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Washington Territory: History & Explanation

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses the history of Washington Territory. Learn more about the region that became the 42nd state in the Union and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Oregon Territory

Over the course of three hundred years, no fewer than four countries claimed the Oregon Territory, a large piece of land west of the Rocky Mountains that stretched north into British Columbia. Part of that land included what would become the Washington Territory. In 1818, only the United States and Great Britain remained in the fight for Oregon. The two nations agreed to simply share the territory, and that worked for a while, but when James Polk became president in 1845, he had other ideas. Polk supported westward expansion, and he wanted all of Oregon for the U.S. However, neither England nor the U.S. wanted to go to war over Oregon. Therefore, the two countries signed the Oregon Treaty on June 15, 1846, and separated the United States and the British colony of Canada at the 49th parallel.

Grievances of the Settlers

Oregon proved to be a popular destination for settlers on the move to the West. In fact, for many people, it was too popular. The Gold Rush of 1849 brought settlers pouring into the region. Some people took steamships south to California to try and strike it rich in the gold mines. Others stayed in Oregon, using the region's vast timber resources to fill San Francisco's demand for lumber. However, the people living in North Oregon, especially near Seattle and the Puget Sound, felt that none of this growth was benefiting them. They felt cut off from the rest of the territory because of the lack of communication and roads. They claimed that the government was spending more money in the southern part of the territory on basic services such as mail delivery, roads, law enforcement, and protection against American Indian attacks.

Creating Washington Territory

The obvious solution for the settlers of North Oregon was to break away and form their own territory. They certainly had the support of Joseph Lane, the Oregon territorial governor. He wanted to be Oregon's Democratic senator, but he realized that Oregon was far too big to be granted statehood. Reducing the size of the territory was politically necessary for Lane.

But Congress ignored the first petition it received on the issue of creating a new territory in 1851. That is why many were surprised when Congress granted the request of the 44 signers of the petition who gathered at the Monticello Convention on November 25, 1852. They asked for a new Columbia Territory north and west of the Columbia River. With some minor changes to the boundaries and much debate over the name, which Congress thought was too similar to 'District of Columbia,' Washington Territory was created on March 2, 1853.

The Challenges of Washington Territory

Unfortunately for the citizens of Washington, creating a new territory did not solve their problems. It was still an enormous territory, bigger than California and twice as big as all of New England. The Cascade Mountains created a division between the east and west sides of the territory, and there was no railroad or telegraph to connect them. If the governor wanted to travel from the capital of Olympia to Walla Walla or Spokane in the east, he had to go through Oregon to get around the mountains. The two regions of Washington grew to have two separate economies. The west was dominated by lumber mills owned by San Francisco companies, while the east relied on agriculture. Washington was also plagued by ongoing conflict between white settlers and Indians. Government corruption was so widespread that Governor Edward Salomon was fired in 1872 for misusing public land funds.

Washington Territory Becomes A State

Northern Pacific Railroad Arrives in Washington
train

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