How Washington Became a State

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How did the state of Washington get itself admitted to the Union? In this lesson we'll follow Washington's history from territory to statehood and see how this occurred.

Washington State

It was a moment of extreme historical significance. It was a moment that shone with patriotic republicanism. It was a moment that would confuse everybody about American geography and leave us all asking 'Wait, are you talking about the state or the national capital?' That's right, we're talking about November 11, 1889, the day that Washington was granted statehood. The one on the Pacific. That Washington.

Washington state and flag

Washington Territory

To understand how Washington became a state, we're going to have to start with, you guessed it, the territory of…Oregon! Yes, Oregon. For roughly the first half of the 19th century, Oregon was the general name given to a large piece of land bordering the Pacific Ocean that no one really owned. The United States and Britain sort of shared it, with neither formally claiming it as theirs exclusively. However, an increase in American settlement of the West Coast meant that this needed to change, and in 1846 the United States and Great Britain signed the Oregon Treaty, officially splitting the territory between them at the 49th parallel. Two years later, in 1848, Congress formally created the territory of Oregon.

Now, Oregon was a nice place with a lot of potential for people looking to get rich in trading, fur, or lumber, and settlers started moving in. However, most of them were in the southern part of the territory, and that made the people in northern Oregon feel pretty left out. In fact, they felt really left out. The settlers of northern Oregon felt like they lacked any real political representation since their region was more sparsely populated. In 1851 they formally organized to ask Congress to turn northern Oregon into its own territory, called Columbia. Congress said no. So, in 1852 the settlers tried again, but much more forcefully, demanding their rights as patriotic American citizens to have real political representation. Well, Congress went for it but gave one condition. The territory's name had to be changed so as to avoid confusion with the District of Columbia. Congress picked the much-less confusing name of Washington for the new territory instead, not knowing that one day we'd use this name more than the District of Columbia to refer to the national capital. In 1853, Washington Territory was formally created, with a population of roughly 4,000 people.

The territories of Washington (top) and Oregon

The Quest for Statehood

Washington Territory had a quick population boom when gold was discovered in 1855. When Oregon became a state, a few parts of the former Oregon Territory were added to Washington. In 1863, the eastern part of the territory was partitioned off into the new territory of Idaho, giving Washington the shape it has today. As the territory changed in size and grew in population, the people started realizing that the rights of territorial citizens weren't enough. They wanted to have control over their home, and that meant they needed to become a state. In the early 1870s, the people of Washington voted on statehood but remained divided. Then, financial crises and political stalemating in Washington, D.C. halted the process. Colorado was admitted to the Union in 1876, and would be the last state created for 13 years. Finally, statehood become a major issue in politics, dominating the election of 1888. Grover Cleveland lost that election, but right before leaving office in 1889 he signed a bill reopening the application process for statehood.

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