Clallam County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 12/27/2005
  • Essay 7576

Clallam County occupies the northern portion of the Olympic Peninsula, extending nearly 100 miles along the Strait of Juan de Fuca on its north and more than 35 miles along the Pacific Coast on its west. On the east and the south it borders Jefferson County, out of which it was created in 1854. The county is composed of the traditional lands of the Klallam (for whom it is named), Makah, and Quileute peoples, who continue to play significant roles in county history. It was one of the first parts of Washington contacted by European explorers in the late 1700s, but did not see permanent settlement until after 1850. Seemingly endless stands of Douglas fir, red cedar, western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and other giant conifers made timber the county's economic mainstay for most of its history. As techniques for felling, transporting, and processing the massive trees improved, much of the forest was cut, although the central wilderness is preserved in Olympic National Park. Forestry remains important, but government and service industries are now the leading employers. Port Angeles has been the county seat since 1890, the year it incorporated. Sequim (1913) and Forks (1945) are the other two incorporated cities in the county, whose total population in 2005 is 66,800.

Klallam, Makah, and Quileute

The Klallam or S'Klallam ("the strong people") occupied the largest portion of what is now the county bearing their name. Their territory stretched along the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Hoko River east beyond Discovery Bay, with as many as 30 villages at river mouths or sheltered harbors. The populous and powerful Klallams had seasonal camps as far away as Vancouver Island, the San Juans, and Whidbey Island. Klallams, like most Puget Sound area tribes, are Coast Salish speakers, but their western neighbors are from language families otherwise unrepresented in Washington.

"Makah" is the Klallam name for the Qwiqwidicciat ("people of the cape") who live around Cape Flattery, the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. For many generations, their lands extended along the Strait from the Hoko River to Cape Flattery and south along the Pacific to Cape Alava. The Makah language is related to many spoken on Vancouver Island, and the Qwiqwidicciat regularly visited and traded with relatives there. While all Northwest coast peoples were skilled sailors, the Makahs were especially renowned as canoeists and whale hunters.

The Quileutes, living along the Pacific coast south of the Makahs, also depended primarily on the ocean. They hunted whales, but were noted as seal hunters. The major Quileute town (now named La Push) was and is located at the mouth of the Quillayute River. Quileute lands extended along the coast from Cape Alava south to the Hoh River (in present-day Jefferson County), and up the Quillayute and Hoh drainages. The Quileutes' only linguistic relatives were the Chimakum, who lived near Port Townsend until the 1860s, when the few to survive European diseases and tribal war were absorbed into the Klallams.

European Exploration

Clallam County was one of the first areas in the future Washington reached by Europeans. Cape Flattery, named by British Royal Navy Captain James Cook (1728-1779) on March 22, 1778, is the oldest non-Indian place name still used on Washington maps. A decade after Cook, British fur traders Charles William Barkley and John Meares (1756?-1809) located and entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca (which they named for the Greek sailor whose purported voyage to the region in 1592 is probably apocryphal). Within a few years fur traders were regularly visiting Makah villages at Neah Bay.

Between 1790 and 1792, several Spanish naval expeditions explored the Strait. Port Angeles, named for the sheltered bay that Captain Francisco Eliza called Puerto de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, is one of the few names from Spanish maps to survive in Clallam County. In 1792, Spanish forces under Salvador Fidalgo built a fort at Neah Bay, which Manuel Quimper had named Núñez Gaona when he claimed it for Spain two years earlier. Núñez Gaona was the first non-Indian settlement in the future Washington, but it lasted only a few months before the Spanish departed due to conflicts with Makahs and lack of secure winter anchorage. The 1792 British expedition under Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) also visited the region, bestowing names that include Discovery Bay and Dungeness Spit.

American Settlement

The explorers brought European diseases that devastated Klallam, Makah, and Quileute populations, as they did all Northwest peoples. However, 60 years passed after the shortlived settlement at Neah Bay before non-Indians made further attempts to settle the northern Olympic Peninsula. The settlers who began arriving in the 1850s were Americans -- Great Britain ceded its claims south of the 49th Parallel to the United States in 1846.

Beginning around 1851, the first settlers in the future Clallam County staked claims at New Dungeness, west of the Dungeness River on the harbor created by Dungeness Spit. They raised potatoes in the fertile soil and cut trees to make cedar shakes, ship masts, and pilings. Within a year or two, some moved five miles south to the extensive prairie where the city of Sequim is now located.

When Washington Territory was separated from Oregon in 1853, all of the northern Olympic Peninsula was part of Jefferson County. Clallam County was carved out of Jefferson effective April 26, 1854, and the county seat was established at New Dungeness, where it remained until 1890.

Indian Treaties

Having promised land to white homesteaders, the federal government set out to obtain legal title from the Indian peoples who occupied it. In Washington, this task was assigned to Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), the new Territory's first governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Klallam, Quileute, and Makah leaders were willing to open most of their land to American settlement, but made it clear that they wanted to continue living in their traditional homelands.

Nevertheless, in keeping with Stevens's policy of consolidating tribes, the Treaty of Point No Point, which gave the U.S. legal title to the bulk of Clallam County, along with much more Klallam, Chimakum, and Skokomish territory, called for the Klallams to move to the Skokomish reservation on Hood Canal. Similarly, the Quinault Treaty ceded Quileute as well as Quinault lands and provided that those tribes would have a single reservation in Quinault territory (in today's Grays Harbor County). In practice few Klallams or Quileutes moved to the designated reservations in foreign territory. Makah leaders ceded a large swath of Clallam County in the Treaty of Neah Bay, but retained the land around Cape Flattery.

Growing Slowly

Clallam County saw only limited growth in its first few decades. Settlement was largely confined to a scattering of small outposts on or near the shore, frequently around existing Indian villages. The only practical transportation was along the beach at low tide or by water, at first in Indian canoes and sailing schooners, later in freight and passenger steamers.

Henry R. Webster and others succeeded in establishing a trading post at Neah Bay in 1857, the same year the first settlers arrived at Port Angeles harbor, sheltered by Ediz Spit and site of the major Klallam villages Tse-whit-zen and I'e'nis. The future city of Port Angeles had its origins five years later when Victor Smith (1827-1865) was named Collector of Customs for the Puget Sound district. Smith managed to have the Customs port of entry temporarily moved from Port Townsend to the nascent settlement at Port Angeles, which, at Smith's urging, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) designated a federal government townsite reserve.

Despite Smith's machinations, New Dungeness remained Clallam County's leading community. In 1865, early settlers Elliott and Margaret Cline platted a townsite there and deeded lots to the county for a courthouse and jail. Farther west, the shore of Crescent Bay was first settled in 1863 by three former Hudson's Bay Company trappers and their families. Fed by the area's rich timber stands, the thriving logging community of Port Crescent grew over the next several decades. On Clallam Bay the communities that would become Clallam Bay and Sekiu began developing in the 1870s.

The first settlers ventured out to Quileute lands on the rugged, rain-soaked Pacific coast in the late 1860s. Tensions rose between the newcomers, who expected Indians to vacate lands "ceded" by treaty and move south to the Quinault reservation, and the Quileutes, who had no intention of abandoning their homeland. Finding county and federal officials insufficiently supportive of their claims, white settlers along the Pacific Coast succeeded in getting the legislature to approve a new "Quillayute County" carved from the western halves of Clallam and Jefferson counties, but the prospective county was never organized.

At Clallam County's east end, Klallam inhabitants also felt pressure from settlers, who claimed legal title, to leave their traditional homes and lands. In 1874 one band, led by Lord James Balch, responded by paying $500 in gold coin for title to 210 acres at Nuxia'antc ("white firs") on the shore east of Dungeness and north of Sequim. There they established the community of Jamestown, which helped the group preserve its identity and independence over the next century.

Moving Inland

In 1878, Luther and Esther Ford and their children settled 15 miles inland from La Push on the fertile open ground known as Indian Prairie, which the Quileutes maintained by regular burning. The community that grew up around the Ford homestead became Forks, named for the rivers that joined nearby. Luther Ford initiated the Forks dairy industry when he shipped a herd to Neah Bay and drove it down the beach to La Push and up to the homestead.

A scattering of additional interior settlements joined Forks, but the formidable heart of the Olympic Range remained wilderness. An 1885 army reconnaissance expedition headed by Lieutenant Joseph P. O'Neil (1862-1938), which started from Port Angeles, was the first well documented exploration of the Olympics. Other expeditions followed and explorers like O'Neil and Judge James Wickersham (1857-1939) called for preserving the interior of the range as a national park.

Port Angeles received an unlikely boost in the late 1880s when it was chosen as the site of the Puget Sound Cooperative Colony, the first of a number of utopian communities that sprang up in Washington over the next 30 years. Planned as "a city beautiful with cooperative homes, cooperative hotels and all industries upon a cooperative system" (LeWarne, 17), the Colony purchased land just east of the Port Angeles townsite, on Ennis Creek opposite the Klallam village. Hundreds of colonists arrived in 1887, swelling Port Angeles's population. As a utopian experiment the Puget Sound Cooperative Colony did not last long. But it attracted many idealistic and energetic settlers to Port Angeles. Colonists built the area's first sawmill, first office building, homes, schools, churches, and the ornate Opera House, long-time center of civic life.

The federal government eventually acknowledged that the Quileutes would not leave their homeland. On February 19, 1889 -- 10 months before signing the bill that made Washington the 42nd state -- President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) created the Quiluete Reservation at La Push by executive order. Dan Pullen, an early settler who argued that his homestead claim to the Quileute town took legal precedence, challenged the reservation. Pullen ultimately lost a long court battle, but in the fall of 1889 he burned down the Quileute longhouses, destroying the tribe's last pre-contact equipment, baskets, carvings, and sacred regalia.

A New County Seat

A year after statehood, residents of Port Angeles and Port Crescent, two booming towns that expected railroads to arrive at any moment, engineered an election to move the county seat from New Dungeness. Port Angeles won and has been the county seat and commercial center since 1890, while Port Crescent and New Dungeness all but disappeared.

Most east end growth occurred inland on Sequim Prairie, where pioneer farmers established one of the state's early irrigation areas in the dry rain shadow of the Olympics. The first irrigation ditch brought Dungeness River water to the prairie in 1896. Eight more followed, making Sequim a major dairy and agriculture center.

While farmers brought water to Sequim, promoters invited the U.S. Navy to Port Angeles as part of an October 1895 celebration (forerunner of the Clallam County Fair) designed to promote the county during the hard times following the Panic of 1893. Somewhat to their surprise, Rear Admiral Lester A. Beardslee (1836-1903) accepted, beginning a tradition of annual Pacific Fleet visits to Port Angeles that lasted almost 40 years. Locals took Admiral Beardslee, a noted angler, fishing at Lake Crescent, and he popularized the lake's unique variety of rainbow trout now known as Beardslee Trout.

In 1897, President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) heeded conservationist calls and proclaimed nearly two thirds of the Olympic Peninsula as the Olympic Forest Reserve. Many in Clallam County and elsewhere on the Peninsula, where logging was the dominant industry, objected to the size of the reserve, and within a few years it was substantially reduced.

"Glory Days" of Logging

Logging expanded dramatically in the opening decades of the twentieth century, as did recreation and tourism. With steamboats providing transportation, multiple resorts sprang up around the shores of Lake Crescent. Resorts were also established at the warm mineral waters of Olympic and Sol Duc Hot Springs.

Through the end of the 1800s, Peninsula loggers had generally used ox teams to drag the giant logs down skid roads to waterways where they could be floated to mills, limiting major operations to within a mile or so of water. The advent of the steam donkey engine and then logging railroads allowed logging to reach much farther into the forest. In the years preceding World War I, timber companies Puget Sound Mills and Timber, Merrill and Ring, and Goodyear Logging constructed large logging camps at Twin Rivers, Pysht, and Sekiu to cut the huge conifer stands of western Clallam County.

Hydroelectric power from the Elwha River dam promoted by Thomas Aldwell (1868-1954) reached Port Angeles in 1914, the same year that Michael Earles opened the city's first large sawmill at the base of Ediz Spit where Tse-whit-zen stood not long before. The "Big Mill" was the county's largest employer for the next quarter-century. C. J. Erickson built a rail line from the mill to the rich timberlands farther west. A year later the Milwaukee Road took over operations and instituted service between Port Angeles and Port Townsend.

American entry into World War I in 1917 and the arrival of the U.S. Army Spruce Production Division further fueled Clallam County's growth. Light, strong, and resilient, spruce was an essential component of early airplanes. Spruce Division soldiers built the "Spruce Road" rail line from the existing Milwaukee Road tracks, at a junction named for Division commander Lieutenant Colonel Brice P. Disque, to Lake Pleasant north of Forks where there were vast spruce reserves. They also began constructing a major spruce mill in Port Angeles on the site of the Puget Sound Colony's sawmill. The war ended before the railroad was used or the mill completed, but both were important in later timber operations.

The Spruce Road helped open the vast western forests and make the 1920s the county's "Glory Days of Logging" (Russell, 579). Merrill and Ring, Bloedel Donovan Mills, and Crescent Logging Company were the major operators of the era. Between 1926 and 1936, the Bloedel Donovan camps alone harvested an average of one million board feet each working day.

Pulp Production

Much of the harvest produced not lumber but pulp for newsprint and other paper products. The abundant western hemlock and other pulpwoods in the Clallam rainforest, previously ignored for the most part by loggers cutting Douglas fir, became important in the 1920s when forestry research chemists perfected techniques for turning hemlock wood into newsprint and cellulose. The Peninsula's first pulp and paper mills were built in Port Angeles, where they became the backbone of the economy for many years.

The Crescent Boxboard Company, later Fibreboard Corporation, opened a pulp and boxboard mill in 1918. Three years later the Washington Pulp and Paper Corporation mill began production; it was taken over by the Crown Zellerbach Corporation, which ran it for many years. Like the earlier "Big Mill," these facilities were built over the Tse-whit-zen site and graves, with ramifications felt eight decades later. The spruce mill on Ennis Creek at the other end of town stood empty until 1929, when portions were incorporated into a pulp mill built by Olympic Forests Product Company, which became Rayonier.

A second hydroelectric project on the Elwha, Glines Canyon Dam, came on line in 1927. Neither Glines Canyon nor the original Elwha dam provided passage for migrating salmon, and the dams, while powering industrial development, devastated the river's once-massive fish runs.

Despite the railroad's belated arrival in 1915, Clallam County freight and passengers continued to travel largely by water through the 1920s. All the larger towns and many tiny settlements along the Strait of Juan de Fuca had docks where "mosquito fleet" steamers provided regular service to ports throughout Puget Sound and across the Strait to Vancouver Island. The opening of the 330-mile Olympic Loop Highway (U.S. 101) in 1931 brought easy automobile access to large areas of the Peninsula for the first time.

The first Coast Guard Air Station on the Pacific was commissioned at Ediz Spit in 1935. Fourteen Klallam families, who had moved onto the Spit as mills expanded over Tse-whit-zen, had to relocate. The federal government purchased 327 acres near the mouth of the Elwha River west of Port Angeles. The land was officially proclaimed the Lower Elwha Klallam Reservation in 1968.

World War II and Beyond

During the 1930s, support grew for creating an Olympic National Park, although controversy raged over how much land to include. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) announced his support for a large park, which Congress approved the next year. Subsequent proclamations by Roosevelt and his successor Harry Truman (1884-1972), who in 1953 added all the Pacific coastline of Clallam and Jefferson counties outside Indian reservations, enlarged the park to nearly 900,000 acres.

Like World War I, World War II brought an influx of military personnel and installations to Clallam County. As the railhead for the northern Olympic Peninsula, Sequim bustled with troops from around the country. The small Port Angeles airport was expanded and housed a fighter squadron. Fort Hayden was constructed at Tongue Point on Crescent Bay; after the war it became a county park.

The post-war era saw continued growth in the dominant timber and agriculture industries. Commercial fishing was also important. Neah Bay, the leading fishing port, was home to as many as 600 fishing boats in the 1950s and 1960s. Sport fishing in both salt and fresh water was equally popular, one of many attractions for the ever-increasing number of tourists. Around Sequim, the mild climate and sunny weather attracted retirees. The 1961 opening of the Hood Canal Floating Bridge brought even more visitors and residents to Clallam County by substantially shortening the driving time between the Olympic Peninsula and greater Seattle.

Beginning in the 1960s, Clallam County tribes joined others in reclaiming traditions and reasserting treaty rights to a substantial portion of fish harvests. Makah cultural revival was further spurred with the 1970 discovery at Ozette of thousands of artifacts from homes buried in a mudslide 500 years earlier. The Jamestown S'Klallam tribe, which earlier declined government recognition in favor of remaining on the land it purchased in the 1870s, won recognition in 1981, receiving trust land at Blyn on Sequim Bay where it built a tribal center and casino.

Past and Future

After peaking in the 1980s in advance of stricter environmental regulations, Clallam County logging declined sharply. Most of the big timber had been cut and environmental protection measures put much of what remained off limits. Mills large and small closed, unemployment increased and many, particularly in the western county, voiced resentment of environmentalists and the northern spotted owl, an "indicator species" for old-growth forests and a potent symbol in the environmental debates.

Despite declines from historic levels, resource industries like timber, wood products, and agriculture remain important in Clallam County although service industries have grown faster in recent decades. Government (cities, the county, state and federal agencies, tribes, and educational institutions) was by far the largest employment category in 2004, especially in the west end, where two prisons, a hospital, and the school district were the top four employers. Visitors drawn by Olympic National Park and the county's many other natural attractions continue to increase, making tourism an important sector.

While Clallam County has changed almost unimaginably over its first 150 years, aspects of its once buried (figuratively and literally) past are poised to play significant roles in its future. Makah whalers recently revived the tribe's longstanding whaling tradition, although litigation following the 1999 hunt put the revival on hold at least temporarily. Following years of debate and negotiation, the federal government, which acquired the Elwha River dams in 2000, plans to begin removing them in 2008 to restore historic salmon runs. The 2003 discovery of Tse-whit-zen village and burials, largely intact beneath industrial rubble and fill, forced relocation of a graving dock for renovating the Hood Canal Bridge while offering new insights into the lives of the people for whom Clallam County is named.


Clallam County Historical Society, Clallam County (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2003); Warren L. Cook, Flood Tide of Empire: Spain and the Pacific Northwest, 1543-1819 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973); 279-83, 349-55, 383-86; Harriet U. Fish, Tracks, Trails, and Tales in Clallam County (Carlsborg: H. U. Fish, 1983); Murray Morgan, The Last Wilderness (New York: Viking Press, 1955); Dungeness: The Lure of a River ed. by Virginia Keeting (Port Angeles: Sequim Bicentennial Committe, 1976); G. M. Lauridsen and A. A. Smith, The Story of Port Angeles, Clallam County, Washington (Seattle: Lowman and Hanford, 1937); Charles Pierce LeWarne, Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1915 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975), 15-54; Paul J. Martin, Port Angeles, Washington: A History (Port Angeles: Peninsula Publishing, 1983); Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992); Jimmy Come Lately, History of Clallam County, ed. by Jervis Russell (Port Angeles: Clallam County Historical Society, 1971); William D. Welch, A Brief History of Port Angeles (Port Angeles: Crown Zellerbach Corporation, 1968); "History & Culture," Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe website accessed December 16, 2005 (; "Culture & History," Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe website accessed December 16, 2005 (; Makah Tribe website accessed December 12, 2005 (; "About the Quileute People," Ocean Park website accessed April 4, 2004 (; "Historic Sites," State of Washington, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation website accessed December 9, 2005 (; "Olympic National Park," National Park Service website accessed December 9, 2005 (; "Major Employers," Clallam netWorks website accessed November 29, 2005 (; "The City of Forks," Forks Chamber of Commerce website accessed November 29, 2005 (; "Festival History," Sequim Irrigation Festival website accessed December 4, 2005 (; Natalie McNair-Huff, "History of the Olympic Peninsula," White Rabbit Publishing website accessed December 9, 2005 (; Brian Gawley, "Early 1990s Archaeology Reports Tell of Presence of Tse-whit-zen," Peninsula Daily News, March 6, 2005 ( story/html/200606); Gerald W. Williams, "The Spruce Production Division," Forest History Today, Spring 1999 ( FHT/FHTSpring1999/fhtspruce.pdf).

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