About Washington State -- Frequently Asked Questions and Their Answers

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 2/27/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5315

This essay offers a brief introduction to the state of Washington, its jurisdictional development and government, and its official symbols.

The State of Washington occupies the far northwest corner of the contiguous 48 United States. It occupies 66,582 square miles (176,600 square kilometers) between the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Idaho border at 117 degrees longitude. Washington borders Canada on the north along the 49th parallel and Oregon on the south along the Columbia River and 46th parallel.

In area, Washington ranks as the 20th largest state and embraces dramatically variegated western and eastern natural environments divided by the Cascade Range. It is home to some six million residents (2001 census estimate) employed in a diverse economy dominated by aviation; software and other technological enterprises; wheat, apples, beans, and other agriculture; forest products; and fishing. The state is a major exporter of manufactured goods, foodstuffs, raw materials, and hydroelectricity, and it is a popular tourist destination. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated Washington’s gross state product at $220 million.

Present-day Washington has been home to numerous Native American tribes for at least 10,000 years. The first European explorers and traders visited it the late 1700s, and Lewis and Clark followed the Snake River and Columbia River to arrive at the Pacific Ocean near present-day Long Beach in November 1805. The Hudson’s Bay Company established major forts and trading stations in the early 1800s, followed by American fur traders, settlers, and missionaries.

Great Britain and the United States jointly occupied the region between 1818 and 1846, when Britain ceded the Pacific Northwest below the 49th parallel to the U.S. Two years later, the U.S. created Oregon Territory, including the future states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and a portion of Montana. Washington Territory (including Idaho and western Montana until 1863) was separated from Oregon on March 2, 1853, and gained statehood on November 11, 1889.

Olympia has served as the capital of both Washington Territory and State since 1853. Seattle is the state’s most populous city (population 563,000 in 2000), followed in rank by Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver, Bellevue, and Everett.

Political History

The federal government created Oregon Territory on August 14, 1848. The area of the new jurisdiction included the present-day states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and western Montana. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 triggered a large westward migration, and settlement of Oregon Territory was promoted by passage of the Donation Land Claims Act of 1850, which granted 160 acres to any U.S. citizen who agreed to occupy his or her land for five years.

On August 29, 1851, 27 male settlers met at Cowlitz Landing (south of present-day Olympia) to petition Congress for a separate “Columbia Territory” covering the area between the Columbia River and 49th parallel. The petition was reaffirmed by 44 delegates who met in Monticello on November 25, 1852. Congress approved the new territory on February 10, 1853, but changed its name to “Washington.”

President Millard Fillmore signed the bill on March 2, 1853, and Olympia was named the Territorial Capital. President Franklyn Pierce named Isaac I. Stevens as the first governor of an area that included northern Idaho and western Montana until President Abraham Lincoln established Idaho Territory on March 4, 1863.

Washington’s non-Indian population grew steadily to more than 300,000 over the following decades. Its residents began petitioning for statehood in 1881, and Washington was admitted to the Union on November 11, 1889, with the signature of President Benjamin Harrison.

Political Organization

Thirty federally recognized sovereign Indian tribes and reservations occupy substantial areas in Washington, and there are an additional seven unrecognized but culturally distinct tribes.

Washington has a bicameral Legislature and is divided into 49 Legislative Districts, each of which elects one Senator to a four-year term, and two Representatives to two-year terms. The Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Auditor, Treasurer, Commissioner of Public Lands, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Insurance Commissioner are elected statewide to four-year terms. The nine members of the State Supreme Court are elected statewide to six-year terms. Washington’s State Constitution has been substantially amended since 1889, and has authorized citizen initiatives and referenda since 1912.

Washington currently includes 39 counties, and hundreds of incorporated cities and other special districts responsible for local government and services. Voters also elect Members of Congress from 10 districts as well as two United States Senators representing the entire state.

State Emblems and Anthems

State Motto: The word “Alki,” preferably pronounced “AL-kee,” means “by and by” in the Chinook trading jargon used by early Euro-American traders and Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. It was first applied in 1852 by Charles Terry to his settlement (originally called “New York” after his native state) on present-day Alki Beach in West Seattle. Alki was adopted in the original Territorial Seal, which also features a representation of the “Goddess of Good Hope,” an anchor, and a depiction of buildings in a forest.

State Seal: The official State Seal features a likeness of President George Washington adapted in 1967 by graphic designer Richard Nelms from the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait. The first 1889 version of the seal was quickly created by jeweler George Talcott, who placed a postage stamp bearing Washington’s picture inside two rings traced from an ink bottle and a silver dollar. Talcott’s brothers then wrote “Great Seal of the State of Washington 1889” between the two circles, and cut a die for printing.

State Flag: Washington adopted its official flag, featuring the State Seal on a green background, in 1923.

State Nickname: The phrase “The Evergreen State” appears on Washington license plates and in numerous official and unofficial uses, but it has never been formally adopted. Historian and journalist C. T. Connover is credited with coining it.

State Song: Washington’s official anthem is the highly forgettable ditty, “Washington, My Home,” with lyrics by Helen Davis and music by Stuart Churchill. Adopted in 1959, the song succeeded the unofficial anthem “Washington Beloved,” penned by University of Washington professor Edmond Meany and scored by Reginald de Koven. Alas, a campaign to substitute the rock classic “Louie Louie” (first popularized by the Tacoma-based band, The Wailers) failed in the 1980s.

State Folk Song: Woody Guthrie wrote his famous ballad, “Roll On Columbia, Roll On” to promote the cause of public power for the Bonneville Power Administration in the early 1940s. The Legislature adopted it as the state’s official folk song in 1987.

State Dance: The square dance (or quadrille) was named the official state dance on April 17, 1979.

State Animals

State Amphibian:
The Pacific chorus frog became the official state amphibian on July 22, 2007.

State Mammal: It took until 2009, but in that year, at the suggestion of students from Wedgwood School in Seattle, the State Legislature designated the Olympic marmot (Marmota olympus) as Washington's official "endemic mammal." The marmots are social animals and live in groups of more than a dozen members at various locations on the Olympic Peninsula in Western Washington. They socialize and identify one another by touching noses and sniffing cheeks, and during the summer months spend most of their time eating and sunbathing before retiring to underground burrows. After coming out of a long hibernation that stretches from September to May, they can commonly be seen along Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park.

State Marine Mammal: We also have a state marine mammal, the orca. The campaign to designate the orca as such was initiated by a second-grade class in Oak Harbor, Washington. The class at Crescent Harbor Elementary School proposed the orca and gathered more than 1,000 signatures to present to the state Legislature. The Legislature passed the bill and Governor Christine Gregoire signed iton April 24, 2005, making the killer whale the official state marine mammal.

State Bird: The present official state bird, the western or American goldfinch, aka “wild canary” (Carduelis tristis) was formally adopted in 1951 based on a special election among state school children. The first such election resulted in the designation of the meadowlark in 1928, but seven other states had already chosen the same species. A later election conducted by the Washington Federation of Women’s Clubs gave the nod to the goldfinch (over the tanager, pileated woodpecker, junco, and other worthy candidates), and the State Legislature officially anointed the bright yellow bird in 1951. A later campaign to give the state bird honor to the geoduck (actually an obscenely large and grotesque clam) failed.

State Insect: The green darner dragonfly (Anax junius drury) was approved by the Legislature in 1997 as a result of a campaign spearheaded by students at the Crestwood Elementary School in Kent. More than 25,000 students from some 100 schools participated in the final vote to name the ubiquitous carnivorous bug, also known commonly as a “mosquito hawk.”

State Fish: The Legislature named the steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss ) the official state fish in 1969. Like other “anadromous” fish, this relative of the salmon is born in freshwater streams, then migrates to saltwater where it spends most of its adult life. Unlike salmon, steelheads may return more than once to their birthplace streams to spawn before dying.

State Mollusk: No official designee, yet, but many favor the banana slug. This could be the geoduck’s second chance for immortality as well, but HistoryLink favors the magnificent Giant Pacific Octopus, which is the largest of its kind and also the most intelligent of all invertebrates.

State Plants and More

State Vegetable The Walla Walla sweet onion became the official state vegetable on Sunday July 22, 2007. 

State Flower: The Coast Rhododendron was selected over five other candidates (including clover) to be Washington’s floral representative at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago. The 1892 special ballot was limited to women, who did not then have the right to vote in official elections.

State Tree: Washington adopted the western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) as its state tree in 1947, after being teased by the Portland Oregonian for its glaring lack of a sylvan symbol.

State Fruit: The apple, one of Washington’s leading agricultural exports, was adopted in 1989 as part of the statehood centennial celebration.

State Grass: The native bluebunch wheatgrass (Agropyron spicatum) was named the official state grass in 1989. The other popular candidate for this honor remains illegal except for medicinal use.

State Fossil: The extinct Columbian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) was named the official state fossil in 1998 at the urging of students at Cheney’s Windsor Elementary School. These giant furry cousins of modern elephants roamed most of northern Asia, Europe, and North America until approximately 10,000 years ago, and their remains have been unearthed at many locations in Washington.

State Gem: Petrified wood was named the official state gem in 1975. Many specimens of ancient cypress, oak, elm, and gingko trees were preserved through lava flows and infiltration with sand over millions of years, and a rich deposit of these fossils can be found in the Gingko Petrified Forest State Park near Vantage.

State Ship: The container ship President Washington was christened as Washington’s official ship in 1983 to recognize the regional importance of maritime trade. In 2007 the Lady Washington was named Washington's official ship. The 112-foot brig was built in Aberdeen as a full scale reproduction of the original Lady Washington that became the first American vessel to visit the West Coast of North America in 1788 under the command of Captain Robert Gray. The new Lady Washington was built by Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority and launched on March 7, 1989.

State Tartan: In 1988, Vancouver residents Margaret McLeod van Nus and Frank Cannonita designed a distinctive tartan (a grid of intersecting bands of color on a solid background based on traditional Gaelic weaves) to help celebrate the following year’s centennial of Washington’s statehood. The red, white, blue, yellow, and green pattern was officially adopted by the Legislature in 1991.


Compiled from the official Washington State website, (www.access.wa.us), and other state government sources.
Note: This essay was updated on April 26, 2005, on July 24, 2007, on December 29, 2012, and on October 29, 2013.

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