Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest

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Legislative Chronology

Deciding to Go and Getting There

Proving Up

Life on the Homestead

Legislative Chronology

  •  The Homesteading Era Begins

When the Homestead Act became law in 1862, the area that later comprised Washington state had territorial status. Formed in 1853, Washington Territory encompassed an expansive area soon cut back by the establishment of the Idaho and Montana territories in 1863 and 1864. One of the first to file for a homestead claim in Washington Territory was Irish-born James Langon. When Langon arrived in Clark County in the mid 1860s, the territory was mostly populated by a diverse number of Native American tribes and a few thousand Euro-Americans. Native tribes occupied lands that spanned the territory, a mosaic of linguistic and cultural groups that stretched from the Olympic Peninsula to the Palouse. Although tribes had varying degrees of itinerancy, many resided near watersheds or coastal areas. Euro-Americans were grouped primarily in small mill towns near the Puget Sound and scattered settlements along the Columbia River. Earlier Euro-American settlers had gained title to lands through a various means, whether under pre-emption laws, cash sales, war service scrip or the provisions of the Donation Land Law.

Prospective homesteaders that followed in Langon's footsteps to Washington Territory over the next two decades would find settlement in a state of flux. Homestead entries were supposedly limited to certain government surveyed lands. Major government surveys of the West were just beginning in the late 1860s. Military and railroad surveys were underway, but mapping the Washington territory was still far from complete by the time statehood was achieved in 1889. Other groups with designs on the land, missionaries, the military, squatters, prospectors, miners, timber interests, stockmen and railroad companies vied for and secured space in the territory. Many chose not to wait for surveyors and shrugged aside any native claims to the land, following a long pattern of westward encroachment.

Contact between native tribes and Europeans in the Pacific Northwest had a long history, but the arrival of Euro-Americans fundamentally changed the nature of rival claims to the area. Earlier the British presence in the Pacific Northwest had largely been mediated through the Hudson's Bay Company, which had developed relationships with the region's native population based on trade and the procurement of furs, but Americans, or "Bostons" as they were sometimes known, began to come to the Pacific Northwest as intent on settlement as they were on resource extraction. After displacing Britain in the lands south of the 49th parallel, the United States entreated with native tribes to gain possession of the land, a process that was complicated by different conceptions of entitlement and ownership. Native frustration with the treaty experience was only exacerbated by U.S. land policy, which rewarded squatters and encouraged immigration to the Northwest. Resentment periodically flared into war between 1855 and 1879, making homesteading in the territory during this period a potentially dangerous undertaking. Relentless military campaigns ended the era of violent resistance, and native tribes were left only with lands demarcated by the reservation system. Even these last enclaves were not sacrosanct. Periodically the reservations were reduced in size or otherwise made available through legislation such as the General Allocation or Dawes Act (1887). The Colville Reservation, for example, lost the northern half of its area when its member tribes voted to cede the land for $1.5 million in 1891 (payment for which was finally authorized by Congress in 1905). Other Colville lands became available for homesteaders in 1916 under the provisions of the Dawes Act.

As native tribes saw access to their traditional lands increasingly diminished, the number of Washington homesteaders grew. Several developments in the 1880s contributed to a settlement boom in the last two decades of the century. The first transcontinental trains reached Portland in 1883, and soon railroads extended into Washington as well. By the turn of the century steamships were operating on the Columbia River and the Puget Sound, and the Great Northern Railway offered service to the Midwest from Seattle through Spokane. While transportation networks were in the course of development, Washington achieved statehood in 1889. With better political representation and the benefits of statehood, the prospect of settlement in the relatively unpopulated northwest corner of the country became brighter. At the same time, the emergence of "dry farming" methods provided an approach better suited to the semi-arid regions of Washington's central and eastern counties. In contrast to older states, the newer areas of the West like Washington had a higher percentage of farms started by homesteaders. The Tenth Census of the United States of 1880 recorded 6,529 farms in the Washington Territory. Five years later, the Government Land Office put the number of homestead final entries in the territory at 5499, indicating a high presence of homesteaders among Washington farmers. Prospective homesteaders, and many others, continued to flood into the state through the turn of the century. Between 1900 and 1910, the population of Washington increased over 120%, the highest growth of any state in the Union over this decade.

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