Thursday, November 10, 2022

On This Day in the Old West: November 11

 On November 11, 1889, Washington became the 42nd State of the USA. After a thirteen-year hiatus where no new states were admitted to the Union, the US Congress passed an act that would allow Washington, Montana, and North and South Dakota to petition to become states. In order for this to happen, however, each territory must write and pass a state constitution. Washington duly convened a constitutional convention in Olympia, the territorial capital, on July 4. It was swelteringly hot that day, and the convention was crowded with delegates and onlookers.

Inauguration of the first governor


The delegates were chosen according to a formula Congress came up with, which required the governor and chief justice of the Supreme Court to divide the territory into twenty-five voting districts of approximately equal populations. Three delegates represented each district—two from the majority party and one from the minority, thus ensuring the dominance of the Republican Party.


“Seventy-five men elected to the State Constitutional Convention included 21 lawyers, 13 farmers, 6 merchants, 6 doctors, 5 bankers, 4 cattlemen, 3 teachers, 2 real-estate agents, 2 editors, 2 hop farmers, 2 loggers, 2 lumbermen, 1 minister, 1 surveyor, 1 fisherman, and 1 mining engineer.” (HistoryLink)


Washington Territory was formed in 1852 when Congress split what is now Washington State, northern Idaho, and western Montana from Oregon Territory, which had been created five years earlier. Washington was reduced to its current boundaries in 1863, when Idaho Territory was created. By the time it achieved statehood, Washington would have spent 36 years as a territory, longer than any of the 41 states admitted before it and more than three times as long as neighboring Oregon. There are many reasons for this length of time (only five other states exceeded the 36-year tenure as a territory), including little interest by the territory’s citizens in the politics of statehood. At least four times during the late 1860s and early 1870s, voters rejected proposals to call a convention to adopt a state constitution. 


The biggest obstacle to statehood, however, was geographical. Historian Robert Ficken notes, “The complete lack of communications over the Cascades prevented unity, in politics and economics.” During most of the territory’s existence, there were not even wagon roads, let alone railways across the mountains. The growing settlements on either side of the mountains could not communicate or trade with one another. Those in Western Washington did business mostly with California by sea, while Easterners shipped to and from Portland, Oregon along the Columbia River, by boat or rail. 

Governor Miles C. Moore


This changed dramatically in 1887 with the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s line from Eastern Washington over the Cascades via Stampede Pass to Tacoma. Direct trade between the regions boosted the economies on both sides of the mountains and brought in many more immigrants from the eastern US. With the territory economically unified and booming, local regional rivalries were put aside, at least temporarily, and calls for statehood increased.


The new constitution ended up a patchwork made from the constitutions of other states, and a document drawn up in Walla Walla at an earlier convention, as well as resolutions and ideas submitted by citizens’ groups. It reflected the concerns of its day: restrictions placed on the legislature, the many statewide elected officials that split the responsibilities of governance, and the complex amending formula (Avery, Mary W. Government of Washington State. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1966).  Some of the hottest topics under discussion involved the disposition of school and state lands, the regulation of railroads (delegates debated the corrupting influences of free railroad passes for elected officials and prohibited them yet failed to create a strong elected commission to regulate the rates railroads would charge, an issue of vital importance to farmers and other citizens). 


Despite its flaws, the citizens of Washington Territory voted 40,152 to 11,879 to ratify the new constitution in an election called by territorial governor Miles C. More on October 1, 1889. Certain perennial issues could not be agreed upon, such as women’s suffrage, prohibition, and the location of a state capital. These issues would be discussed all through the first few decades of statehood. 


Not all sectors of the population approved of the new constitution. Many farmers, especially in eastern Washington, were uneasy with the new document. They felt the new constitution provided for too many state offices with too high salaries, which would result in “an office-seeking class, the most worthless class that can exist. It will also foster machine politics of the most corrupt and offensive character” (Crawford, Harriet Ann. The Washington State Grange. Binfords and Mort, Publishers, Portland, 1940).

President Benjamin Harrison


On November 11, US President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation declaring Washington’s admission into the Union was complete. This news was immediately telegraphed to Olympia, setting off celebrations in the new state’s capital. "There was a moment of dead silence, followed by a roar which shook the ancient wooden capitol. Jubilation spread from the senate to the house and then down Main street to the town. The cannon, which had been charged for days awaiting the great event, fired unceasing salvos and the male populace rushed to the town's 14 saloons" (Gordon R. Newell, Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen (Seattle: Hangman Press, 1975).


J.E.S. Hays


  1. So interesting, JES! I'm a native Oklahoman, so of course I know the history of how Oklahoma became a state, but it would be fascinating to know how each state entered the union. I didn't know there was a hiatus for applying for statehood. Thanks for a very interesting post!

    1. Happy to help out - it would be fascinating to see all the different states' tales. Somebody ought to start writing that

  2. The whole process of becoming a state is so fascinating. Colorado had tried prior to being admitted in 1876. They were right, so many pieces that they tried to put together. Great post. Doris

  3. Thanks Doris - I enjoy your Colorado stories too!