King County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 9/04/2006
  • Essay 7905

King County, located in Western Washington, covers some 2,100 square miles extending from the crest of the Cascade Range to Puget Sound, including Vashon Island. It is Washington's most populous county and contains its largest city -- Seattle. It is the commercial center of the Pacific Northwest with public and private enterprises including Boeing, Costco, Group Health Cooperative, Washington Mutual, Starbucks Coffee Co.,, University of Washington, Microsoft, PACCAR Inc, Weyerhaeuser, Seattle City Light, and the Port of Seattle, which operates the nation's eighth-largest port as well as Sea-Tac International Airport. King County also retains some 1,500 farms, most under 50 acres. For millennia the area was home to peaceful, culturally rich, Lushootseed-speaking tribes. Settlement came in 1852, with lumber, hops, coal, and fish constituting first industries. Historical milestones include the founding of the University of Washington (1861); the Great Seattle Fire (1889); the Klondike gold rush that boomed Seattle (1897); the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (1909); the founding of Seattle City Light (1910) and the Port of Seattle (1911); construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal (1917) and the Lake Washington Floating Bridge (1940), the latter resulting in the bourgeoning of Eastside communities; the Century 21 World's Fair (1962), and the creation of the county-wide agency Metro (1958) to deal first with water quality and later (1972) with public transit. King County boasts a diverse population, vibrant arts communities and institutions, an expanding economy, an increasingly green outlook and policy orientation, as well as high housing costs and traffic-clogged roads.

First Peoples

The area's indigenous peoples included the Duwamish, who occupied some 17 villages on or near the site of Seattle; the Snoqualmies in what is now eastern King County, and the Muckleshoots, including the Stkamish, Yilalkoamish, Skopamish, Smulkamish, and Tkwakwamish on the Green and White rivers.

They lived in cedar longhouses, traveled by cedar canoe, and spoke one or another dialects of the Puget Sound Salish or Lushootseed language. Salmon -- caught, cleaned, smoked -- supplied food for much of the year, as did shellfish harvested on the tideflats, huckleberries, roots (bracken fern and camas) dug on prairies kept open by burning, and elk, deer, bear, and duck. Cultural life included stories told by elders to pass on ancient traditions, ritual dancing and singing, healing ceremonies, the sweat lodge, and elaborate gifting ceremonies. However, Puget Sound Salish tribes did not actually use the word "potlatch" and did not carve totem poles.

During the late 1700s, introduced diseases disturbed this way of life; British Captain George Vancouver explored Puget Sound in 1792, and saw among the Indians evidence of smallpox. The American explorer Wilkes arrived in 1841 and named Elliott Bay and other points. By the time settlers arrived in 1852, the Indian population was much reduced.

Chief Seattle, born to a Duwamish mother and a Suquamish father, built an alliance between the two tribes. He was converted by Catholic missionaries and his people greeted white settlers when they arrived in 1851, providing aid that enabled them to survive and to thrive.

King County's Origin and Name

In 1846 Great Britain ceded the area to the United States and in 1848 Congress created Oregon Territory (including Washington and Idaho). The Oregon Territorial Legislature created King County on December 22, 1852. Less than three months later, in 1853, Washington Territory came into being and King County became part of Washington Territory.

King County was originally named for William Rufus DeVane King, a senator from Alabama elected U.S. vice president the year of his death in 1853. In 1986 the County officially changed its eponym to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Explorers, Settlers, and Indians

Early explorers, traveling by Indian canoe and aided by Indian guides, were Colonel Isaac Ebey (1818-1857) and later, the gold-seeker John Holgate, who praised the region, but declined to settle due to his lack of a second "rib" (a wife). The great spur to settlement was the Donation Land Claims Act of 1850, which granted 320 acres to each adult U.S. citizen who arrived in Oregon Territory before December 1850, and resided on their claim for four years.

The first settlers were farmers led by Luther Collins. The Collins Party claimed land up the winding Duwamish River (later Georgetown) on September 14, 1851. A week later the vanguard of the Denny Party, from Cherry Grove, Illinois, via Portland, arrived on Alki Point (future West Seattle): 19-year-old David Denny (1832-1903) began building a cabin, John Low (1820-1888) traveled south to fetch the others; and Lee Terry (1818-1862) went off in search of a tool. The rest of the Denny Party, 22 persons, arrived on the schooner Exact on November 13, 1851. It was pouring rain. David Denny was discovered feverish inside a roofless cabin. The women disembarked with their children and sat down and cried. This was the beginning of Seattle.

The Duwamish helped them survive and in December, the ship Leonesa appeared looking for pilings to supply a frenzy of dock-building in San Francisco. For three weeks the men cut and loaded timber, thus inaugurating King County's lumber industry. Meanwhile, Charles Terry established King County's first store on Alki Point.

In the spring of 1852, most of the Denny Party, intending to found a city, moved to the shore of the deep and well-sheltered harbor of Elliott Bay. They settled on the site of Pioneer Square in today's downtown Seattle. The name of this place was Duwamps.

David "Doc" Maynard (1808-1873), friend of Chief Seattle, came seeking a place to salt and barrel Duwamish River salmon. He and his wife Catherine Broshears Maynard (1816-1906) would provide a store and a hospital. Henry Yesler (1810-1892) arrived to build Puget Sound's first steam-powered sawmill. Maynard persuaded the settlers to rename the town Seattle after the charismatic Indian leader.

The treaty wars began in the mid-1850s, shortly after Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens negotiated the Medicine Creek Treaty (1854) and Point Elliott Treaty (1855). The White River tribes particularly resented the terms; on October 27, 1855, near the site of Kent, Indians killed nine settlers. The Battle of Seattle occurred on January 26, 1856. After this the Muckleshoot Reservation, King County's only reservation, was created between the White and Green rivers. The Muckleshoots regained their treaty fishing rights in the Boldt decision of 1974. Today they are a voice for conservation and the Muckleshoot Casino has provided an economic base for the tribe.

Early Seattle

Seattle with its sawmill and deep-water port quickly became a rough logging town. From the start it was a mixed-race community. Yesler employed Indians in his sawmill and sired a Native American daughter, Julia, before his wife, Sarah, arrived from Ohio. African American pioneers included barber Manuel Lopez (arrived 1852) and restaurateur William Gross (arrived 1861). An 1859 Territorial Census found in King County a total white population of 255 persons. King County also had 55 horses, 13 mules, 244 head of cattle, 93 hogs, 94 acres of wheat, 81 acres of oats, about 50 acres each of rye and barley, 96 acres of peas, 82 acres of potatoes, a church, a lumber mill (Yesler's), and a school.

The Reverend David Blaine established King County's first church (Methodist) in 1853. He represented one side of a longstanding split in Seattle between respectable persons and those supporting an "open" town replete with saloons and brothels. Milestones during the 1860s include the Territorial University (founded 1861), the first Seattle Public Library (1869), the first Catholic Church (1869), Dexter Horton's bank, and the arrival of the Schwabachers mercantile firm (1869). In 1869 a real-estate developer dubbed Seattle the Queen City. A photograph of the town's wooden buildings and dirt streets reveals that this was an exaggeration.

Coal, Logs, Hops, and Fish

In eastern King County, hop-growing, logging, and coal mining developed during the 1870s. After the Great Northern Railroad chose for its terminal Tacoma over Seattle, incensed Seattleites built the Seattle & Walla Walla, which soon became profitable hauling coal from Newcastle to the Seattle waterfront. By 1875 coal superseded lumber as King County's first industry. By 1907 King County was second in the state (after Kittitas) in coal production, producing a million and a half tons. Principal coal towns were Issaquah, Ravensdale, Black Diamond, Newcastle, and Renton.

The lumber business flourished. By the 1880s sawmills supported towns like Bothell, Duvall, Monohon (later Sammamish), and Enumclaw, to say nothing of Seattle's 10 sawmills (by 1899) and the shingle-manufacturing enterprises of Ballard, later annexed to Seattle. In 1900 Frederick Weyerhaeuser (1834-1914) purchased 1,406 square miles of Washington state timberlands. The Weyerhaeuser Company (today based in Federal Way) incorporated and eventually absorbed the smaller firms.

Hops (a flower used to flavor beer) were a major King County crop throughout the 1880s, until hop lice infestations beginning in 1889 prompted growers to turn to dairy farming and to cultivating orchards and other crops. Native Americans provided much of the labor for the harvest.

Fishing and canning (cod, caught off the coast of Alaska, and salmon, caught in local rivers) were big business. Commercial canneries, staffed by low-paid Chinese and Filipino workers, were located in Seattle's Belltown and in Kent. Seattle's Pike Place Market, founded in 1907, provided (and still provides) a place for fishermen and women to sell their catch and for farmers to sell their produce.

Commerce demanded transportation. In King County goods and people moved first in canoes, then on steamships swarming so thick on Puget Sound they earned the sobriquet Mosquito Fleet. Military Road, built in 1860 from Seattle to Pierce County, traveled south through settlements that would become Des Moines and Federal Way. The first (coal-hauling) railroad, the Seattle & Walla Walla, was followed in 1885 by the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad Company that chugged north from Seattle around Lake Washington through Bothell to Lake Sammamish. In the 1880s streetcars began knitting together future Seattle neighborhoods; in 1893, the Great Northern Railway brought transcontinental service to Seattle; and in 1902 the Interurban began carrying passengers between Seattle, Renton, and Tacoma.

Between China and Alaska

In 1881 Seattle surpassed Walla Walla as the largest town in the Territory. Trade with Asia began when the first vessel sailed from Seattle to the Far East in 1882. That year ships from China brought some 5,000 Chinese passengers to King County. They found jobs working on the railroad, in canneries, sawmills, and hop farms, and as cooks and servants.

In the mid-1880s anti-Chinese hysteria raised its ugly head. In Squak (later Issaquah), white and Indian hop-pickers attacked Chinese laborers brought in to pick at a lower price. The following year a white mob in Seattle forced Chinese residents out of town. King County's Chinese communities took years to recover.

On June 6, 1889, the Great Seattle Fire wiped the downtown slate clean. Miraculously, no one was killed, and an economic boom ensued as the city rose from ashes to brick and stone. In the coming decades City Engineer R. H. Thomson, believing that the road to prosperity was flat, supervised the regrading of Seattle hills, and directed the immense Cedar River watershed project (which still today supplies most of Seattle's water).

Immigrants into King County during the 1890s included Russians, Greeks, and Serbs (St. Spiridon Orthodox Church was built in the 1890s), the peaceful and often misunderstood Sikhs; Filipinos, and Sephardic Jews, who first arrived in 1898 to become part of Seattle's already-well-established Jewish community (Congregation Bikur Cholim, Sephardic was founded in 1910).

The national economic depression of 1893 hit King County hard, but the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush turned the economy around as gold seekers rushed through Seattle, purchased supplies, and embarked for Alaska. Numerous King County businesses from Bartell Drugs to the Nordstrom Department Store got their start during the gold rush.

Seattle grew by annexation, doubling in size in 1891, and doubling again in 1907. The 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held on the University of Washington campus, drew nearly four million visitors and spurred further growth. Seattle City Light, formally organized in 1909, became the first publicly owned electric utility in the nation. The Lake Washington Ship Canal, completed in 1917, opened Seattle's lakes to ocean-going commerce.

About this time, William Boeing discovered flying. He founded the predecessor of Boeing Airplane Co. in 1917. The firm pioneered international airmail, built aircraft for World War I, and founded United Airlines before federal regulators broke the company into its parts in 1934 and Boeing quit in disgust. The firm has sustained the economy of King County to the present day.

During the 1920s autos replaced horses and roads began looking better than railroads. The Pacific Highway (U.S. 99, decertified in 1967 to State Route 99) ran from Canada to Mexico through King County, the last link cemented when the Aurora Bridge opened in 1932. The road ran through Shoreline south through Seattle and fed the development of towns like Federal Way where drivers stopped for gas and food. Later in the decade the 1940 Lake Washington Floating Bridge opened sleepy Eastside towns like Bellevue and Kirkland to massive development.

The Great Depression brought shantytowns, hardship, and the great West Coast waterfront strike of 1934. America's entrance into World War II jump-started the economy into wartime production of airplanes and battleships. A large influx of African Americans joined the work force and women entered heavy industry for the first time. Meanwhile, Executive Order 9066 forced King County's Japanese and Japanese American residents to internment camps in 1942, despite no evidence of disloyalty to America.

During the post-war era, James R. Ellis (b. 1921) led a campaign for a county-wide agency to deal with the grossly polluted Lake Washington and with county-wide transit. Voters created Metro in 1958 with the initial mission of cleaning up Lake Washington, and in 1972 granted the utility authority to operate transit services. The agency served admirably, but in 1990 Federal District Judge William Dwyer ruled that the Metro Council violated the constitutional mandate for "one person, one vote" and in a 1992 reorganization, voters handed Metro's responsibilities over to King County.

The 1940s saw the founding of Group Health Cooperative, a visionary health-care organization that provided care based on pre-paid dues. The arts blossomed with the inception of the Seattle Art Museum (1933), Bellevue Art Museum (1947), Frye Art Museum (1952), and with the arrival to the region of artists such as Mark Tobey.

Beginning in the 1950s Interstate 5 cut a huge north-south swath through the county, speeding transportation but destroying neighborhoods. By the end of the next decade, protests effectively halted the highway-building craze.

Those 1960s

The era began in 1962, when Seattle's Century 21 World's Fair welcomed visitors from around the world, and left the legacy of the Seattle Center with its theaters, Opera House, science museum, and the innovative Monorail. The fair nurtured enterprises such as Uwajimayo -- today the largest Japanese supermarket in the Pacific Northwest.

That year Wing Luke was elected to the Seattle City Council. He was the first Chinese American elected to a major post in the continental United States.

In 1968 civic activists led by Jim Ellis assembled a dozen bond issues called "Forward Thrust" to accommodate growth, including new parks, a domed stadium, and rail transit. Interstate 5 had recently opened and was not yet congested, which helped to doom the transit plan, but most of the other bonds were approved, including those for the Kingdome stadium (which opened in 1976 and was imploded in 2001). Voters rejected rail transit again in 1970, during the Boeing Bust (precipitated by Congress's withdrawal of funding for the supersonic transport aircraft), but authorized an all-bus Metro Transit system in 1972. Voters approved a comprehensive three-county regional "Sound Transit" system, including rail, in 1996.

During the Vietnam War era, the region experienced the upheavals and reforms of the rest of the country. Young men went to war and students protested the war. Black contractors and their white allies picketed all-white construction sites. Indians conducted fish-ins to regain their treaty fishing rights. Black students at the University of Washington founded the Black Student Union and prevailed upon the administration to begin Black Studies. Chicano students organized. Women organized. The National Organization for Women formed its Seattle chapter in 1970.

The environment became a concern. In Seattle the first Earth Day was observed in 1970. In 1973 Seattle City Light went green, promoting conservation with its Kill-A-Watt program instead of promoting the use of electricity.

And in 1975 two young men founded a small computer firm that would come to equal Boeing in its impact on the county: Microsoft. Such transformations affected all of King County, but each community also had its own unique character and history.

Cities and Towns

Renton, located at the confluence of the Black and White rivers, opened its first coalmine in the 1870s. Other industries included brick and tile plants, a cigar factory, a glass-making facility, and lumber mills. Renton was a rough industrial community offering, by the mid-1880s, 12 saloons but no religious institutions. Matters became more civilized after the town incorporated in 1901. Pacific Car and Foundry moved to Renton in 1908 and developed into what is today the major truck-manufacturing firm, PACCAR Inc. Longacres racetrack (1933-1992) drew horseracing fans to Renton for 59 years. The Boeing Airplane Company expanded the community's economic base when in 1941 it built a plant there. Renton is still called by some "the jet capital of the world."

The hop-growing region of Kent became the second community after Seattle to incorporate. After aphids destroyed the hop-crop in 1891, Kent continued as an agricultural center, with a focus on berries and lettuce. First-generation (Issei) Japanese farmers, barred from owning property, leased farmland from citizens, and by 1920, the Issei in the Kent Valley supplied half the fresh milk consumed in Seattle, and more than 70 percent of the fruit and vegetables for Western Washington. They were key players in the opening of Pike Place Market in August 1907 in Seattle. Smith Brothers Dairy, founded in West Seattle in 1920, moved to Kent in 1925, where it stayed until 2001, when it moved its 3,000 cows to Eastern Washington. The building of the Howard Hanson dam in the 1960s solved chronic flooding in the valley but also catalyzed a transformation from farming to industry (Boeing and related light industries), banking, retail, and government. Today Kent is Washington's eighth largest city, with a population of nearly 86,000.

The town of Slaughter (renamed Auburn) incorporated in 1891. It too was a farming community that grew hops until 1891. Other enterprises included the Borden Condensery, maker of Borden's Condensed Milk, and the Northern Clay Company. The Northern Pacific Railroad put a rail line through town in 1883, and the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban line provided Auburn with access to both cities starting in 1902. Auburn was agricultural throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In 1963 Boeing established a plant there and in the 1990s the SuperMall drew shoppers to the area. By 2006 Auburn's population had grown to nearly 50,000 people.

In east King County, Enumclaw came into being in 1885, when the Northern Pacific Railroad built a depot there. Enumclaw grew hops until the hop-lice plague prompted a turn to dairy farming. In 1900 the town had a population of 483, including immigrants from Scandinavia, Slovenia, Italy, France, and Germany. The Danish were prominent in starting farmers' granges, and Enumclaw is still known for cooperative enterprises and for dairy farming including Darigold Dairy. Enumclaw's White River Lumber Co., founded in 1897, became famous throughout the nation for fine finished wood. Ultimately the firm merged with Weyerhaeuser. Today (2006) Enumclaw has a population of about 11,000.

Bellevue, a logging, farming, and vacation-home community located across Lake Washington from Seattle, had a population of 400 in 1900. It was renowned for strawberries cultivated by skilled Japanese farm families and for its Strawberry Festival. In 1940 the Lake Washington Floating Bridge provided easy access to Seattle and transformed Bellevue. In 1946, developer Kemper Freeman (1910-1982) opened Bellevue Square, the state's first regional shopping center. Bellevue incorporated in 1953, and by 2006 had grown to be Washington's fifth largest city, with a population of 117,000, an acclaimed art museum and summer crafts fair, and an economy based on banking and high-tech firms, including Microsoft in nearby Redmond.

Kirkland, located north of Bellevue on the northeast shore of Lake Washington, had a few homesteads when in the 1880s the English industrialist Peter Kirk (1840-1916) chose it as an ideal place to begin a steel-manufacturing plant. Kirk's plan to make Kirkland the "Pittsburgh of the West" hit various snags, and collapsed with the national economic downturn of 1893. But Kirk stayed in the region and Kirkland continued to grow: A woolen mill and shipbuilding sustained the economy. The town incorporated in 1905, and is today a pleasant suburban community with some 47,000 residents.

South of Seattle, the development of Sea-Tac International Airport during and after World War II spurred the development of the surrounding City of SeaTac (incorporated 1989). Nearby Tukwila, situated on the winding Duwamish River, grew from its proximity to Boeing and to the airport. It incorporated in 1908 and in 1968 built the enormous SouthCenter Mall. In recent years it has enhanced its tax base by a vigorous annexation campaign. Farther south, Federal Way developed slowly for decades alongside Route 99, incorporating in 1990. It serves as corporate headquarters of Weyerhaeuser and is today (2006) the state's eighth largest city. North of Seattle, Shoreline incorporated in 1995, and is today a city of some 52,000.

King County Today

In 2006, King County's population of 1.8 million includes some 100,000 African Americans, 100,000 Hispanics (mostly Latinos), 180,000 Asians, 20,000 Sikhs, and more than 1.3 million whites from places as diverse as Ireland, Sweden, Russia, Italy, and India. The county's economy includes education, aerospace, tourism, computer software, and biotechnology. Seattle, Washington's largest city, has nearly 580,000 residents.

Governance of this large and populous county has evolved. In 1968, voters approved a new Home Rule Charter eliminating several elected posts, including coroner and sheriff, and replacing the County's three commissioners with an elected county executive and a nine-member county council representing districts, while retaining an elected prosecutor and assessor. The post of sheriff became elective in 1996 and all positions are partisan except it. The King County Council expanded to 13 members in 1993 but shrank back to nine a dozen years later.

John Spellman was elected as the first county executive in 1969 and became governor in 1981. Ruby Chow was the Council's first Asian American member and Gary Locke was elected the county's first Asian American Executive in 1993. The Council's first African American member was Ron Sims, who became Executive after Locke was elected governor in 1996.

Development proceeds in accordance with the Comprehensive Growth Plan (1994) that favors urban density to preserve green space. The county is graced with numerous parks and green spaces from the Olmsted-designed Volunteer Park to Fort Dent Park in Tukwila. Clogged traffic remains a severe problem, and transportation debates wax heated in this economically vibrant, diverse, and culturally rich county.


"King County," Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington website accessed June 3, 2006 (; United States Department of Agriculture, 2002 Census of Agriculture, County Data, Washington (; Muckleshoot Indian Tribe website accessed August 2006 (; Alan J. Stein & the HistoryLink Staff, Bellevue Timeline (Seattle: History Ink, 2004); Walt Crowley & the HistoryLink Staff, Seattle and King County Timeline (Seattle: History Ink, 2001); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, various files,

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