Lewis and Clark Expedition
The best-known overland expedition began in St. Louis in 1804, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. President Thomas Jefferson sent these men and their party to study the geology, animals, and plantlife of the 827,000 square miles acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, which extended as far west as the Rocky Mountains, and to explore and map the rivers and lands west of the Rockies that were still more or less up for grabs as the new country competed with England, Russia, and Spain for all the land between the two oceans.
Lewis and Clark’s group left St. Louis in canoes and keelboats, heading north on the Missouri River to present-day North Dakota. After wintering there with the Mandan people, the party, whose numbers were reduced to 28 for the final push, set out again on the Missouri River, crossed the Rockies on foot, and headed down the Clearwater River to the Snake River, in search of the Columbia River they knew would lead them to the ocean. In October 1805, the party got their first view of the Columbia and followed it downriver for many a “cloudy, rainey, disagreeable morning” until they reached the Pacific Ocean.
They built a winter camp, Fort Clatsop, south of the river and spent a cold, wet winter there, plagued by sickness. In spring they headed for home. The two leaders split up, with Lewis returning much the way they had come and Clark exploring the Yellowstone River to the south. They met up again in North Dakota where the Yellowstone enters the Missouri and returned to St. Louis in September 1806.
The First White Settlers
During the time between the early exploration and the permanent settlement of the Northwest, British and American trading posts emerged to take advantage of the area’s abundant supply of beaver and sea-otter pelts. Two English companies, the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company, merged in 1821; American fur-trading outfits included many small, independent companies as well as John Astor’s Pacific Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
The most influential of them, the Hudson’s Bay Company, built its temporary headquarters on the north side of the Columbia, 100 miles inland at Fort Vancouver, across the river from its confluence with the Willamette.
The settlers planted crops (including the apples and wheat that are so important to Washington’s economy today), raised livestock, and made the fort as self-sufficient as possible. At its peak, 500 people lived at or near the fort. Fort Vancouver served as a model for other Hudson’s Bay Company posts at Spokane, Okanogan, and Nisqually. When settlers began arriving in droves and the beaver population diminished in the late 1840s, the Hudson’s Bay Company was crowded out and moved its headquarters elsewhere.
Missions were another important method of establishing white settlements in the Washington Territory. The first missionary, Jason Lee, was sent by the Methodist Church in 1834 to introduce Christianity to the native peoples, but instead he spent much of his time and resources ministering to whites at Fort Vancouver.
The promise of free land under the Organic Act of 1843 and the Donation Land Law of 1850 fueled the “Great Migration” of 1843, in which almost 900 settlers traveled to the Oregon Country, six times the number of the previous year. More pioneers followed: 1,500 in 1844 and 3,000 in 1845. Most settlers came by way of the Oregon Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, along the North Platte River, through southern Wyoming and southern Idaho into Oregon, then north to the Columbia River. Soon the route looked like a cleared road; traces of it can still be seen where the wagon tires dug ruts in stone and where wheels packed the ground so hard that grass still cannot grow. Washington’s early settlers congregated around five fledgling cities: Seattle, Port Townsend, Oysterville, Centralia, and Walla Walla; other smaller communities developed at Tumwater, Steilacoom, Olympia, and Fairhaven, now part of Bellingham. In eastern Washington the major communities were Spokane and Walla Walla.
Settling the Claims
By 1846, only the U.S. and England retained claims to the Oregon Country; Spain and Russia had sold or lost their North American possessions. Negotiators brought the U.S. and England to agreement on a division at the 49th parallel from the Rockies to the main channel between Vancouver Island and the mainland, running through the center of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific Ocean.
The unspecified “main channel” was viewed to be either the Rosario Strait or the Haro Strait, leaving the San Juan Islands in the middle of the disputed waterway. Both nations claimed the islands. The British maintained a Hudson’s Bay Company fort, but American settlers began moving in and establishing farms. In 1859, an American shot and killed a British-owned pig that had repeatedly rooted in his garden, and the resulting uproar nearly started a war. The British demanded payment for the pig, the American refused, and soon both sides began bringing in soldiers and heavy weapons. Within three months the English had a force of 2,140 troops, five warships, and 167 heavy guns arrayed against the American army’s 461 soldiers and 14 cannons. Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed, and no further shots were fired in the “Pig War.” Soldiers of both nations remained on the islands for the next 13 years, and in 1872, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm was chosen to conduct arbitration. He awarded the islands to the Americans and pronounced the Haro Strait the dividing channel.
In spite of all this arbitration, one small piece of real estate managed to be overlooked. A peninsula hung down from the Canadian mainland into the Strait of Georgia south of the 49th parallel, making it American land. Rather than settling the matter when it was discovered, the appendix still dangles there and is known as Point Roberts, a bit of America attached to Canada.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition