Walla Walla -- Thumbnail History

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 2/26/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8486

The City of Walla Walla, located in Southeastern Washington, is one of the oldest cities in the state.  The area surrounding the city, the Walla Walla Valley, has been the scene of a long and diverse history that includes native North Americans, explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark 1770-1838), fur traders, missionaries Marcus (1802-1847) and Narcissa (1808-1847) Whitman, soldiers, gold prospectors, pioneers, and others.  The town of Walla Walla developed around the U.S. military Fort Walla Walla in the late 1850s.  It was named and platted in 1859, and incorporated and named the seat of Walla Walla County in 1862.  A gold rush in the early 1860s, followed by a growing agricultural industry, made Walla Walla the largest city in Washington Territory by 1880.  Since the late nineteenth century, the City of Walla Walla has been the center of a region known for its agricultural products, including wheat, barley, corn, potatoes, asparagus, peas, soft fruit, onions, and grapes.  Following the establishment of the Walla Walla Valley as a unique American Viticultural Area in 1984, the city has been at the center of a burgeoning premium wine industry.  With a population of 30,900 (as of 2007), Walla Walla is the largest city in Walla Walla County.

The Land and Its Natives  

“Walla Walla” was a Nez Perce name given to one of the indigenous groups who lived in the Walla Walla Valley.  According to Myron Eells (1843-1907), a missionary who worked among and studied native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, “Walla Walla” means “running waters” or, more specifically, the place where a small stream runs into a larger one.  In the Blue Mountains, at the eastern border of the county, the Touchet and Walla Walla rivers originate and flow downhill westward, converging with Mill and Dry creeks in the heart of the valley and ultimately joining the Columbia River.

The Walla Walla Valley is on the Columbia Plateau, which in large part was formed by enormous basaltic lava flows some 17 millions years ago and glacier floods that started over 15,000 years ago.  The earliest records of human activities on the plateau come from ongoing archaeology and the oral traditions of the culturally diverse groups who first inhabited the land.  These groups lived in semi-permanent fishing establishments along major waterways and hunted, harvested, and engaged in trade with each other.  Groups that lived in the Walla Walla Valley included the Nez Perce, Cayuses, Umatillas, and Walla Wallas.  By 1730, horses had arrived in the valley and by the end of the eighteenth century new goods, such as metal, glass, and wool, were changing the local economy.  Diseases, too, had also begun to impact these cultures. 

Among the earliest records of Euro-Americans coming to the Walla Walla Valley are those from the expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, which, by order of President Thomas Jefferson, had come west in search of an easy passage from the Missouri River to the Columbia River.  In October 1805, after coming down the Snake River, Lewis and Clark arrived at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers, where some 200 native North Americans had assembled with the expedition’s Nez Perce guides to greet the party.  On their return trip, at the end of April 1806, Lewis and Clark crossed the Columbia and camped near the mouth of the “Wallahwollah river,” as Lewis recorded it in his journal.  After taking leave of the “honest and friendly ... Wallah wallahs,” as recorded in Clark’s journal, the party followed Indian trails out of the valley.

Fur Traders and Missionaries 

The substantial information recorded by the Lewis and Clark expedition about the Pacific Northwest further stimulated American commercial interest in the region.  New York entrepreneur John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) joined the existing competition among two British fur companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, but the War of 1812 ended Astor’s ambitions on the Columbia and he sold his interests to the North West Company.  In 1818, at the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia rivers, not far from where the Lewis and Clark expedition had camped in 1806, the North West Company built Fort Nez Perces.  The Hudson’s Bay Company absorbed the fort in 1821 and it came to be known as Fort Walla Walla.  A profitable trade with local tribes operated out of the fort, gardens were planted, and the first cattle were brought into the area. 

In the opening of his book Whitman: An Unfinished Story, Whitman College’s third president, Stephen B. L. Penrose, imagines a fur trader opening up his Bible, “the White Man’s Book of Heaven,” in the presence of a group of native North Americans.  Whatever the veracity of this legend, four Indians from the Northwest did journey to St. Louis in 1831 to seek out William Clark, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to learn more about Christianity.  Reports of their visit inspired both Protestant and Roman Catholic missions to the Northwest. 

Presbyterian missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman arrived in the Walla Walla Valley in 1836 and established a mission on the Walla Walla River called Waiilatpu, which means “the place of the rye grass” in Cayuse.  The Whitman Mission, about seven miles west of the present-day city of Walla Walla, grew to include living quarters, a school, a blacksmith shop, a grist mill, a saw mill, and about 200 acres of cultivated land, including an orchard.  As more and more emigrants arrived in the Northwest, the Whitman Mission became an important stop along the Oregon Trail.  Whitman, who had been trained as a medical doctor, increasingly found himself tending to the needs of emigrants who arrived at Waiilatpu after completing an arduous overland journey. 

In 1847 a measles epidemic struck the plateau. By November, scores of Cayuses had died. Whitman, who was seen as someone with both medical and spiritual power, was held responsible for the deaths. In addition, Whitman was a target of Indian resentment because of his support of the settlers who were surging into the area. On November 29, 1847, a group of Cayuses attacked and killed the Whitmans. Twelve other men also died and about 50 people -- mostly women and children -- were taken hostage. Two of the children died of measles while being held, but within a month the Hudson's Bay Company ransomed the remaining captives with blankets, cotton shirts, tobacco, guns, and ammunition at Fort Walla Walla.

Boundaries and Battles 

In 1846, joint American-British occupation of the Oregon country ended and the Treaty of Oregon established the present international border between Canada and the United States. Oregon Territory, which extended south to California and east to the Rocky Mountains, was formally established in 1848. When news of the Whitman massacre spread to the Willamette Valley, a regiment of volunteers formed to rescue those who had been captured at the Whitman Mission. In early 1848, there were a number of skirmishes between Cayuses and the regiment.  This Cayuse War lasted for two years and ended when the tribe turned over eight young men, five of whom were hanged. 

Washington Territory was created out of Oregon Territory in 1853 and Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) was appointed the new territory’s first governor.  On April 25, 1854, Walla Walla County, stretching from the Cascade Mountains to the Rocky Mountains, was divided off from Skamania County.  The interests of settlers, gold prospectors, and others soon focused on Eastern Washington and so in May 1855 Stevens arrived at the future site of the city of Walla Walla to negotiate treaties with the Nez Perce, Yakima, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse tribes.  Following tense negotiations, treaties were signed that created the Nez Perce, Yakima, and Umatilla reservations.  The Umatilla Indian Reservation created a new homeland for the Umatillas and Walla Wallas, but some of the ancestral homeland of the Cayuse was saved.

But war followed and in late 1855 there were a number of skirmishes between Oregon volunteers and the Walla Wallas, culminating in the Battle of Frenchtown, named for the French Canadian fur traders who had settled there (about 10 miles west of the present-day city of Walla Walla).  In 1856, after Stevens called a second unsuccessful treaty council, Lieutenant Colonel E. J. Steptoe (1816-1865) built in what today is downtown Walla Walla a temporary stockade, which took the name of the abandoned Hudson’s Bay Fort Walla Walla.  War with the Walla Wallas continued until 1858.  In 1859, the U.S. Congress ratified the 1855 treaties and tribes were forced to relocate to the reservations.

Walla Walla and the Gold Rush 

By 1859, when the land east of the Cascades was declared fully open for settlement, a small collection of cabins, shacks, and tents were situated around Steptoe’s fort and five land claims had been located in the surrounding area.  In January 1859, Washington’s territorial legislature passed a measure providing for the organization of the government of Walla Walla County, the northern border of which was now set at the Snake River.  In July, county commissioners were elected and in November they elected to name the town that had emerged around Steptoe’s fort Walla Walla.  Surveying, platting, and the sale of lots followed. The principal businesses of the town were raising cattle and supplying Fort Walla Walla, which had become a permanent station for U.S. troops and which had moved into new quarters southwest of the town’s emerging center. 

Among those with an early interest in the Walla Walla Valley was Cushing Eells (1810-1893).  A former missionary colleague of the Whitmans, Eells visited the site of the Whitman Mission in 1859 and resolved to establish a “monument” to the Whitmans in the form of a high school for pioneer boys and girls.  Eells acquired the land on which the Whitman Mission had been located and on December 20, 1859, he obtained a charter from the Washington territorial legislature for a pre-collegiate academy.  In early 1860, he moved to the former mission site with his family and began working to establish Whitman Seminary.  According to his son, Myron Eells, Walla Walla at that time was “a small village with five families and about a hundred men” (Eells, 176).   

In early 1861, news spread that prospectors from Walla Walla had discovered gold in the eastern part of the territory (now Idaho).  Suddenly miners were passing through the town and there was a booming market for provisions, equipment, and animals.  This attracted farmers, merchants, ranchers, and others and Walla Walla County quickly became one of the most populous areas in the territory.  Walla Walla’s first public school began in a private residence in 1861, with about a dozen pupils.  The region’s first newspaper, the Washington Statesman, appeared on November 29, 1861.  In January 1862, the territorial legislature officially incorporated Walla Walla as a municipality and declared it the county seat.  That same year, the number of buildings in the city doubled. 

An Agricultural Center 

By 1863, the year in which Congress organized Idaho Territory out of Washington Territory, the deposits of gold in the mines of central Idaho had been depleted and miners were seeking prospects and supplies elsewhere.  But the growth that Walla Walla had realized was sustained by farming: By 1863, thousands of acres of land were being cultivated.  Especially successful was the practice of dryland wheat farming, begun around 1864, on the hills surrounding the city of Walla Walla.  As the demand associated with the gold rush declined, farmers in the Walla Walla Valley had to find an economically efficient way to deliver their products to other markets.  By 1863, Dorsey Syng Baker (1823-1888), who had opened a mercantile business in Walla Walla in 1859, and other leading businessmen were making plans to build a railroad to Wallula, a town on the Columbia that had been platted in 1862 around the site of the original Fort Walla Walla.  Construction began in Wallula in 1872 and was completed in the city of Walla Walla in 1875.

Within 30 years of Marcus Whitman’s own wheat-farming, wheat became the backbone of Walla Walla’s economy.  A variety of other crops were also planted with success, including apples (which reached their peak in the 1920s), peas, (which reached their peak in the 1960s), concord and wine grapes (the latter of which became significant for the region at the end of the twentieth century), and onions.  (The Walla Walla sweet onion, which was cultivated in the early twentieth century by the Italian immigrants who formed the core of Walla Walla’s gardening industry, became the official vegetable of Washington state in 2007.)

As Walla Walla emerged as a center of agricultural production, the city continued to grow.  To the Methodist and Roman Catholic churches organized in 1859 were added Congregational (1865), Episcopal (1872), and Presbyterian (1873) churches.  Catholic schools were started in for girls (1864) and boys (1865), and Whitman Seminary opened in the city in 1866.  Other significant beginnings during the city’s first two decades include the Walla Walla Library Association (1865); the Walla Walla Agricultural Society’s first fair (1866); Baker’s bank, Baker Boyer Bank (1869); telegraph service (1870) and telephone service (1878); and the Sisters of Providence’s (now St. Mary’s) hospital (1879).  In 1880, with a population of more than 3,500, Walla Walla was the largest city in the territory. 

But in the early 1880s, Seattle began to surpass Walla Walla as the largest city in the territory, and when during that decade the transcontinental rail lines bypassed Walla Walla, the city’s future potential for growth became limited.  Walla Walla did, however, continue to develop.  In 1882, Whitman Seminary grew into Whitman College, attracting as its first president Alexander J. Anderson (1832-1903) from the Territorial University (later the University of Washington) in Seattle.  Introduction of new farming machinery, such as the combine thresher-header (1884) and the side hill harvester (1891) increased agricultural production.  In 1886, the territorial legislature approved the location of penitentiary near Walla Walla; the next year the 160-acre site opened and received its first 97 prisoners.  In 1893, Walla Walla College (now Walla Walla University), a school of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, opened just outside of Walla Walla and a town, College Place (incorporated in 1945), grew up around the college.

Twentieth Century Walla Walla

The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of great growth for the city of Walla Walla.  New brick and stone public schools were built.  The paving of downtown streets began in 1904 and by 1905 most of the city’s old wood buildings had been replaced with brick buildings.  The Keylor Grand Theater, capable of seating more than a thousand, was built in 1905.  There Al Jolson coined the slogan “Walla Walla—the town they liked so well, they named it twice” (he had said the same thing about New York, New York).  Also built in 1905, with funds from library philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), was a building for the Walla Walla City Library.  A movie house came to Walla Walla in 1906; the Walla Walla Symphony was organized in 1907; the 43-acre Pioneer Park, the beginning of the city’s park system, opened in 1908; and the region’s first (seven-story) “skyscraper,” the Baker Boyer Bank building, was completed in 1911.

More prosperity followed World War I, resulting in growth in both commercial and residential areas.  In 1921, Fort Walla Walla, which had closed as a military post in 1910, was converted into a veterans hospital.  Walla Walla’s early twentieth-century development culminated with the opening of the 174-room Marcus Whitman hotel in 1928.  But during the Great Depression, the price of wheat fell and a Canadian tariff closed the valley’s main market for fresh fruits and vegetables.  Walla Wallans responded by establishing their own experimental cannery, the Walla Walla Canning Company, in 1932.  The experiment was a success: production increased and other canneries opened in the valley. 

The centennial of the Whitmans’ arrival in the valley was celebrated in 1936 and money was raised to purchase the Whitman Mission site for a national monument.  This land, along with the Great Grave and the Memorial Shaft Hill, which had been preserved by a local group since 1897, became the Whitman National Monument in 1940.  In 1961, the federal government acquired additional land for the site; a new visitor center was constructed, and in 1964 the Whitman Mission National Historic Site was dedicated.

In response to a disastrous flood in 1931, the Portland District of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers built a dam on Mill Creek and channels for the river running through Walla Walla.  In 1941, the same district office built a bomber air training base around the Walla Walla municipal airport.  Also in the 1940s, plans for dams along the Columbia and Snake river basins were taking form.  The Walla Walla-based Inland Empire Waterways Association (renamed the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association in 1971), an advocacy group that had formed in 1934, lobbied for the construction of these dams.  For these and other reasons, in 1948 Walla Walla was selected as the site of a new district office for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.  Work on the first of these projects, McNary Dam, began in 1947 and the dam was dedicated in 1954.  The town of Wallula was moved and its original location was inundated by the backwaters of the dam in 1953. 

When writer Bill Gulick wrote in 1953 about his reasons for settling in Walla Walla, he observed that Walla Walla was “a three-dimensional town -- one with a past, a present and a future” (Orchard, 15).  By that time, Walla Walla County was among the nation’s largest agricultural areas in gross earnings; its population had surpassed 25,000; and new economic development opportunities were being sought by the Port of Walla Walla, established in 1952. 

Walla Walla’s history has always been an important part of its identity. Local cultural heritage institutions include the Fort Walla Walla Museum (dedicated in 1977), which in addition to exhibition buildings features a collection of pioneer buildings; the Kirkman House Museum, which preserves elements of Victorian material culture; and the Whitman College and Northwest Archives and the Maxey Museum at Whitman College, which curate collections of historical manuscripts, records, books, and artifacts related to the history of the region.  The historical record curated by these institutions reveals that the development of Walla Walla has always been a mixture of continuity and discontinuity. 

Enology and Viticulture 

When she reached Fort Vancouver in 1836, Narcissa Whitman observed the presence of grapevines and wine at the fort, and it is possible that grapevines were planted around that time in the Walla Walla Valley as well.  Settlers in the late 1850s and early 1860s did plant different varieties of European grapes in the valley and Italian immigrants planted vineyards and made their own wine during the latter half of the nineteenth century.  By the 1870s, commercial winemaking was being explored in Walla Walla but none of these plans came to fruition. 

The first winery to draw attention to the possibility of a modern wine industry in the Walla Walla Valley was Leonetti Cellar, which was bonded by Gary Figgins in 1977 and produced its first wines in 1978.  Figgins traces his interest in wine back to his grandparents, Frank and Rose Leonetti, who had immigrated to the Walla Walla Valley from Italy, cultivated a vineyard, and made their own wine.  With the help of his uncles, in 1974 Figgins planted an acre of cabernet sauvignon grapes and some white riesling grapes on a hillside behind the original Leonetti homestead. 

Other pioneer winemakers included Rick Small, who founded Woodward Canyon in 1981, and Baker Ferguson, a descendent of Dorsey Syng Baker, who turned to winemaking after his retirement from Baker Boyer Bank and founded with his wife, Jean, L’Ecole N° 41 in 1983.  In the 1980s, Leonetti Cellar, L’Ecole N° 41, and Woodward Canyon received great accolades for their cabernet sauvignons and merlots.  In 1984, with only four wineries and 60 acres of vineyards, the Walla Walla Valley became an official American Viticultural Area (AVA).  Although nearly all Walla Walla wines were made initially with grapes from the Columbia Valley, substantial plantings were started in 1981, by Seven Hills, and in 1991, by Pepper Bridge.  By 2007, there were more than 80 wineries and more than 1,200 vineyard acres in the Walla Walla AVA.  According to wine writer Paul Gregutt, “the region that best embodies the spirit and style of [Washington] state’s wine industry is Walla Walla” (Gregutt, 24).


Robert A. Bennett, Walla Walla: Portrait of a Western Town, 1804-1899 (Walla Walla: Pioneer Press, Inc., 1980); Bennett, Walla Walla: A Town Built to Be a City, 1900-1919 (Walla Walla: Pioneer Press, Inc., 1982); Bennett, Walla Walla: A Nice Place to Raise a Family, 1920-1949 (Walla Walla: Pioneer Press, Inc., 1988); Myron Eells, Father Eells, or, the Results of Fifty-Five Years of Missionary Labors in Washington and Oregon: A Biography of Cushing Eells (Boston and Chicago: Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society, 1894); Paul Gregutt, Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Wiyáxayxt/Wiyáakaaawn = As Days Go By: Our History, Our Land, and Our People -- the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla ed. by Jennifer Karson  (Pendleton, Ore: Tamástslikt Cultural Institute; Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society Press, 2006); “A Little History,” Leonetti Cellar website accessed January 1, 2008 (http://www.leonetticellar.com/leohistory.html); W. D. Lyman, Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County: Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin Counties (2 v.; Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918); The Walla Walla Story: An Illustrated Description of the History and Resources of the Valley They Liked So Well They Named It Twice! ed. by Vance Orchard (Walla Walla: General Printing, 1988); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Whitman College” and “Washington territorial legislature charters Whitman Seminary on December 20, 1859” (by Michael J. Paulus Jr.) http://www.HistoryLink.org (accessed January 1, 2008); Stephen B. L. Penrose, Whitman: An Unfinished Story (Walla Walla: Whitman Publishing Co., 1935); “Walla Walla County Economic Profile,” Port of Walla Walla website accessed January 1, 2008 (http://www.portwallawalla.com/ec_profile/default.htm).
Note: This essay was revised on July 7, 2014.

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