Pierce County to celebrate its 150th anniversary

Step into the Time Machine for a visit to the Pierce County of the 1850s on the occasion of the county’s Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary).

Expect culture shock. There are no automobiles or electricity and few people. Forests stood where cities, towns, military bases and industrial parks are located today.

Roads were little more than trails through the woods and prairies. A trip on horseback or wagon between the Puyallup Valley, Steilacoom and Old Tacoma was a half-day journey rather than a half-hour commute. Mud was ever present, except in mid-summer when replaced by dust.

Just when your bearings seem lost, the sky clears and a familiar sight appears. Mount Tacoma is awe-inspiring on the eastern skyline, radiating grandeur and majesty.

Our early residents weren’t into slogans, such as “Majestic Pierce County: Window to Northwest Grandeur..” But they didn’t take the Mountain for granted, either.

These words written after statehood was achieved in 1889 were quoted by a local historian: “Pierce County is not the largest in the state, but it is one of the most important; it has about 125 miles of salt-water shore line, with many bays and inlets and several important islands. It has a greater variety of elevations than any other county in the United States, reaching from the tide level of Puget Sound to the summit of Tacoma-Rainier, which mountain is wholly within the boundary of the county, thus giving a panorama of scenic beauty unequaled anywhere, and a climate ranging from a mild and salubrious temperate zone quality in the valleys to the most rigorous, up on the mountain side. The mountains and foothills are full of coal and precious metals. The rivers, fed by the glaciers of Mount Tacoma, possess almost immeasurable water power.”

The native people who preceded the whites to the area considered Mount Tacoma as their “Mother who provided the water that supplied their salmon.”

These people spoke a common language, Salish, and resided in villages from Mount Tacoma’s foothills along rivers and creeks to the shores of Puget Sound. Cedar trees provided their communal longhouse homes, utensils, clothing and transportation.

“Our environment was rich in the wealth of natural resources, providing all our needs, allowing us to live healthy, happy lives (History of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians).”

Even before territorial status was granted, the Oregon Legislature established four new northern counties, Pierce, King, Island and Jefferson.

Pierce was created Dec. 22, 1852, and the county seat was established at Steilacoom. Thomas Chambers, William P. Dougherty and

Alexander Smith were appointed county commissioners; John Bradley, sheriff; and John M. Chapman, probate clerk.

In the 1850s the main population groups were settlers, soldiers and Indians.

Founded in 1851 and formally incorporated in 1854, Steilacoom was Washington’s first incorporated community and is credited with having the first courthouse, first jail, first Catholic church and first public library. Fort Nisqually was located nearby.

The brick jail, the territory’s best, boasted an oak door five inches thick and lined with boiler iron. It was the scene of a tragic incident involving prominent citizen Andrew Byrd, a young man named Bates said to be partly insane, and respected Sheriff Stephen Judson. Bates, wrongly imagining that Byrd stole his cow, shot the citizen to death. The sheriff jailed Bates.

However, a mob incensed by Byrd’s murder marched to the jail, seized and removed Judson, dragged Bates from his cell to a nearby barn and hanged him.

The vigilantes didn’t gain easy access to the jail. They tried repeatedly to get through the door with a battering ram and finally resorted to tearing apart the brick wall around the door casing.

In 1859, the entire town of Steilacoom was illuminated by fire at the county auditor’s office on Balch Street the evening of April 8.

“So rapidly did the flames spread that both furniture and records were totally destroyed; not even the smallest article being rescued from the devouring element,” reported the Puget Sound Herald, printed in Steilacoom.

The Anthony’s Hotel was saved, because of a fortunate incidence. At the time of the fire, many of the town’s leading citizens and about 30 soldiers from the nearby garrison were attending a theatrical performance and rushed to the fire scene.

“The soldiers were not behind the civilians in efforts to stay the flames and proved valuable auxiliaries in carrying and dashing water on the flames . . . some 10 or 12 of them mounted the roof, while as many more passed them water with which they kept the roof thoroughly drenched,” the Herald reported.

Military and civilian authorities were occupied during the 1850s with resolving the “Indian problem” and constructing and improving the Cascade Mountains road.

The Puyallup Tribe’s version of history blames the Indian wars of 1855-56 on failures of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854.

“Our people extended their hands in brotherhood and friendship and assisted many who were seeking refuge and a better life,” the history booklet states.

On Dec. 24, 1854, the natives signed their X’s to the treaty. Reservations were created at Puyallup, Nisqually and Squaxin, but they were too small and poorly located.

“As a result of this miscommunication, our people went to war . . . To this day our people recognize the injustice that prevailed.”

If you were to travel back to those days, you would meet interesting people who put Pierce County and Washington Territory on a proper footing.

Edward Allen, who came across the prairies in a train of 400 wagons as part of the great westward surge of 1852, would be among them.

He began promoting the Cascade Mountains road idea early in 1853. He was appointed to head a viewing party to see whether such a road was practical. While the snow was still deep in the mountains, the party left Steilacoom and blazed a route along the White and Greenwater valleys through the foothills and across the range to the Yakima River valley.

Later, Allen led a remarkable undertaking. His handful of men with nothing heavier than picks, axes and shovels carved a wagon road across the mountain range, working against the coming of winter and many discouragements.

Allen was among a number of county and territorial pioneers who served in the Civil War. Col. Allen was decorated for bravery in leading in battle the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry, which he recruited. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, he retired for health reasons.

Major Isaac Ingall Stevens, appointed by President-elect Franklin Pierce as the first governor of Washington Territory, was promoted to brigadier general. He was killed in action while leading the 79th New York Regiment in the Battle of Chantilly in 1862.

That’s a glimpse into what you’ll find in the Pierce County of 150 years ago. Upon your return, you may want to book a visit to our future. Pierce County’s tercentennial is in 2152.

Dick Ferguson is the media and community relations manager in the Pierce County Department of Communications.

Pierce County Sesquicentennial Celebration

Washington State History Museum

1911 Pacific Ave.

Thursday, Aug. 29

2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

(Free admission during these hours)


– Ceremony featuring Pierce County Executive John W. Ladenburg and other local, state and federal officials (2 p.m. and repeated at 6 p.m.)

– Performances, demonstrations, exhibits, lectures and films.

– More than 30 cultural and historical organizations, cities and tribes participating.