Washington Territorial Legislature establishes Kittitas County on November 24, 1883.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 9/21/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7488
On November 24, 1883, the Washington Territorial Legislature establishes Kittitas County out of the northern portion of Yakima County. Ellensburg is named the county seat.

Yakima City vs. Ellensburgh

The land that was eventually designated Kittitas County was originally part of Ferguson County.  Ferguson, actually more concept than county, existed only from 1863 to 1865.

In 1865, the land was part of the area designated as Yakima County.  This land stretched from the Cascade Mountains on the east all the way south to the Simcoe Mountains, encompassing both the Kittitas and Yakima valleys.  When Yakima County was established the non-Indian population of the area was extremely sparse.  By the early 1880s, the number of settlers had increased considerably with two nuclei of population developing: Yakima City in the southern end of the county and Ellensburg (at the time spelled Ellensburgh) in the northern end.  (Yakima City was known as North Yakima between 1884-1918, when it became simply Yakima.)

The Beleaguered Kittitas Pioneer

Yakima City was the county seat, forcing settlers in the northern end of the county to travel south to conduct county business.  Leta May Smith described this journey in The End of the Trail:

“Weather permitting, the Kittitas pioneer saddled his pony or, with hope for good weather and a safe return, harnessed the half-wild horses to the lynch pin wagon and drove over the hills to the county seat.  He followed the rough road down and up the draws and forded the creeks and river, or paid a fee and crossed the river on the ferry.  If he had a good team and no accident occurred on the way, he reached Yakima City by evening” (p. 225).
The northern end of the county had more settlers and therefore more taxable property.  Residents of the northern area were loathe to see their tax dollars heading south.

Irrigation efforts in the southern end of the county were underway. Residents of the Kittitas Valley realized the farming potential their land could have if irrigated and wanted funding to put this underway.  They also foresaw that construction of the Cascade division of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the southern end of the county would spur the growth of small communities along the rail line. North-end Yakima County residents wondered why they should fund expenses such as deed recording and civic infrastructure for these communities so far from their own property. 

The County Seat Quarrel

The question of whether or not the county seat should be moved from Yakima City to Ellensburg was key to the 1880 election. George Taylor of Selah ran as the Democratic candidate for the state legislature, and Ellensburg founder John Shoudy (1842-1901) ran as the Republican candidate. 

Although the county was largely Republican, voters in the southern end justifiably feared that if Shoudy were elected he would move the county seat to Ellensburg.  They therefore rallied around George Taylor, who won the election.  Tempers were still running high when two years later the Yakima City building that contained the county offices burned down. Residents of Yakima City immediately erected a new courthouse. Comfortable that their new courthouse had settled the question of which town should be county seat, residents of Yakima City relaxed their electoral vigilance.  Taylor and Shoudy were again candidates in the 1882 election, but this time Shoudy was victorious.

The Campaign for Kittitas County

By September 1883, a petition for the division of Yakima County into two smaller counties was circulating throughout the Kittitas Valley. The Kittitas Standard reported:

“The petition is not worded as strongly as we would wish, yet it sets forth a sufficient amount of grounds on which, in justice to the people, we think the legislature should act favorably ... those who desire can sign at any of the stores or saloons.  We predict that the petition will meet with universal appeal” (September 15, 1883).

W. D. Lyman’s History of the Yakima Valley Washington, published in 1919, explains:

“As almost always occurs in a county division issue the attack of the Kittitas people assumed two directions.  They demanded either the county seat or a new county ... while neither Ellensburg nor Yakima had any assignable population in 1875 and hardly enough to weigh heavily even in 1880, the former town made the more rapid growth from 1880 to 1890.  In the census of 1890 Ellensburg had 2768 inhabitants and North Yakima 1535" (Vol. 1, p. 596).

John Shoudy, with petition in hand, introduced a bill for the creation of the county of Kittitas. The bill met with almost no opposition. As An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, published in 1904, explained, “The mother county was vigilant to protect her every interest, but as the bill was a liberal one and fair to the old county in every respect, there was no cause for a fight” (p. 244).

The bill passed, and Territorial Governor William A. Newell (1817-1901) approved it on November 24, 1883.  Ellensburgh was named the county seat.

Sources: An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, With an Outline of the Early History of the State of Washington (Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, [1904] 1977); A History of Kittitas County, Washington, 1989 (Ellensburg: The Kittitas County Centennial Committee, 1989); W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley Washington Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919); Leta May Smith, The End of the Trail (Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press, 1976; “Petition For Division,” The Kittitas Standard, September 15, 1883.

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