Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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 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.
On July 4, 1889, 75 delegates from across Washington met in the territorial capital of Olympia to draft a state constitution. Immediately they got hung up on the controversial issues of women's rights and prohibition. Since neither issue was of great importance to the male citizens of the territory who would have to vote to approve the proposed constitution, these topics were dropped from the document. In October, the people of Washington approved the state constitution with a vote of roughly 40,000 to 12,000. Finally, on November 11, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison signed a bill formally recognizing Washington as the 42nd state of the United States of America. If only they could have done something about the name. Just kidding, Washington. We love you.
The state of Washington started as part of the Oregon Territory, organized in 1848. In 1853 the people of northern Oregon, in pursuit of better political representation, convinced Congress to turn them into the Washington Territory. Washington soon filled up with people looking to get rich from gold or lumber and by the 1870s they decided they were ready for statehood. Unfortunately it would be more than a decade until the federal government was ready to grant it. Finally, in 1889 the people of Washington Territory created a state constitution, approved it, and submitted their application to the federal government. On November 11, 1889 Washington became the 42nd state in the Union--and just to be clear, we are still talking about the state on the Pacific. That Washington.
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