One might believe that a state exposed to an ocean with ample harbors, rivers, and even a grandiose-sized Sound would be a great place to drop an anchor. One would assume a ship would be the principal method of transportation to migrate to Washington State. However one major geographical feature, the Cape of Good Hope at the far end of South America made travel from east to west by ship not only long, but the bones of many a ship wreck illustrates just how dangerous it was to navigate around. It would not be until August of 1914 before this arduous journey by water was cut in half by a conduit called the Panama Cannel. Of course, some did pack mules and cross the narrow isthmus and then gain passage on a ship north. 1 But all such arduous endeavors would be somewhat anticlimactic when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, accelerating the time it took to travel from east to west.
Actually, with the notable exception of the early Spanish expeditions, and the Hudson Bay Company the West Coast was left primarily untouched for a long time.
Anyone with the urge to move westward traveled by foot, or with the help of some kind of beast of burden, until the railroad was pushed across. Migration was also hastened by a number of historical events such as the 1837 economic panic in the East; 2 the annexing of California from Mexico in 1846; the gold fever of 1849; and, perhaps the greatest reason, the 1862 Homestead Act, which encouraged the occupation of "unoccupied" western land. 3 No other single event heightened the imagination of Americans more than owning their own land. The first wheeled wagon was said to have crossed in 1840. Unlike today, families moved to virgin land and lived off the land by brawn and wit and subsistance farming. No supermarkets or malls were available.
The Oregon Trail, which ran from several launching points, primarily along the Mississippi River, shot across the plains, accommodating all sorts of brave souls. Miners looking for a bonanza; farmers looking for fertile soil; cattlemen looking for grazing land; tradesmen looking for a new place to set up shop; and speculators of all kinds. The Oregon Trail quickly became the central path to the Northwest by 1841, and several other trails such as the Bozeman, California, and the Mormon trails branched off of it. 4
The Oregon Trail's importance quickly dwindled by 1883 when the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Portland, Oregon. The United States had celebrated its first Centennial celebration, before many had focused on Washington Territory. When settlers did look at the Washington Territory as their final destination, the Columbia River became the most important artery, both as a barrier and a waterway. The Dalles in Oregon, along the Columbia River, known as the end of the Oregon Trail, gained great importance as a place to pick up supplies and was a primary place to cross the River into the Washington Territory. 5 The influx of emigrants picked up, and by 1889, there were enough people to make Washington the 42nd state of the Union.
In essence, Washington State first filled from the bottom up, with the exception of a logging community called Seattle along the Puget Sound. In 1897 the Klondike Gold Rush created a boom which caused the population of Seattle to surpass the population of Walla Walla.
In central Washington, such valleys as the Kittitas Valley were not settled until the 1860s. Jack Splawn built a trading post in 1867 in the Kittitas Valley, and his wife Ellen would soon become namesake to largest community in the county, Ellensburgh (the spelling was later changed to Ellensburg). The population grew, and by 1889 Ellensburg, challenged Olympia for the location of the state capital. An unfortunate fire in July of that year, which destroyed many downtown blocks, shifted the decision to the east side of the state; hence, the eastern side stagnated while the western side of the state exploded in population.
1 A good source for Panama Canal history is on the Panama Canal Authority website.
2 For more information, see Recession Library
3 For more information, see the National Archives website, "Teaching with Documents: The Homestead Act of 1862."
4 A brief history of the Oregon Trail can be found on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website.
5 For more on The Dalles, Oregon, see "Destination: The Dalles."