Early Social, Economic & Political Developments in Washington

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Washington first became a state in 1889. But, between it becoming part of the United States and being admitted as a state, Washington had a fascinating history. In this lesson, we will examine the social, political and economic developments that marked early Washington.


Washington entered into the Union as the 42nd state in 1889. The state is located in the Pacific Northwest and was first reached by European explorers in 1774 when the Spanish explorer Juan Perez reached the coastline. At the time, the region was populated by Native Americans. These Natives comprised a number of different tribes and were not a unified people; the tribes can generally be broken into two groups: the Coastal Tribes who lived along the coast and the Plateau Tribes who lived further inland. By the time American settlers began to enter the region, Washington, along with the rest of the Pacific Northwest, was claimed by the United States, Great Britain, Spain and Russia. Eventually, the United States and Britain agreed to jointly administer the territory with it to be divided later. This division, and the lack of administration over the territory, would become the driving force that helped shape the economy and politics of Washington.

The Oregon Territory

The jointly administered region came to be known as the Oregon Territory. The first settlers to reach the region were British fur traders who were associated with the Hudson Bay Company. During this period, fur trading was the central economic activity throughout the territory. Furs, especially those of beaver, would be captured or traded for and sold to the Hudson Bay Company, which would then turn the fur pelts into felt that could be used to make water resistant hats that were popular throughout Europe and the United States. Later, as American fur traders and settlers began to arrive in greater numbers, the American Pacific Fur Trade Company was also set up to represent American business interests. Meanwhile, settlers looking for farmland arrived, along with groups of missionaries from the Eastern United States, by following the Oregon Trail. The missionaries sought to bring Christianity to the local native tribes as well as to the rough fur traders and original settlers.

Unfortunately, as the population increased, the lack of government began to be noticed. Following several attacks on missionaries by Native Americans, the locals sought to organize their own government, known as the Oregon Provisional Government. At the same time, they began to petition the United States government to press its claim to the territory and annex it. The United States and Great Britain finally came to an agreement, known as the Oregon Treaty, proposed in 1846 and approved in 1848, which split the region along the 49th parallel. After this, modern-day Oregon, Idaho and Washington were included in the newly formed American Oregon Territory. In order to secure more land for settlers, and open this land for farming, a number of wars were fought against different Native tribes.

Washington Territory

Almost immediately after the formation of the Oregon territory, prominent settlers and businessmen in the northern region began to agitate to split off and receive their own territorial government. This new territory was approved in 1853 and Isaac Stevens was named the first territorial governor of the region. Stevens would prove to be a deeply controversial governor. He carried on numerous wars against the Native American tribes to open up more land for settlement. In addition, he also declared martial law in order to clamp down on his opponents, both Native Americans and whites. During this era, Washington began to draw settlers because of the region's rich natural resources. Soon, a vibrant lumber industry began developing, fishing was becoming common in Puget Sound and other coastal regions, and farming and mining were expanding in the mountainous west. Not all the economic development was strictly legal, as prostitution and gambling became common at the time (some even felt that prostitution should be legalized and made a legitimate industry). During this time, many of the largest cities in Washington were founded, including the important port city of Seattle, as well as Spokane and Tacoma. Spokane became known as a hub for the mining industry, and Tacoma was renowned for the smelting of gold, silver and other precious metals.

Isaac Stevens, the first governor of the Territory of Washington
Isaac Stevens

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