Pierce County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 11/13/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8001
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Pierce County, located in southwestern Washington abutting Puget Sound, encompasses an extremely wide range of elevations: from sea level on Puget Sound to 14,410 at the summit of Mount Rainier. The entire footprint of Mount Rainier, an active Cascade volcano encased in more than 35 square miles of snow and glacial ice, lies within the county's boundaries. Pierce County comprises 1,675 square miles, placing it 23rd in size among Washington's 39 counties. It is bounded by King County to the north, Yakima County to the east, Lewis County to the south, and the southern portion of Puget Sound to the west. As of 2004, Pierce County's estimated population was 744,000. The county's history includes the Puget Sound region's earliest non-Indian settlement at Fort Nisqually, the boom and bust of both hop-growing and coal mining, and the growth and development of Tacoma, the state's third-largest city. Pierce County has one deepwater harbor, Commencement Bay. Most of the county's population and economic base is located in the northwest near Tacoma. The central area along the foothills of Mount Rainier was mined for coal from the 1880s until the late 1930s. Logging and farming have also been significant industries.

Geology and First Peoples

The land that would become Pierce County was home to the present day Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin, Steilacoom, and Muckleshoot tribes, with Puyallup villages predominating near what would later become Tacoma and Nisqually settlements in what would become southern Pierce County. The two major Indian trails were a northern route through Naches Pass between the Pierce County-area tribes and the Yakama, and a southern route along the Mashel River linking Eastern Washington tribes with Puget Sound peoples. Trade networks among the region’s indigenous peoples were well established long before the coming of white settlers.

Four rivers (the Nisqually, Carbon, White, and Puyallup) flow through Pierce County on their way from the Cascade Mountains to Puget Sound. The county's largest freshwater lakes are Lake Tapps, Gravelly Lake, Bonney Lake, Lake Steilacoom, and American Lake.

Fort Nisqually

In April 1833, Hudson's Bay Company employee Archibald McDonald established Fort Nisqually, a stockade and trading post, near Sequalitchew Creek on the Nisqually Delta. The area, rich with fish, roots, and berries, had been home to the Sequalitchew people for more than 5,000 years. Fort Nisqually was the first permanent European settlement on Puget Sound and in time it became the nucleus of a small farming and cattle-raising community of American citizens in this sparsely colonized region governed under the United States and Great Britain's 1818 Treaty of Joint Occupation. It was also an important trading place for a wide variety of tribal peoples, some of them from a considerable distance away. The Hudson's Bay Company raised sheep, cattle, and horses at Fort Nisqually, which was never a military fort.

On May 11, 1841, the crews of the U.S. Navy ships Vincennes and Porpoise, under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), dropped anchor near Fort Nisqually during the first American charting of Puget Sound.

The Fort Nisqually property was turned over to American control in 1859. In 1934 the Fort's one-story granary and Factor's house were moved to Point Defiance Park in Tacoma where they are part of the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum. These two buildings have been restored and are the only surviving Hudson's Bay Company buildings still standing in the United States. In 2000 the Fort Nisqually Historic District (also known as the Nisqually-Sequalitchew Historic District) joined the National Register of Historic Places.


In response to increasing tensions between Indians and settlers, the United States Army established Fort Steilacoom in 1849 at the site of the traditional home of the Steilacoom Tribe. In 1850, Captain Lafayette Balch sited his land claim next to the fort and founded Port Steilacoom. In 1854 the town of Steilacoom became Washington Territory's first incorporated town. Steilacoom and nearby Fort Nisqually were the nexus of non-Indian settlement in the Puget Sound region and important trading centers for early settlers.

Fort Steilacoom offered scattered Puget Sound settlers a place to which they could withdraw during the Puget Sound Indian Wars, although since it had no stockade or blockhouse and most of the soldiers were in the field, this comfort was more psychological than physical. Nevertheless, settlers flocked to Fort Steilacoom during times of conflict.

The United States government abandoned Fort Steilacoom as a military base in 1868. A Hospital for the Insane was established at Steilacoom in 1871 to house Washington Territory's mentally ill. Patients were initially housed in the former Fort Steilacoom military buildings. In 1888 the facility became Western Washington Hospital for the Insane. In 1915 it became Western State Hospital.

The Fort Steilacoom Historical District, comprising four renovated buildings, houses a museum and interpretive center, and was designated in 1977. It is located within the grounds of Western State Hospital.

Northwest logs and lumber milled at Steilacoom were loaded onto ships from Lafayette Balch's wharf and exported to San Francisco at great profit to the settlers. As they fed San Francisco's seemingly unquenchable thirst for building materials, Steilacoom's settlers hoped their growing town would become Washington Territory's equivalent metropolis. This was not to be, and first Tacoma and then eventually Seattle eclipsed Steilacoom.

Steilacoom was the site of Washington Territory's first public lending library and the first school in Pierce County. It had one of the first brick buildings north of the Columbia River (which was also Pierce County's first jail). The Steilacoom National Historic District was established in 1975.

The Oregon Territorial Legislature established Pierce County on December 22, 1852, designating Steilacoom the county seat. In 1880 Pierce County residents voted to move the county seat to New Tacoma (now Tacoma).

The Treaty and The Trial

On December 26, 1854, 62 leaders of major Western Washington tribes, including the Nisqually and Puyallup, met with Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) at Medicine Creek in what is now Thurston County and signed a treaty relinquishing their land. (The veracity of Nisqually Chief Leschi's signature on the treaty was disputed almost immediately and remains unresolved.) The United States Congress ratified the Treaty of Medicine Creek on April 10, 1855. The treaty established two reservations for Indians from Pierce County.

The reservation for the Nisqually was in Thurston County on heavily forested land that cut off tribal peoples from their traditional access to the Nisqually River's abundant fish and grassy banks where they could graze their horses. In 1857 the Nisqually Reservation was enlarged to include 4,717 acres on both sides of the Nisqually River. Land on the south shore of Commencement Bay was allotted for the Puyallup Reservation. The Puyallup Reservation originally consisted of only 1,280 acres. In 1856 it was enlarged to include 18,062 acres. At least half of this land was subsequently reclaimed by the federal government and by the late 1890s had been sold.

The Battle of Connell's Prairie, considered to have been the decisive confrontation during the Puget Sound Indian Wars, was fought between Washington Volunteers and Indians led by Chief Leschi on March 10, 1856. Connell's Prairie is about 10 miles east of Sumner. The site is marked by an historical marker.

Nisqually Chief Leschi (1808-1858) was tried in a civilian court and convicted of the murder of the American soldier Colonel A. Benton Moses, a highly controversial verdict even at the time it was rendered. Nevertheless, on February 19, 1858 Leschi was hanged on a gallows at Fort Steilacoom. On March 4, 2004, the Washington State Senate passed Resolution 8727, which formally recognized the injustice of Chief Leschi's trial and execution and honored Chief Leschi as "a courageous leader" and "a great and noble man" (Washington State Senate Resolution 8727).


Family farming was essential to the survival of early Pierce County pioneers, and as nearby cities evolved away from food production and toward industrial pursuits, rural farmers found ready markets for their consumable products. Public institutions such as Western State Hospital, the Washington Soldiers Home, the McNeil Island Penitentiary, and the Pierce County Poor Farm south of Sumner all maintained large gardens without which their inmates would have had little to eat.

Commercial farming in Pierce County has over time included hops, flower bulbs, berries, dairy cattle, and Christmas trees, among many other crops. Pierce County has 13 chapters of the Washington Grange, organized between 1909 and 1945.


To facilitate the massive timber-clearing early settlers undertook in order to harness the land, nearly every community in Pierce County had at one time a lumber mill. Cleared timber was shipped away to San Francisco, burned for fuel, and used to build ships, docks, cabins, schools, churches, and early corduroy-style roads. Portable mills were used at one location until the trees in the immediate vicinity were used up, and then the mill was moved on to another location.

The invention of the steam donkey (steam-powered engines that hauled logs using winches) and the arrival of the railroads stimulated Pierce County's commercial logging industry. By 1905 the shore of Pierce County's deepwater harbor at Commencement Bay was lined with mills. Loggers, mill workers, salespeople, managers, and timber company owners were the lifeblood of Tacoma's economy. Tacoma's fortune, and with it an enormous part of Pierce County's economy, rose and fell with the timber industry.

For more than a century the Weyerhaeuser Company has been one of Pierce County's most visible and far reaching industrial concerns. Weyerhaeuser Timber Company was incorporated in Tacoma 1900 in shortly after Frederick Weyerhaeuser (1834-1914) purchased 900,000 acres (1,406 square miles) of timberlands in Washington state from railroad magnate James J. Hill (1838-1916), one of the largest land transactions in American history. In 1971 the company, since 1959 called the Weyerhaeuser Company, opened new international headquarters in Federal Way (in King County, not far from Pierce County). Weyerhaeuser is one of the world’s largest producers of lumber, pulp, paper, packaging materials, and other wood-related products.


Officers of the Wilkes Expedition charting Puget Sound named the future city of Tacoma's deepwater harbor Commencement Bay on May 17, 1841. An early non-Indian settlement dating from 1852 was abandoned during the Puget Sound Indian Wars of 1855-1856. Job Carr, the first permanent settler, arrived in 1864, followed in 1868 by Morton McCarver (1807-1875).

McCarver, a professional town-booster, started a campaign to attract settlers and eventually the Northern Pacific Railroad to Tacoma. In this he was successful: The Northern Pacific selected Commencement Bay as its western terminus. Tacoma prospered while Steilacoom and Seattle temporarily floundered. The Great Northern Railway, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Milwaukee Road all eventually built transcontinental connections to Commencement Bay.

On November 5, 1918, Pierce County voters created the Port of Tacoma by a five-to-one margin, facilitating the development of some 240 acres of tide flats into a municipally owned system of dredged waterways, storage transit sheds, warehouses, a cold storage facility, and modern piers. As of 2006, Port activities account for more than 43,000 jobs in Pierce County.

Brown and Haley, founded in Tacoma by J. C. Haley in 1912, manufactures what is perhaps Pierce County's most far-flung ambassador: pink tins of Almond Roca, a butter crunch toffee confection sold around the world.

Since 1983 the Tacoma Dome has been a distinctive feature of the city's skyline. The Tacoma Dome is one of the largest wood-domed structures in the world.

Beginning in the 1990s, Pierce County and Tacoma adopted a new image beginning in what has been called the Tacoma Renaissance. Starting with the Tacoma Dome and a campus of the University of Washington, downtown Tacoma saw the addition of a new U.S. courthouse (out of the old Union Station) and art museum, a new Washington State History Museum, the Museum of Glass, a transit center, and a revitalized theater district, all tied together with a light rail line. A dramatic cable-stayed bridge tied together the Port of Tacoma with downtown.

As of the 2000 census, Tacoma, Washington's third largest city, has become a regional center for Pacific Rim shipping, forest products, high technology, and the arts.

Puyallup, Sumner, and Orting

Ezra Meeker (1830-1928) and his father, Jacob Meeker, planted the first hop cuttings in the Puyallup River Valley in March 1865. Ezra Meeker built Puyallup’s first hop-drying barn next to his cabin in what is now (2006) Puyallup's Pioneer Park. The area proved well suited to the cultivation of hops, which by the early 1880s had become the Puyallup Valley's premier crop. When harvested and dried, the cone-shaped hops flowers are used to flavor beer. Hops grown in the Puyallup Valley were shipped to London and from there sold on the international hop market. In 1892, however, a plague of hop lice devastated the entire hop crop from California to British Columbia. The Puyallup Valley’s hop industry never recovered.

Ezra Meeker platted the town of Puyallup in 1877 and on August 16, 1890, the town was incorporated. As of 2000 Puyallup had approximately 33,000 residents. Farming and light industry are the predominant occupations.

Sumner was first settled in 1853 by the William Kincaid, a widower with seven children who entered the Puget Sound region through Naches Pass as part of the James Longmire wagon party. Jacob Meeker and his second wife, Nancy North Burr Meeker, were also early settlers to the Sumner area. The town was incorporated in 1891.

Sumner became a center for light industry and trade within the Puyallup Valley. The Fleishmann Company operated a yeast company along the Stuck River, and berry fields, canneries, and dairy farms surrounded the town center. By the late 1930s Sumner was especially noted for its rhubarb, berries, and flower bulbs. As of 2006, Sumner had some 9,000 residents.

Orting was incorporated in 1889, shortly after the Northern Pacific Railroad laid tracks through the area. Hop farming and dairying were important early industries. Since the 1920s the town has been known for bulb growing (especially daffodil bulbs). The bulb industry rejuvenated the farming industry in the Puyallup River Valley, utilizing land formerly devoted to growing hops. Although in recent years Christmas tree farms have begun to eclipse bulb farms in Orting, Sumner, and Puyallup, the annual Daffodil Festival, now in its seventh decade, remains an important event for area residents.

In May 1891, the Washington State Soldiers Home for Civil War veterans was dedicated in Orting. After 1899 the Home functioned as a colony, allowing veterans with families to live in the community but still receive a stipend and assistance. As of 2006 this facility still serves up to 183 residents needing skilled nursing or assisted-living care.

Pierce County Coal

Coal was mined in Pierce County between the late 1870s and the late 1930s, spurring the development of mining communities in the foothills of Mount Rainier. Although there were also family farms in the area, life in Pierce County's coal-producing region revolved around the mines.

Coal was discovered at what would become Wilkeson in 1875, and in 1876 the Northern Pacific Railroad built a spur line to the area. Wilkeson, named for Northern Pacific Railroad secretary Samuel Wilkeson, was the only coal-mining town in the region not owned by a coal company. When the mines closed, the town reinvented itself as the gateway to Mount Rainier National Park. The area also has significant outcroppings of sandstone, and beginning in 1883, Wilkeson sandstone was quarried commercially for use in construction. It has been used in buildings throughout the state, including in the dome of the Washington State Capitol in Olympia.

Carbonado began in the early 1880s along the Carbon River as a company town for the Carbon Hill Coal Company. The coal mines and coking facilities at Carbonado produced fuel for the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. Coal was shipped by rail to Tacoma and then by boat to San Francisco. The Pacific Coast Coal Company, which operated many of the other mines in the region, took over Carbonado mines (and the town) in 1924.

The South Prairie Coal Company in Burnett produced coal to power the steam-driven Mosquito Fleet vessels that plied the waters of Puget Sound.

In the late 1930s, coal became too expensive to mine and oil eclipsed coal as the major source of fuel. As Pierce County mines closed down, the communities that supported them either faded or transformed their economic bases. Increasing tourism to Mount Rainier aided these communities somewhat, as did highway construction. Surviving communities evolved to serve primarily as bedroom communities for Tacoma.

Dynamite from Du Pont

Du Pont was a company town created on the site of Fort Nisqually by Eleuthere Irenee Du Pont de Nemours and Company between 1906 and 1909 for the purpose of producing explosives on an industrial scale. Workers lived in a nearby village of small wood-framed houses and labored with extreme care to formulate dynamite.

Because their work was so volatile, residents of the town were prohibited from using alcohol, wearing any metal (such as zippers) that might generate a spark, and of course smoking. The more than one billion pounds of explosives produced at the plant were used to construct the Grand Coulee Dam, the Cascade tunnel, the Alaska railroad, and the Panama Canal. The plant's gelatin dynamite was heavily used during World War II. The plant was closed in 1976 and the land was redeveloped into a housing development called Northwest Landing. In 1984 the DuPont Village Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places as the state's most intact example of a company-owned town.

McNeil Island

McNeil Island is located in southern Puget Sound, 2.8 miles from Steilacoom. Washington Territory’s first federal penitentiary began operation there in 1875. In 1981 the federal government turned McNeil Island over to the Washington State Department of Corrections, and since 1984 the state has owned the entire seven-square-mile island.

The McNeil Island Federal Corrections Center has the distinction of being the only prison in the United States that began as a territorial prison, became a federal penitentiary, and then became a state prison. It is also the last prison in America located on a small, remote island.

Fort Lewis

On January 6, 1917, Pierce County residents voted to deed 70,000 acres of the Nisqually Plains/American Lake area to the United States government for use as a military base. The area had been used by the Military Department of Washington for brigade encampments periodically beginning in 1890 and by the U.S. Army and the Washington and Oregon National Guard to hold large-scale maneuvers in 1904. Camp Lewis trained 60,000 soldiers during World War I and the camp hospital cared for many wounded soldiers. On September 30, 1927, the base was renamed Fort Lewis.

By March 1941, as the United States Army built up its ranks in preparation to fight World War II, the population of Fort Lewis swelled to 37,000 troops. The 2000-acre North Fort Lewis facility was completed in August 1941. Fort Lewis personnel played a crucial role in securing the Pacific Coast, training troops, and housing prisoners of war during World War II.

In later conflicts, Fort Lewis also played a key role. The fort shipped out the first American division to leave the United States bound for the Korean War. During the Vietnam era, Fort Lewis was an army training center, processing personnel departing for and returning from the war in Southeast Asia.

During the 1990s, general reductions in U.S. military spending resulted in quite the opposite for Pierce County. Beginning in 1994, the Army assigned an armored brigade and 3,000 soldiers to Fort Lewis as part of a redeployment from Europe. This unit was later converted to lighter Stryker armored vehicles and became three brigades of the 2nd Infantry Division. Fort Lewis became a major source of troops sent to Iraq beginning in 2003, including members of the Washington National Guard.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord

The City of Tacoma opened Tacoma Field/Pierce County Airport in 1929. In 1938 the state of Washington transferred the property to the United States government for use as an Army Air Force base.

During World War II, McChord Field was the largest B-25 bomber training base in the country. At the conclusion of the war, McChord Field became home to the 62nd Military Airlift Wing and the 446th Military Airlift Wing. In 1948 the facility was re-designated as McChord Air Force Base.

In 1950 McChord was officially assigned to the Air Defense Command. Squadrons based at McChord have played significant roles in civil defense both domestically and abroad. In 1997, the Air Force started $120 million in construction at McChord to accommodate modern C-17 transports, which replaced the much nosier C-141 models. The C-17 units performed missions around the globe including combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On October 1, 2010, McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis were merged to become Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The merger was ordered in 2005 by the nationwide Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission The joint basing was intended to to combine redundant services and make military missions more efficient.

The Mountain and the Prairie

Congress established Mount Rainier National Park on March 2, 1899. It is the fifth-oldest National Park in America. The park encompasses 235,635 acres (365 square miles) including a National Landmark District of 1920s-1930s-era wood-frame structures, most notably the Paradise Inn and the National Park Inn at Longmire.

The mountain supports a diverse ecosystem of sub-alpine meadows, stands of old-growth forest such as the Grove of the Patriarchs, newer vegetation, and permanent snow and ice. Mount Rainier is the tallest volcano in the contiguous United States and the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower-48 states. The 4.3-square-mile Emmons glacier is its largest concentration of ice. Mount Rainier's most recent eruption occurred about 150 years ago.

The mountain encompasses nine major watersheds including 382 lakes and 470 rivers and streams and supports wildlife ranging from beaver, cougar, and black bear to mink, elk, mountain goat, and mole. Some two million visitors arrive each year to hike, fish, climb, camp, and vacation in or near the wilderness: It is a significant source of tourism in Pierce County.

The Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, situated along Pierce County's southern shoreline in the wetlands of the Nisqually Delta, was established in 1974 and provides a protected habitat for migratory waterfowl. Encompassing 3,000 acres of fresh and saltwater marshes, riparian, grassland, and mixed-forest habitats, the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge provides an important nesting habitat for migratory birds. Preserved historic barns and peaceful prairies offer visitors the opportunity to contemplate Pierce County's agrarian history.

Doing the Puyallup

The Western Washington Fair Association’s Puyallup Fair is an annual event that draws approximately 1.3 million people to Pierce County each year. The fair began in October 1900 with the intent of publicizing and celebrating the Puyallup Valley’s agricultural, dairy, stock-raising, mining, and manufacturing industries. The following year, horse racing was added to the event, immediately becoming one of the fair’s most powerful draws. The fair quickly built a steadily increasing following, flourishing even during the Great Depression of the 1930s. During World War II the event was not held and the United States Army took over the fairgrounds.

The annual Puyallup Fair resumed in October of 1946. A new steel and concrete grandstand replaced the wooden grandstand in 1953. By 1975 the fair was ranked tenth-largest in North America. In 1978 the event expanded from 10 to 17 days. By the end of the twentieth century, the Puyallup Fair was ranked fifth-highest attended in North America.

Japanese American Internment

During the spring of 1942, in the midst of World War II, the Puyallup Fairgrounds were used as the site for the hastily constructed Camp Harmony. Camp Harmony served as the initial assembly point for people of Japanese ancestry in Western Washington, who were forced to evacuate their homes in the wake of Executive Order 9066.

Along with other West Coast residents and citizens of Japanese origin, Pierce County's Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and confined to internment camps during World War II. Tacoma's Japanese community was ordered to an assembly center in Pinedale, California, and afterward to the Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. Most of Pierce County's rural Japanese-origin citizens were interned at Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho after an initial stop at Camp Harmony.

Pierce County Today

Pierce County is home to two private four-year institutions of higher learning: the University of Puget Sound (founded in 1888) and Pacific Lutheran University (founded in 1890). The University of Washington at Tacoma was founded in 1990 and occupied permanent campus buildings in 1997. State-supported Tacoma Community College and Pierce College were founded in 1965 and 1967 respectively.

Pierce County's population increased about 16 percent between 1990 and 2000, and as of 2006 continues to increase steadily. Employment in education and health services has increased as a result. Government, business, and leisure services; the construction industry; goods-production; and the wholesale and retail trade industries are significant employers in Pierce County.

Increasing population coupled with increasing employment have made Pierce County what a recent Washington State Employment Security Department report calls "one of Washington's bright spots for economic growth and vitality" (Washington Workforce Explorer, September 2, 2004).


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Note: This essay was corrected and updated on January 26, 2018.

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