the next election.

That election came in July 1861, and Olympia defeated Vancouver by a vote of 1,239 to 639. But at some point in 1861 the legislature moved to Vancouver. Then, in December 1861, the Territorial Supreme Court (which had also moved to Vancouver) ruled on the validity of the first bill, which had moved the capital to Vancouver. The court held that the Legislature could change the location of the state capital -- unless a vote of the people was in favor of keeping the seat of government in Olympia. Since voters had subsequently voted to keep the capital in Olympia, the court ruled that the capital should remain in Olympia.

In October 1889, as Washington neared statehood, the capital issue again was put to a vote. Olympia garnered 25,490 votes, but it wasn’t enough. North Yakima and Ellensburg almost evenly split most of the remaining ballots, and between them the two towns received 27,594 votes. Since Olympia did not win a majority of the votes in the 1889 election, a second election was held in 1890. This time Olympia won hands down, defeating its nearest rival, Ellensburg, by a vote of 37,413 to 7,722. North Yakima was third with 6,276 votes.

And still this did not settle the question. Some state agencies began simply drifting away from Olympia; as early as 1899 the Board of Health moved to Seattle. After World War II ended in 1945, the trend of agencies leaving Olympia accelerated. By the mid-1950s, 13 agencies had moved their headquarters to Seattle. Once again the matter ended up in front of the Washington Supreme Court. On August 3, 1954, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that state agencies must headquarter in Olympia. “The decision, a new and stunning climax to the century-long fight by Olympians to be the center of state government, was written by Justice Charles T. Donsworth” (The Daily Olympian). In a 33-page decision, the court wrote: “We feel certain it was the intention of the framers of our state constitution and the people ... that the whole of the executive department should be located in the seat of government” (The Daily Olympian).

The case was controversial enough to generate a written dissent. The four dissenting justices argued that the capital question was one for the Legislature, not the court, to decide.

The Other Thurston County

For most of Thurston County’s first century, state government played only a secondary role in the county’s economy. In the nineteenth century, timber covered much of the region, and coal was discovered in the southern part of the county, providing attractive economic opportunities for the slowly growing influx of settlers.

In December 1854 Governor Isaac Stevens and 62 leaders of major Indian tribes in western Washington met at Medicine Creek (now McAllister Creek) in Thurston County and signed what became known as the Medicine Creek Treaty. Inequities in the treaty and other factors soon provoked the Indian War of 1855-1856. Though most of the fighting took place outside Thurston County, local fear of an attack was rampant: Olympia built a stockade to block an attack that never happened, and citizens formed two volunteer companies that saw action (and some fatalities including fighters from Thurston County) in the White River Valley.

There were also economic threats to the county’s early settlement. In 1873 the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Tacoma instead of Olympia as its terminus, and routed its railroad tracks 15 miles from Olympia. In a day when railroad was king, being bypassed by the railroad was frequently a death knell for small towns. But not Olympia. It simply built a railroad of its own and by 1878, it was connected with the Northern Pacific.

Still, water remained the best route of travel along Puget Sound, even in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. But here there was another problem that slowed the county’s growth -- its port. At low tide, Olympia’s port turned into an enormous mudflat. The ports of Tacoma and Seattle (Commencement Bay and Elliott Bay) were deeper and more accessible. In 1895 Olympia’s harbor was dredged, but by this time growth in both Seattle and Tacoma had far eclipsed that of Thurston County.

Thurston County began the twentieth century on a bright note. The 1900 Census put the population of the county just shy of 10,000. As the new century began, lumber was the most important industry, with sandstone and coal mining in the southern part of the county also adding a glow to the economic horizon.

Timber still dominated the county’s economy in the 1920s, and when the Port of Olympia formed in 1922, it shipped forest products from the lumber mills lining Budd Inlet all over the world. But state government began making significant inroads into the county’s economy during the 1920s.

Olympia’s state capitol campus was completed in 1927 and symbolized the trend toward state government becoming the dominant industry in the county. Indeed, state employment (assisted by federal funds) provided employment opportunities for Olympia and Thurston County citizens in the 1930s, as did Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) projects, which helped offset some of the worst effects of the decade’s Great Depression.

Still, the 1930s were a difficult decade for Thurston County; its economy did not begin to fully recover until the coming of World War II. Then activity at the Port of Olympia picked up, military training areas were built in the county, and the Olympia airport became a satellite for nearby McChord Field (Pierce County).

The April 13, 1949, earthquake that struck the Northwest was centered in the extreme northeastern part of Thurston County, along the shoreline with Puget Sound. The magnitude 7.1 earthquake killed two Olympians. To date it remains the worst recorded earthquake in the region since the 1840s.

By the 1940s much of the timber in Thurston County was logged out, and by the 1950s state government surpassed timber as the dominant economy in Thurston County. But many county logging mills hung on until the 1960s, when they began to close in rapid succession -- three closed in Olympia in 1967 alone.

The 1960s brought social strife to Thurston County, but with its own unique component: “fish-ins” by Native Americans and their supporters. Always political, sometimes violent, these fish-ins along the Nisqually River (and the Puyallup River in neighboring Pierce County) were designed to reassert Indian fishing rights on traditional fishing grounds.

In 1974 a court ruling known as the "Boldt Decision" allocated 50 percent of the annual catch to treaty tribes. This led to further battles between tribal and non-tribal fishermen and regulators, as well as an appeal of the decision, which was affirmed in 1979 by the United States Supreme Court.


Agriculture developed slowly but steadily during the early years of Thurston County. Small farms sprang up and began producing bacon, milk, cheese, chickens, and wheat. But the quality of the soil was poor for growing crops, and by the end of the nineteenth century many farmers had turned almost exclusively to dairy farming. In addition, the lumber industry in Thurston County by the end of the nineteenth century had become so lucrative that many farmers only farmed part time and worked in the lumber industry part time as well.

Still, the number of farms in Thurston County grew during the first half of the twentieth century as the county’s population slowly grew, reaching a peak of 2,876 farms in 1940. By this time the county’s farming was becoming more diversified, with hay and berries being grown. This diversification continued throughout the remainder of the century even as agriculture’s role in the county economy dwindled.

By the end of the twentieth century, agriculture claimed only about 2 percent of Thurston County’s employment. The 1997 Census of Agriculture reported that blueberries, hay, and corn were the county’s primary field crops, while dairy cows and hens represented the gist of the county’s livestock production.


Settlement first reached the Lacey area with the arrival of the Chambers family in 1847. In 1891 local residents applied for a post office with the Post Office Department (now the United States Postal Service) and requested the name Woodland, but it was already taken. Residents filed a second petition for another name. A real estate investor, O. C. Lacey, was involved with the second petition -- it is not precisely clear how -- and his name was proposed and accepted.

Saint Martin’s College, a Catholic Benedictine school, opened in Lacey in September 1895. The school originally offered grammar and high school courses and did not actually add college level courses until 1900. One of the college’s Benedictine brothers, Father Sebastian Ruth, established one of Washington state’s earliest radio stations, KGY, in April 1922; the station broadcast from the Saint Martin’s campus until 1932. Saint Martin’s College became Saint Martin’s University in August 2005.

The Lacey area was home to numerous resorts in the early twentieth century. Lake resorts sprang up in the 1910s and reached their heyday in the 1920s. By then Hicks, Long, Pattison and Southwick lakes all had resorts. Hicks Lake alone boasted seven resorts by 1926, including Gwinwood, which is today (2006) the site of Christian summer youth camps.

Lacey made its mark in 1966 with two big events that fall: First, the South Sound Mall, the Northwest’s first “indoor mall,” opened in October. Then, on December 5, the City of Lacey incorporated.

Lacey has grown rapidly in recent years. The 2000 U.S. Census put its population at 31,226, an increase of nearly 60 percent since 1990, and making it the second most-populated city in Thurston County.


In October 1846, Levi Smith and Edmund Sylvester arrived from New England and built a cabin on the peninsula that Indians called Cheet-Woot. Smith called the new settlement Smithfield, but the name did not last. Smith died in 1848 and Sylvester inherited Smith’s share of the land. When Sylvester platted the town in 1850, he chose the name Olympia, after the Olympic Mountains. Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens designated Olympia as the territorial capital in November 1853. On January 29, 1859, Olympia was incorporated as a city; at the time its population had not yet reached 1,000. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, growth was slow and transportation difficult.

The 1890s was a decade of contradictions for Olympia. Technological innovations brought the town into the modern era -- telephones had arrived in 1889, electricity was in widespread use by the early 1890s, and in the 1890s Olympia built a water system. But the depression of the mid-1890s so wrecked the local economy that by 1900, Olympia’s population had dropped nearly 20 percent from its 1890 level.

Several dredging projects changed Olympia’s look between 1895 and 1910. In 1895 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the harbor in Olympia, making access to the harbor much easier. In 1909 another dredging project filled in mudflats north of downtown, adding 29 blocks to the city and filling in the Deschutes Waterway.

Olympia experienced a building spree during the 1920s in both residential and commercial buildings. But perhaps the most significant construction in Olympia during the 1920s was the State Capitol Campus. (The campus moved east of Capitol Way in the 1950s).

By the end of the 1950s Olympia had assumed its current characteristics of a capital city with the economic benefits of having state government in the city. Growth in Olympia has since accelerated, and in the 2000 Census the city’s population was 42,514.

In April 1972, The Evergreen State College opened on Cooper point in Olympia. Known for its innovative educational strategies, the school also boasts a unique motto: “Let it all hang out.” In 2005 the college had more than 4,400 students.


New Market (Tumwater) was the earliest American settlement in the state of Washington, first settled in October 1845 by Michael Simmons. New Market became Tumwater in the 1860s. Tumwater held its own as a center for small manufacturing and industry until the 1890s, when the triple-whammy of being bypassed by the railroad, the 1890s Depression, and technological changes (such as the installation of electric lines) that tended to benefit industries in the more developed cities (such as Olympia) dramatically slowed Tumwater's growth.

Until the 1940s the town’s population remained under 1,000. But as neighboring Olympia began to rapidly grow in the mid-twentieth century, so grew Tumwater; in 2000, Tumwater’s population was 12,698.

One of Tumwater’s most famous landmarks is the Olympia Brewing Company. Leopold Schmidt opened it in 1896 as the Capital Brewing Company. He built a four-story brewhouse and a bottling and keg plant.

In 1902 the company changed its name to the Olympia Brewing Company and adopted its slogan “It’s the Water” to explain the taste of its Olympia beer. In 1906 the firm built a new, six-story brewhouse to replace the original, and it remains standing today as part of the Tumwater Historic District. The Olympia Brewing Company was forced to close in 1915 with the advent of Prohibition (which took effect in 1916 in Washington state), but quickly reopened after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. The company built a new, modern plant up the hill above the original site, and operated under a number of different owners until closing in 2003.

In 1978, 300 acres and more than 20 buildings in Tumwater were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in August 1979 Tumwater dedicated the Tumwater Historic District, in a nod to its rich heritage in Washington’s history.

Thurston County Today

Thurston County’s population began to rapidly increase during the 1950s, and by the 1970s the communities of Olympia, Tumwater, and Lacey had blended into an extended metropolitan area. The county’s population, 44,884 in 1950, passed 100,000 in the late 1970s and 200,000 in the late 1990s, with the 2000 census recording 207,355 in the county. In 2005 the estimated population in the Olympia metropolitan area exceeded 225,000.

With the growth in population has come a concurrent construction boom. The boom was particularly marked in the late 1980s with the construction of office buildings, three new state buildings, homes, and schools.

In the early twenty-first century, government -- particularly state government -- continues to dominate the county’s economy, though in recent decades its dominance has actually slipped slightly. Still, government employment represented 40 percent of the county’s employment at the turn of the millennium.

Meanwhile, the trade sector has been the county’s economic upstart in the past 30 years, with employment increasing by 266 percent between 1970 and the end of the 1990s, particularly in the retail sector. Economic conditions for Thurston County’s Native Americans have been boosted as well in recent years with the opening of tribal casinos in Rochester and near Yelm. Meanwhile, population migration into the county from the greater Seattle-Tacoma area continues to increase, adding further fuel to the increasing urbanization of Thurston County.


Gayle Palmer, The River Remembers: A History of Tumwater, 1845-1995 (Virginia Beach, Virginia: The Donning Company, 1995), 14-22, 65, 115, 122; Gordon Newell, So Fair A Dwelling Place: A History of Olympia and Thurston County, Washington (Olympia: The Olympia News Publishing Company, 1950), 1-11; J. C. Rathbun, History of Thurston County, Washington, (Olympia: [1895] 1972), 12-28, 41, 89, 96; Shanna Stevenson, Olympiana (Olympia: Washington State Capitol Museum, 1982), 47-50; State of Washington v. Arthur B. Langlie, 45 Wn. 2d 82, 273 P.2nd 464 (1954); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Federal Judge George Boldt issues historic ruling affirming Native American treaty fishing rights on February 12, 1974” (by David Wilma), “Governor Isaac Stevens selects Olympia as capital of Washington Territory on November 28,1853” (by Kit Oldham), “Hudson's Bay Company establishes Fort Nisqually, first white settlement on Puget Sound in April 1833” (by Walt Crowley), “Native American tribal leaders and Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens sign treaty at Medicine Creek on December 26, 1854” (by Walt Crowley), "Olympia -- Thumbnail History" (by David Wilma), “Vancouver begins British survey of Puget Sound on May 19, 1792” (by Walt Crowley), (accessed September 20, 2006); Dick Lawrence, “Capitol Case Solved in 5-To-4 Ruling by High Court Justices,” The Daily Olympian, August 3, 1954, p. 1; Thomas Rainey, “A Short History of Industry and Manufacturing in Thurston County, Washington,” Olympia Historical Society website accessed September 9, 2006 (; “Census 2000," U.S. Census Bureau website accessed September 4, 2006 (; “KGY History,” KGY Radio website accessed September 9, 2006 (; “Illustrated History of the Olympia Brewing Company,” website accessed September 18, 2006 (; “Lacey History,” Lacey Thurston County Chamber of Commerce website accessed September 4, 2006 (; “Saint Martin’s University History,” Saint Martin’s University website accessed September 9, 2006 (; “Thurston County History People and Places,” Thurston County, Washington, website accessed September 9, 2006 (; “Thurston County Profile, December 1999,” Labor Market and Economic Analysis Branch, Washington State Employment Security Department website accessed September 15, 2006 (; “Thurston County Sesquicentennial,” The Daily Olympian, website accessed September 13, 2006 (; “Washington State Historical Decennial Populations for State, County, and City/Town: 1890 to 2000,” website accessed September 16, 2006 (; “Thurston County Agriculture,” United States Department of Agriculture website accessed November 18, 2006 (http:

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