Auburn -- Thumbnail History

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/08/1999
  • Essay 675

The city of Auburn, located 20 miles south of Seattle, was home to some of the earliest non-Native settlers in King County. Nestled in a fertile river valley, Auburn has been both a farm community and a center of business and industry for more than 150 years.


Auburn is located near the original confluence of the Green and White rivers, both of which contain runoff water from the Cascade Mountain range. The valley was originally the home of the Skopamish, Smalhkamish, and Stkamish tribes. The first outside explorers and traders reached the region in the 1830s.

Settlers first came to the valley in the 1850s. The arable land, the abundant salmon, and the proximity to both Puget Sound and the mountain passes made it an ideal location for farmers and fishermen wishing to sell their goods. In fact, that’s what indigenous people had been doing there for thousands of years.

By 1855, treaties had been signed with tribes throughout Puget Sound determining land rights, but the Native people around White River were more reluctant to be moved than the Snoqualmie and Snohomish tribes to the north. Starting in the fall of 1855, some of the local Native people decided to fight back.


On October 27, 1855 an Indian ambush killed nine settleers, including women and children. A few children escaped and were helped toward Seattle by local Natives who were sympathetic toward them. The ambush began the start of what became known as the Treaty Wars west of the Cascades. 

In November, a military unit was dispatched from Fort Steilacoom, near Tacoma. Led by Lieutenant William Slaughter (1827-1855), the unit camped near what is now present-day Auburn. On December 4, 1855, while Slaughter was conferring with another officer, a group of Natives attacked, killing him and two other men.

More troops were brought into the area, and within a few months the attackers had retreated and the war was quickly over. A new treaty was written which provided the establishment of the Muckleshoot reservation, the only Indian reservation now within the boundaries of King County. The tribes brought onto the reservation collectively became known as the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

Home Again

Non-Native settlers began returning apprehensively to the area. The Neely family, which had been one of the earliest pioneer families, was one of the first to come back. Soon, new families started to arrive and a small community formed. In 1866, Dr. Levi Ballard set up a medical practice, and later a general store. Twenty years later, he and his wife filed the first plat for the town, which was then called Slaughter in honor of the fallen Lieutenant.

For the next few years, new additions were added and in 1891, the town of Slaughter incorporated. Although many older citizens considered the town’s name as a memorial, many newer residents felt uncomfortable with it. It’s not very inviting when your town hotel is referred to as the Slaughter House. Within two years, the town was renamed Auburn, taken from the first line of Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, The Deserted Village: "Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain."

Hop To It

Auburn had been a bustling center for hop farming, but an aphid infestation in 1890 destroyed practically all of the crops. After that the farms were mostly dairy farms and berry farms. The land was fertile, but a continual problem dealt with by farmers was yearly flooding. Logjams would occur on the White River (and also on the Stuck River to the south) which would often redefine the course of the water.

Sometimes the floods became so severe that farmers would illicitly dynamite the jams in the middle of the night, causing other farmers to get flooded out. This feuding between White River and Stuck River farmers continued until 1906, when one of the largest floods diverted most of the water to the Stuck River, leaving the White River’s northern channel dry. After that, government engineers stepped in and built a diversion dam, which channeled all of the water along the Stuck River.

Nevertheless, flooding was still a problem for Auburn farmers up until the Howard Hanson Dam was built in 1962. This dam on the Green River, along with the Mud Mountain Dam on the White River, provided controlled river management, which left the valley nearly flood-free.


Another impetus to Auburn’s growth was the railroad. The Northern Pacific Railroad put a rail line through town in 1883, but it was the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban line that allowed easy access to both cities starting in 1902. The Interurban allowed farmers to get their product to the markets within hours after harvest. The railroad, along with better roads, caused many new companies to set up business in Auburn, among them the Borden Condensery (which made Borden's Condensed Milk) and the Northern Clay Company.

Auburn grew through the 20th century like many American towns. The 1920s were prosperous for citizens, but the Great Depression of the 1930s left many in need. World War II brought great hardship to many local Japanese farmers when they were moved to internment camps and their land taken from them. At the same time, local boys were sent to fight in the Pacific, and some died in battle.

The postwar era was prosperous to Auburn, bringing more businesses and a community college to the city. In 1963, The Boeing Company built a facility to mill sheet metal skin for jet airliners. As time went on, many farms disappeared as the land was converted to industrial use. In the 1990s, a large super-mall was built in the valley, enticing consumers from all over the Puget Sound region.

Glimpses of the Past

Auburn has made the transition from small farms to large industries, but much of the city’s history remains. A monument in the memory of Lieutenant Slaughter, erected in 1918, still stands in a local park. The Neely Mansion, built by the son of a pioneer in 1891, has been refurbished and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Auburn’s downtown still maintains a “Main Street U.S.A” appearance.


Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co, 1929) Vol. 1, 712-727. Also see: Josephine Emmons Vine, Auburn -- A Look Down Main Street (Auburn: City of Auburn, 1990).

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