Washington Territorial Legislature cuts Island County down to size on January 14, 1861.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 11/22/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22617

On January 14, 1861, the Washington Territorial Legislature creates Snohomish County from the only remaining mainland portion of Island County. When first established by the Oregon Territorial Legislature on December 22, 1852, Island County was the second-largest county north of the Columbia River. Over a period of seven years, it had been progressively diminished in service to new or enlarged mainland counties. As a result, in 1861 Island County becomes the state's second smallest in area, after San Juan, the only other all-island county in the territory. The effect of these early territorial laws that carved up large counties to make new ones or enlarge others rendered the determination of the exact boundaries of almost all counties problematic. This issue finally will be tackled by the Washington Territorial legislature with an 1866 statute that defines anew the geographical ambits of the 21 then-existing counties.

Some Background -- Oregon Country

Before the United States Congress created Oregon Territory on August 14, 1848, the entire Northwest was known simply as "Oregon Country." It extended from the California border to as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands (renamed Haida Gwaii in 2010), and encompassed all of today's Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Since 1818 the United States and Britain had shared occupancy of the region in a rather tense but largely peaceful coexistence, the land claimed by both nations but governed by neither.

In 1843 non-Native settlers in Oregon Country south of the Columbia River created a "provisional" government in an effort to bring some order to their affairs, but it was not sanctioned or even recognized by either the U.S. or Great Britain. This didn't prevent these pioneer legislators from starting to carve up Oregon Country into several large counties. On August 18, 1845, everything north of the midline of the Columbia River was declared to be the Vancouver District. On December 21, 1845, the provisional legislature took a large portion of it to create Lewis County, honoring Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), who 50 years earlier was co-leader with William Clark (1770-1838) of the Corps of Discovery. The following day, Vancouver District was renamed "Vancouver County."

On June 15, 1846, Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Oregon, which designated the 49th parallel as the primary international boundary in the Pacific Northwest. The portions of both Vancouver and Lewis counties situated north of that line were ceded to Great Britain. Two years later, on August 14, 1848, the U.S. Congress created Oregon Territory, which comprised all of the previous Oregon Country south of the 49th parallel. In 1849 the Oregon Territorial Legislature changed the name of Vancouver County to Clark County. In 1851 it created Pacific County from a portion of Lewis County, and Thurston County from parts of both Lewis and Clark counties.

Thurston County was huge, stretching from the west slopes of the Cascades to the Pacific Coast and north to the Canadian border, including the disputed San Juan Islands. It wouldn't remain huge for long. The territorial legislature soon added four more counties to Northern Oregon -- Jefferson, King, Pierce, and Island -- all of them taken from parts of Thurston County. The creation of these last four was not effective until December 22, 1852, just 70 days before President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) signed legislation creating Washington Territory. Jefferson County briefly was attached to Island County for "judicial purposes" ("Washington: Individual County Chronologies"), but this ended when Washington Territory came into being.

Island County

It is a bit of a mystery why the Oregon Territorial Legislature went about creating four counties in what was to become Washington Territory barely two months later. Washington's bid for that status had been backed by Joseph Lane (1801-1881), Oregon Territory's first delegate to Congress, so it was known that success was likely imminent and that Oregon would have no further jurisdiction north of the Columbia River. It is also unclear why the name Island County was given to a vast tract that encompassed all of northwest Washington, including present-day San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties, and with only a small fraction of its area made up of islands. (According to some sources, only Clark County was larger than Island County, although this and some other aspects of early county history are not entirely clear). It didn't really matter -- Island County's reign as the second-largest county in Washington Territory would be short. Like Thurston County from which it came, Island County would soon be cannibalized to create other new counties, initiating a patchwork legislative process that would lead to considerable confusion in subsequent years.  

To summarize: When Washington Territory came into existence on March 2, 1853, it comprised eight counties -- two created by the Oregon Provisional Government and six by the Oregon Territorial Legislature. During the nearly 37 years of Washington Territory's existence before statehood was achieved in 1889, territorial legislators created an additional 26 counties, and they got right to it.

A Cluster of Counties

The first session of the Washington Territorial Legislature convened on February 27, 1854, at Olympia. It comprised a council (later to become the senate) of nine members, and a House of Representatives with 20. They met in the second story of the Parker and Coulter Drygoods Store building, owned by Edmund Sylvester (1821-1887), who had founded Olympia a short time before. There was much to do -- establishing courts and a judicial system, prescribing crimes and punishments, defining civil causes of action and court procedures, adopting voting rules, establishing an educational system, authorizing and regulating corporations -- essentially everything that was needed to create a functioning system of territorial government. This was a mammoth, in fact impossible, undertaking for 29 pioneer men, and only was accomplished by borrowing freely from the statute books of long-established states.

That first legislature did find time to create and define the boundaries of eight new counties, each taken by reducing the size of one or more of the eight created when Washington was still part of Oregon. They were:

Chehalis County (now Grays Harbor County)
Clallam County
Cowlitz County
Sawamish County (now Mason County)
Skamania County
Wahkiakum County
Walla Walla County
Whatcom County

The first big bite taken from Island County came with the creation of Whatcom County on March 9, 1854. Island originally extended to the border with Canada at the 49th parallel, but lost about a third of its area to the new Whatcom County. It also lost the San Juan Islands, the ownership of which was still disputed between the United States and Britain (and would be until 1872). After four years of stability, in 1858 Whatcom County was enlarged by moving its southern border farther south, again at the expense of Island County. Whatcom was now the largest of the two, but Island retained a large swath of land on the mainland. This would be lost when the legislature in 1860 created Snohomish County, leaving Island County with no mainland component.

A Mess

Between 1854 and 1865 the territorial legislature created a total of 22 new counties (including in 1858 a Spokane County that was parceled out completely to adjacent counties and ceased to exist by 1864. It would be revived in 1879 with land taken from Stevens County). Every time a new county was added, or an existing county enlarged, the boundaries of one or more other counties were altered. This can be illustrated by looking at the legislative history of Island County, which was far from the most complicated:

  • 22 Dec 1852: ISLAND created by Oregon Territory from THURSTON. ISLAND included the disputed San Juan Islands, which were claimed by both the United States and Great Britain (Ore. Terr. Special Laws 1852, 4th reg. sess., pp. 46-47).

  • 24 Jan 1853: JEFFERSON attached to ISLAND for judicial purposes. Attachment reconfirmed 1 February 1853 (Ore. Terr. Special Laws, 1852, 4th reg. sess., pp. 37, 52).

  • 02 Mar 1853: ISLAND became a county in Washington Territory; eliminated from Oregon Territory; included the disputed area of the San Juan Islands. This appears to have terminated JEFFERSON’s attachment to ISLAND (Wash. Terr. Laws, 1854, 1st. sess., p. 32; Van Zandt, 155).

  • 09 Mar 1854: ISLAND lost to the creation of WHATCOM (Wash. Terr. Laws 1854, 1st sess., p. 475).

  • 14 Jan 1858: ISLAND lost to WHATCOM (Wash. Terr. Laws 1857, 5th sess., p. 53).

  • 14 Jan 1861: ISLAND lost to creation of SNOHOMISH (Wash. Terr. Laws 1860, 8th sess., p. 19).

  • 31 Jan 1867: ISLAND lost to WHATCOM (Wash. Terr. Laws 1866-1867, 14th sess., p. 46).

  • 21 Jan 1868: ISLAND redefined to extend boundaries over water to "meet the boundary lines of the surrounding counties on all sides" [no mappable change] (Wash. Terr. Laws 1867, 1st biennial sess., p. 68).

  • 02 Dec 1869: ISLAND redefined [no change] (Wash. Terr. Laws 1869, 2nd biennial sess., sec. 1/pp. 292-293).

  • 09 Nov 1877: ISLAND boundaries with SAN JUAN and WHATCOM redefined [no change] (Wash. Terr. Laws 1877, 6th biennial sess., pp. 425-426).

  • 11 Nov 1889: ISLAND continued as a Washington county when the state of Washington admitted to the Union and Washington Territory eliminated (U.S. Stat., vol. 25, ch. 180[1889], p. 676; U.S. Stat. pres. proc., vol. 26[1889], p. 10; Van Zandt, 155-156).

  • 07 Mar 1891: ISLAND redefined to "include all of the islands known as Whidby [sic], Canamo [sic], Smith's, Deception, and Ure's" [no change] (Wash. Laws 1891, 2nd leg. sess., p. 217).

(Note: The above was taken from "Washington: Individual County Chronologies." A full citation can be found in the sources below.)

The problem was obvious. When a portion of Island County was taken to create Whatcom County, in 1854, only the boundaries of Whatcom County were described in the legislation, although Island County's boundaries were changed to a like degree. Similarly, when in 1857 Whatcom County was enlarged, again at the expense of Island, the statute provided only Whatcom's new boundaries. In short, every time a county was created or enlarged, the statutory description of the boundaries of the contributing county or counties was rendered inaccurate. The upshot of all this nipping and tucking was that by 1865 no one, except perhaps trained surveyors, could ascertain just what the precise boundaries were of any of the 21 counties, a situation that could only become worse as more counties came into being or existing ones were expanded at the expense of their neighbors.

During its 1866 session, the territorial legislature decided to clean up the mess it had made over the preceding 12 years, passing a law titled "An Act Defining County Lines in the Territory of Washington" (1866 Wash. Laws 44). Every existing county was described anew, using geographical features, the borders of neighboring counties, and parallels of latitude as reference points. Island County was different, its new legal description taking up only one short sentence: "Island county to be composed of Whidbey and Camano islands" (1866 Wash. Laws 46). The second section of the law, signed by Territorial Governor George E. Cole (1826-1906) on January 31, 1867, read:

"That all acts and parts of acts heretofore passed ascribing different boundaries to counties wherein they conflict with the county lines hereinbefore set forth, be and the same are hereby repealed, and the county lines of the said counties of this Territory shall be as herein prescribed" (1866 Wash. Laws 50, 51).

By the time Washington Territory gave way to Washington state, the county-making was nearly done. There were a total of 34 counties when the territory ceased to exist in 1889, and the state legislature created only five more, the last being Pend Oreille County in 1911. In 1891 it did add Smith, Deception, and Ben Ure islands to Island County, and the county now also includes between three and five smaller, uninhabited islands (remarkably, sources still vary). At approximately 209 square miles, Island County is now the second smallest of the 39 counties in the state, ranking just ahead of San Juan County (174 square miles) and just behind Wahkiakum County (264 square miles).

Over the next 130 years Island County thrived despite its radical downsizing. The 2020 federal census counted a population of 87,432, making it the 15th most populous of the state's 39 counties. 


H. W. Scott, "The Formation and Administration of the Provisional Government of Oregon," The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society Vol. 2, No. 2 (June 1901), p. 112; Frederick V. Holman, The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society Vol. 11, No. 1 (March 1910), pp. 2-5; "Washington: Individual County Chronologies," Newberry Library website accessed November 10, 2022 (https://digital.newberry.org/ahcb/documents/WA_Individual_County_Chronologies.htm); "Research -- 1856," Olympic Historical Society, document available at (https://olympiahistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/1856-Research.pdf); "Clark County History," The Columbian website accessed November 14, 2022 (https://history.columbian.com/clark-county-3/); "Washington Counties by Population," Washington Demographics website accessed November 15, 2022 (https://www.washington-demographics.com/counties_by_population); "An Act Defining County Lines in the Territory of Washington" (1866 Wash. Laws 44); "Vancouver District, encompassing what is now Clark County in southwest Washington, is created on August 20, 1845" (by HistoryLink Staff), "Island County -- Thumbnail History" (by John Caldbick), "Washington Territorial Legislature establishes San Juan County on October 31, 1873" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), "Washington Territorial Legislature creates Snohomish County (out of Island County) on January 14, 1861 (by Margaret Riddle).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You