History of Olympia, Washington

Canoes travelling Puget Sound

Native Roots

Located on the southernmost point of Puget Sound, the peninsula known as Olympia was Steh-Chass to the Coastal Salish who occupied the site for many generations before the American settlement was established.

The end of what we now know as Budd Inlet was a favorite shellfish gathering site for many Coastal Salish tribes, including the Nisqually, Duwamish and Squaxin. Potlatches, the Northwest tribal custom in which tribal leaders shared their wealth with neighboring tribal groups, were held both east and west of the Inlet near Olympia.

The falls of the Deschutes River at Tumwater called "Stehtsasamish" by the Nisqually Indians may have been occupied as a permanent village site for shellfish and salmon harvesting for 500 years or more before the coming of white settlers.

Historic photo. Frontier family in front of old growth tree

European Settlement

Peter Puget and a crew from the British Vancouver Expedition visited the site in 1792. The U.S. Exploring Expedition under Lt. Charles Wilkes came to the site in 1841 and named the waterfront bay Budd Inlet after Midshipman Thomas A. Budd, a member of that expedition.

Budd Inlet historical drawing

Budd Inlet

A wide, navigable body of water extending north from Olympia about six miles to Boston Harbor. The inlet is shallow at its southern end and requires dredging of a channel for waterborne commerce. Budd Inlet was named by Lieutenant Commander Charles Wilkes for Thomas A. Budd acting master of the Peacock and a member of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1841. Budd was appointed a midshipman on February 2, 1829. He resigned his commission on April 29, 1853. He rejoined the United States Navy in 1861 and was killed in action March 22, 1862, during the Civil War. In recent years, the inlet has also been called Olympia Harbor.

The first American settlers were Levi Lathrop Smith and Edmund Sylvester who claimed the town site in 1846, naming it Smither or Smithster (and later Smithfield), after themselves. The town was officially platted in 1850 by Sylvester, at which point it was given the name Olympia, as suggested by Isaac N. Ebey, a local resident in recognition of the view of the majestic Olympic mountains seen to the north on a clear day. Sylvester, a Maine native, laid out a town in a New England style with a town square, tree lined streets, land for schools, a Masonic Hall, and capitol grounds.

Edmund Sylvester

Edmund Sylvester

Edmund Sylvester is known as the founder of Olympia. A native of Eastport, Maine, Sylvester came to Oregon in 1843 at the young age of twenty-two. He remained in the Astoria-Portland area for two years but, being a native New Englander, he felt that the salt water climate would restore his ailing health. Sylvester took up a claim south of Olympia and his partner, Levi Lathrop Smith, whom he had met in Oregon, settled in what is now known as Olympia.

After Smith's death in 1848, Sylvester, although owner of the area, did not lay out a town until his return from an ill- fated trip to the California gold fields in 1850.

Sylvester was a far-sighted man visualizing his settlement as a capital and center of timber trade although it did not reach its full potential in his lifetime. Sylvester erected the showplace of early Olympia along Capitol Way between Seventh and Eighth Streets facing the water. The home was the largest in Olympia and Sylvester's strong-minded wife Clara hosted the first meeting of the Woman's Club there in 1883 and housed a number of visiting suffragettes during the fight of Washington women for the right to vote. The house remained a landmark for many years but was moved in 1961 and later burned.

Drawn to the small peninsula as the first access to Puget Sound from the Columbia River on the Cowlitz Trail, American settlers numbered 996 in the area by 1853. Olympia welcomed the first Custom House on Puget Sound in 1851, and by 1852 was the county seat for the newly organized Thurston County.

Early Thurston County Land Office

Thurston County

Thurston County covers 719 square miles at the head of Budd Inlet located at the southern tip of Puget Sound.

At the Cowlitz convention in 1851, delegates from the Oregon Territory north of the Columbia River -- besides petitioning for a new territory -- also asked for a new county to be called "Simmons" in the area then known as Lewis County. The Oregon Territorial Legislature acted on the matter by amended the bill at the request of Michael T. Simmons to memorialize Samuel R. Thurston, Oregon's first territorial delegate to Congress. Thurston County was created on January 12, 1852. Oregon then encompasses what is now Washington.

Thurston was a native of Maine, born in 1816. He attended Maine Weslyan Seminary, Dartmouth and in 1854, graduated from Bowdoin College. He later read law and was admitted to the Maine bar. After he settled for a time in Iowa, Thurston arrived in Oregon in 1847 and began his political life.

With the creation of Oregon Territory in 1849, Thurston was elected its first delegate to Congress. He was an ambitious delegate pushing through the Donation Land Claim Law, working to establish mail routes and post offices, lighthouses and procuring a pension for 1812 War veterans, many of whom settled in the territory. He was an eloquent speaker and was tireless in his promotion of Oregon Territory. On his voyage home in 1851 across the Isthmus of Panama, Thurston -- just 35 years old -- contracted a fever. He died on the steamer California near Acapulco and was buried there. He was later reinterred in Salem, Oregon.

The boundaries of the new county encompassed much of what is now Western Washington, reaching from Willapa Bay northward to the Canadian border and from the Pacific Ocean to the summit of the Cascades.

In late 1852, Jefferson, Pierce, and King counties were carved out of Thurston County, and the final boundaries were set in 1877.

In the early 1850's, as the settler population grew, ancillary businesses developed; stores, brickyards, boast builders, dry docks, hotels and services for summer visitors. Since there were only trails in this land, heavily forested to the water’s edge, the population was supported by the steamboats collectively called the Mosquito Fleet that used the Sound as a watery freeway to move mail, products and passengers.

In 1854, Daniel Bigelow - an attorney - and his wife Ann Elizabeth White Bigelow built their home in Olympia overlooking Budd Inlet (900 Glass Street, Olympia). Today it is a Museum, and it remains as one of the oldest frame buildings in the State of Washington. Visit the Bigelow House Museum website.

In the mid-1850's, Olympia developed around the waterfront and quickly became a hub of maritime commerce. Federal officers and those seeking the opportunities of the capital flocked to the city which, at one time, boasted the largest population of any town on Puget Sound.

Early Olympia docks overlooking Puget Sound

Puget Sound

The name currently given to the whole of the inland sea of Western Washington, originally named by Captain George Vancouver of the Royal Navy in honor of Lieutenant Peter Puget. Captain Vancouver sent Lieutenant Puget and a crew to survey the lower part of the sound in May 1792. Puget and his crew spent several days visiting nearly every cove and island in the region. To honor this work, Vancouver named the part of the sound south of the Tacoma Narrows for Puget. Vancouver named the northern part of the sound Admiralty Inlet.

Soon after the first Americans settled Olympia in the mid-1840s, Chinese immigrants arrived in the city. Olympia's first Chinatown was on 4th Avenue between Columbia and Main (Capitol Way) where several buildings housed a hand laundry, stores and lodging for residents.

Locke Family

Olympia's Chinatown

Soon after the first Americans settled Olympia in the mid-1840s, Chinese immigrants arrived in the city. Many found work as contract laborers. They built bridges, pulled stumps and graded streets in downtown. Others worked in lumber camps and harvested shellfish. Many Chinese became cooks, house servants, operated hand laundries, or cultivated vegetables and delivered them door to door.

Early on, Olympia emerged as a "Locke Town." Olympia's Chinese residents were predominantly from the Lok family villages near the town of Seulbo in Toisan County of Guangdong Province in southern China. Most of these sojourners were male and they relied on family surname associations to provide lodging, meals and social life.

Olympia's earliest China town was on 4th Avenue between Columbia and Main (Capitol Way) where several buildings housed a hand laundry, stores and lodging for residents.

Although there is no Chinatown in Olympia today, many descendants of the original Chinese pioneers still make their homes in the region. In 1996, Gary Locke, grandson of Suey Gum Locke, who came to Olympia in 1890 as a teenager and worked as a servant, was elected Governor of the State of Washington. He was the first Chinese American elected Governor in the United States. In 2007, Doug Mah was the first person of Chinese-American descent to be elected as Olympia's Mayor.

Olympia's first fire fighting unit, Barnes' Hook and Ladder Brigade, was organized in the early 1850's. Columbia Number 1, the first fire engine company to be established in Washington Territory, was formed in Olympia in 1865.

Olympia residents elected the town's first Mayor in 1873 - William Winlock Miller. Before then, a Town President was selected annually from among the members of the Town Board.

In 1890, one year after statehood, Olympia City Marshal George Savidge was the first in City history to be officially referred to as Chief of Police. Prior to 1890, Olympia has a Town Marshall. In the years from 1889-1892, the Olympia Police Department was comprised of the chief, a captain and six patrolmen.

State of Washington Legislative Building under construction 1925

Capital of Washington State

When Washington Territory was formed in 1853, Olympia was named the provisional territorial capital by Isaac Stevens, Washington's first territorial governor. In 1855, the designation was confirmed by the territorial legislature. Olympia's incorporation as a Town occurred on January 28, 1859.

In 1856, the territorial legislature appointed a board of commissioners to oversee construction of a new bridge connecting downtown Olympia with the westside. Lack of funds held up the project until 1868 when Thurston County loaned the City of Olympia $1,500. The first westside bridge was built the following year.

An especially difficult blow fell when Olympia was bypassed by mainline railroads in the 1870s. City residents had to build their own line to connect with the Northern Pacific mainline at Tenino - 15 miles to the south.

Olympia's title of capital was often contested during the early years, and Olympia townspeople fought challenges by Vancouver, Steilacoom, Seattle, Port Townsend and Tacoma for location of the seat of territorial and, later, state government.

In early 1889, Olympia resident and jeweler Charles Talcott was commissioned to create a State seal in time for the convening of the first State legislature in November of the same year. The simple round design with a copy of the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in the center and the words "The Seal of the State of Washington, 1889" is still the official seal of Washington State.

Washington State Seal

A short time before Washington became a state in 1889, a committee brought an elaborate design for a state seal to Olympia jeweller Charles Talcott and asked him to complete it in time for the meeting of the first Legislature in November of that year.

The design submitted by the committee was very complicated sketch, depicting the port of Tacoma, vast wheat fields, grazing sheep and Mount Rainier. Talcott argued that the design was too complicated and would be quickly outmoded by the growth of the state. Something simple, he suggested, would be timeless. He picked up an ink bottle and drew a circle around its base. Next he placed a silver dollar in the circle and drew an inner circle. Between these circles he lettered the words, "The Seal of the State of Washington, 1889". In the center he pasted a postage stamp bearing a picture of George Washington. The design was quickly accepted by the Legislature.

But making the die from the picture of George Washington on a postage stamp was no easy task.. Under magnification the picture was poorly detailed and would have been unsatisfactory when enlarged. George Talcott was given the job of finding a suitable picture and cutting the die. After reviewing a number of pictures, he finally found what he was looking for -- a color drawing of George Washington on a packing box of "Dr. D. Jaynes Cure for Coughs & Colds"! Grant Talcott did the lettering and George cut the die.

Over the years, more than two dozen variations of the Talcott design were used. In 1967, Seattle graphic designer Richard Nelms was commissioned to create a new insignia. He selected a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, which was accepted and made the official State Seal by the Legislature.

By law, the Secretary of State is the custodian of the Great Seal, which is attached to official documents and certificates issued by the state. The original die and press for the State Seal -- now more than 100 years old -- is still used by the Secretary of State to impress the seal on official state documents.

Washington was given statehood designation on November 11, 1889, as the forty-second (42nd) state to enter the Union.

Washington State

On November 11, 1889, Washington was admitted to statehood as the 42nd state of the Union by the United States Congress, with the same boundaries as at present. Washington extends from the Pacific Ocean on the west to Idaho on the east, and from Oregon on the south to the Canadian Province of British Columbia on the north.

Prior to statehood, Washington was first part of Oregon Territory, and later became Washington Territory on March 2, 1853.

The name Columbia was favored by residents of the Territory and was suggested in Congress by Senator Stephen A. Douglas. However, the name Washington was chosen instead to honor George Washington, the first president.

When Washington became a state in 1889 with Olympia as the capital, the city grew and prospered adding amenities such as an opera house, city water system, street car line, street lamps, and a new hotel to accommodate visiting legislators. State government has been housed in a series of buildings in Olympia, including the former county courthouse in downtown.

Aerial view of Olympia 1929

Twentieth Century Growth

Changes were made to the topography of the city in 1911-12, when almost 22 blocks were added to the downtown area in a gigantic dredging and filling effort to create a deep water harbor and fill the sloughs to the north and east of the city.

In 1919, the City awarded a contract to Union Bridge Company to build a more reliable bridge concrete bridge connecting downtown Olympia with the westside. The amount of the contract was $132,750.

With increased growth in state government and the economic stimulus of World War I, the city began to grow in population and development. Olympia became a center of lumber processing and the city boasted as new smokestacks went up on the waterfront. Downtown buildings were constructed and residential areas south and west of the city developed. By the time of the completion of the grand domed legislative building in 1927, the city had become a fitting setting for such an imposing structure.

An earthquake in 1949 damaged or destroyed many historic downtown buildings, which were quickly rebuilt. Today, downtown Olympia is a charming mix of historic, mid-century, and contemporary architecture.

State government grew rapidly in Olympia after World War II, but many state offices were moving to other parts of the State. A Washington State Supreme Court decision in 1954 mandated that Olympia was the seat of government and that state office headquarters must locate here.

The 1950's ushered in construction of a new freeway through Olympia and her neighboring communities of Tumwater and Lacey. Interstate 5, which runs from the southern tip of California to the Washington State/Canadian border, is a vital transportation link for Olympia and the Puget Sound region.

In the 1960's the time of smokestacks and plywood mills drew mostly to an end along Olympia's waterfront when the Simpson, Georgia Pacific, and St. Regis mills closed, victims of changing markets.

Long time residents still mention the "Columbus Day" storm which hit the northwest on October 12, 1962, with seventy-eight mile per hour winds. Two people were killed in the Olympia area and extensive damage was caused to buildings and trees.

A new era began at the close of the 1960's when The Evergreen State College was authorized by the state legislature on Cooper Point road at the site of historic Athens University, just west of the Olympia City limits. The institution has changed and enlivened the Capital City's cultural and social climate.

Toward the end of the 20th century, Olympia experienced rapid growth as individuals and families continued to relocate to the Pacific Northwest. In 1994, the Olympia City Council adopted the City's first Comprehensive Plan produced under the new Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA). The Forward of the 1994 Plan stated that it “reflects the realities faced by Washington’s fast growing counties and cities in attempting to find the balance between planning responsibly for our future population while preserving the qualities our residents so appreciate.”