The First Settlers
The first settlers of the land that is now Pierce County were the ancestors of today's Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin, Steilacoom and Muckleshoot Indians. These tribes settled the area many thousands of years ago, where the saltwater, lakes and rivers made for an abundant selection of food.
These same tribes were all in place when English sea captain George Vancouver sailed the inland waters as far south as what would one day be Seattle. He instructed his lieutenant, Peter Puget, to continue exploring southward in smaller boats. The inland waters were named Puget Sound in the young naval officer's honor.
In 1832, the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Nisqually three miles north of the Nisqually River. It was the first permanent white settlement on Puget Sound. Soon the fort was expanded to include a farm and a cattle and sheep ranch. A Methodist missionary, Dr. J.P. Richmond, established a mission at the fort to convert the local Indians to Christianity. By 1841, the same year the mission was abandoned as a failure, the fort was thriving, as a result of strong sales of beef, butter and cheese to the Russian settlements in Alaska.
In 1838, the United States Navy assembled a fleet of ships for a voyage of exploration. The expedition was led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, a naval officer with a scientific background. In 1841, Wilkes and his crews reached Fort Nisqually, which they made their first headquarters. From Fort Nisqually, Wilkes sent out several surveying parties. One group explored and charted the waters of Puget Sound, giving many of the places the names they bear today, including Commencement Bay, as this was the point from which the exploration commenced.
The Start of the Lumber Trade
On April 1, 1852 Swedish settler Nicholas De Lin arrived at Commencement Bay.
De Lin was described by late historian Murray Morgan as "a long-nosed, spade-bearded Swede." Seeing the potential of the excellent harbor and vast forests, De Lin built the region's first sawmill. Within a year, he'd shipped 550,000 board feet of lumber to San Francisco. De Lin was followed soon after by Job Carr, who bought land and built a cabin on a spot he hoped would become the terminus for Northern Pacific Railroad. A recreation of the Job Carr cabin can be visited in Old Town, Tacoma.
The Birth of a County
On December 22, 1852, the Territorial Legislature of Oregon determined that Thurston County, which stretched from Olympia to the Canadian border and from the Cascades to the Pacific Ocean, was far too large. In response, the legislature portioned out of it King, Jefferson and Pierce County. The legislature also passed laws appointing the first county officers and located the county seat at Steilacoom, which was chosen largely because it was the only town in Washington with its own jail.
The first Board of County Commissioners consisted of Thomas Chambers, William P. Dougherty and Alexander Smith. John Bradley was appointed sheriff and John M. Chapman was appointed probate clerk.
The law locating the county seat contained the following language: "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 state, 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 valley 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 waterpower."
The founding of the county signaled a slow but steady stream of new settlers. The year 1854 saw the first land claims in what would become the city of Orting, which was later incorporated in 1889. In 1855, the state's first school district, Steilacoom School District No. 1, was established. This was also the year of the most significant skirmish with the Indians, the so-called Indian War of 1855, which resulted in a handful of deaths.
Tacoma was founded in 1872 by teetotaler and former general Morton Matthew McCarver who, like Job Carr, also dreamed of railroads. McCarver gave the city its first name - Commencement City. In 1872, Tacoma consisted of a lumber mill, two stores, a saloon, a hotel, a jail, a blacksmith and approximately 100 citizens.
McCarver's personal secretary, the wealthy Clinton P. Ferry, who liked to be referred to as "the Duke of Tacoma," helped to found the region's first museum. Among his artistic donations were the two maidens guarding the Division Avenue entrance to Wright Park, which can still be seen today.
When the Northern Pacific Railroad announced in 1873 that its northwest terminus would locate in Tacoma, the city and surrounding county rapidly grew into a regional leader.
William Fife, who struck it rich in a Canadian gold rush, founded the first general store on the northwest corner of Ninth and Pacific avenues in Tacoma. Tacoma was officially incorporated in 1875 by an act of the Territorial Legislature.
The next 20 years were boom years for the county. Lumber continued to reign, dominated by the St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Co., which in 1888 set out to build the "world's largest sawmill" on the Tacoma tideflats. Numerous other Pierce County towns were founded during this time - many built around the success of their own local sawmills. This period also saw the founding of two of the county's colleges, Pacific Lutheran University and University of Puget Sound.
In 1889, Rudyard Kipling traveled through the region and wrote, "I do not quite remember what her natural resources were supposed to be, though every second man shrieked a selection in my ear. They included coal and iron, carrots, potatoes, lumber, shipping and a crop of thin newspapers all telling Portland that her days were numbered."
The year 1890 was the year that successful hops broker Ezra Meeker platted the town of Puyallup. Aside from being the first mayor of the town, he was husband of Eliza Jane Sumner, who many consider to be the inspiration for the name of the town to the east of Puyallup. The Meeker Mansion is still open to the public in downtown Puyallup.
The boom was not good for all citizens, however. In 1885, the citizens of Tacoma tried to run all Chinese residents out of town. Those involved were indicted, but never brought to trial.
Then came the Panic of '93, when the depression caused 17 Tacoma banks to close their doors. William Fife, who had grown his fortune and then lost it all, left the area to seek after more faraway gold. Many joined him. From 1893 to 1900, the population of the county shrank by 30 percent.
It didn't take long for the region to recover. By 1901 warehouses and grain terminals lined Tacoma's Thea Foss waterway. World War I brought an industrial boom as the region's lumber was used in local shipyards. The U.S. Army built Camp Lewis on 70,000 acres of land on the Nisqually plain purchased by Tacoma voters. In November 1918, the voters also created the Port of Tacoma, which began improving industrial waterways and facilities.
The War Years & Beyond
With the end of the war came the end of another boom, sliding slowly downward into the Great Depression. New Deal recovery programs and military spending helped.
Camp Lewis expanded and became Fort Lewis. The Tacoma Municipal Airport became McChord Field. Public Works Administration funds built the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (which became famous as Galloping Gertie when it collapsed in a wind storm four months after it opened).
World War II increased demands for shipyard work in the Port of Tacoma and agricultural products from the Puyallup valley. Reflecting a national mood of fear and lingering discrimination, the Puyallup Fairgrounds temporarily became an internment camp for many local Japanese residents.
World War II also brought a huge influx of African Americans to the region, in the form of shipyard workers and returning veterans. As an example, Tacoma's African American population grew from 650 in 1940 to 3,205 by the end of 1945. Like the many other diverse groups that discovered Pierce County, most of them stayed here for good.
From the 1950s until today, both the county and its incorporated cities have all continued to grow, through hard times and good times. The past has given us a rich foundation and the future has never looked better for Pierce County.