Washington History and Research Overview

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What would become Washington state was the object of a sort of ping-pong match for the first centuries of European exploration: It was first claimed by Spain in 1543, and then by England in 1579, after Sir Francis Drake sighted the coastline. The Spanish actually landed in 1775; Captain Cook claimed the Olympic peninsula for England in 1778. Finally, the Treaty of Nootka in 1790 mostly settled Pacific Northwest claims in favor of England.

But England’s claim didn’t remain undisputed. Americans Robert Gray and John Kendrick had already visited in 1788; Gray discovered the Columbia River in 1791. Lewis and Clark reached the river’s mouth in 1805. American and English fur traders soon established rival forts near present-day Spokane. American missionaries arrived in 1836, and Oregon Trail pioneers came en masse starting in 1843. The conflict came to a head in 1844 with James K. Polk’s election-year battle cry of “54-40 or Fight.” War was averted and the 49th parallel set as America’s northern boundary in 1846.

Throughout this period, Washington was considered part of Oregon, and it was incorporated into Oregon Territory in 1848. Congress included it in the 1850 Donation Land Law, which provided grants of 320 acres per settler. Spurred by the law and a fledgling timber industry, settlement surged. Seattle was founded in 1852. Citizens eventually demanded a separate Washington Territory, which was created in 1853.

Native tribes increased their resistance during this heightened period of colonization. A series of Indian wars filled the 1850s. Ultimately the tribes, including the Puyallup, Kalispell, Bannock, Yakima, Paiute and Nez Perce, were exiled to reservations. Nez Perce Chief Joseph surrendered in 1876, proclaiming, “I will fight no more forever.”

The discovery of gold in 1860 and the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 made Washington irresistible. The transcontinental line of the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Spokane in 1881 and Tacoma in 1887. At last, Washington became a state in 1889.

The early statehood years saw a swarm of immigrants from England, Ireland, Canada, Sweden and Norway. Dutch, Italian, Finnish, Russian and German communities also sprang up. Chinese came to work the mines and railroads; Japanese labored on truck farms. World War II brought many African-Americans to Washington’s growing industrial base.

(click to enlarge)
Washington state map with county outlines


  • The biggest challenge in researching your Washington ancestors is finding marriage records, according to Charles M. Hansen of the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society. Until the state took over in 1967, each county kept these records. But couples don’t have to get married in — nor even record their marriage in — their home county. Check surrounding counties, plus nearby Idaho counties.
  • Another challenge, according to Hansen, is spotty territorial records. Here it helps that Washington Territory labored long for statehood and thus took many censuses. These can also help substitute for the burned 1890 federal census, Hansen notes. You can search many early census indexes in the Washington Digital Archives
  • The Family History Library has microfilmed all birth and death certificates from when the state started recording them in mid-1907, as well as a wealth of land records, cemetery records, and even many early birth, death, and marriage records extracted from county courthouses.


  • Federal census: 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Federal mortality schedules: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880
  • Special census of Civil War Union veterans and widows: 1890
  • State/territorial census: 1878, 1881, 1883, 1885, 1887, 1889, 1892


  • Bibliography of Washington State Historical Society Library, 3 vols., (Tacoma-Pierce County Genealogical Society, 1986)
  • Celebrating the History of the Pioneer Families of Washington, 1853-1889 by Frances Caldwell Miller (Native Daughters of Washington Territorial Pioneers, 1989)
  • Comprehensive Guide to the Manuscripts Collection and to the Personal Papers in the University Archives by Marilyn Priestly (The Library, 1980)
  • Cumulative Baptism Index to the Catholic Church Records of the Pacific Northwest by Sharon E. Osborn-Ryan (Oregon Heritage Press, 1999)
  • The Dictionary Catalog of the Pacific Northwest Collection of the University Of Washington, 6 vols. (G.K. Hall and Co., 1972)
  • Early Washington: Overland Stage Routes, Old Military Roads, Indian Battle Grounds, Old Forts, Old Gold Mines by Ralph N. Preston (Western Guide Publishers, 1974)
  • The Evolution of Washington Counties by Newton Carl Abbott and Fred E. Carver, compiled by J.W. Helm (Yakima Valley Genealogical Society and Klickitat County Historical Society, 1978)
  • Genealogical Resources in Washington State (Secretary Of State, Division Of Archives and Records Management, 1983)
  • Germans from Russia in the Yakima Valley, Prior to 1940 by Frieda Eickler Brulotte (The Society, 1990)
  • Historical Records of Washington State: Records and Papers Held at Repositories (Washington State Historical Records Advisory Board, 1981)
  • A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest, 1743-1983 by Wilfred P. Schoenberg (Pastoral Press, 1987)
  • History of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington, 2 vols., by Elwood Evans (North Pacific History Co., ca. 1889)
  • History of the Synod of Washington of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America 1835-1909 by Robert Boyd (The Synod, ca. 1910)
  • A History of Washington, 4 vols., by Lancaster Pollard (American Historical Society, 1937)
  • An Illustrated History of the State of Washington: Containing Biographical Mention of its Pioneers and Prominent Citizens by Harvey K. Hines (Lewis Pub. Co., 1893)
  • Index to Washington State Daughters of the American Revolution compiled by Shirley Swart (Yakima Valley Genealogical Society, 1983)
  • Methodism in the Northwest by Erle Howell (Pacific Northwest Conference Historical Society, 1966)
  • Missionary History of the Pacific Northwest: Containing the Wonderful Story of Jason Lee, with Sketches of Many of his Co-Laborers all Illustrating Life on the Plains and in the Mountains in Pioneer Days (Library of Congress, 1990)
  • Reminiscences of Washington Territory by Charles Prosch (Ye Galleon Press, 1969)
  • Sketches of Washington (W.C. Wolfe & Co., 1906)
  • A Social History of Scandinavian Immigration, Washington State, 1895-1910 by Jorgen Dahlie (Arno Press, 1980)
  • Washington: A History of the Evergreen State by Mary Williamson Avery (University of Washington Press, 1967)
  • Washington Research Outline by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (online at
  • Washington West of the Cascades: Historical and Descriptive, the Explorers, the Indians, the Modern by Herbert Hunt (S.J. Clarke, 1917)
  • Who’s Who in Washington State (H. Allen Pub., 1927)

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From the Family Tree Sourcebook
Also available: the State Research Guide Book, State Research Guides CD and The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.