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Washelli Cemetery (1884-1887), Seattle

  • By Laura Angotti and HistoryLink.org Staff
  • Posted 2/01/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 857

Washelli Cemetery, located on the land that is now Volunteer Park in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, served as Seattle's municipal cemetery from 1884 to 1887. The name Washelli was understood at the time to come from the Makah Indian word for west wind. Many of the burials in Washelli Cemetery had been removed from the Seattle Cemetery, a previous municipal cemetery located on the later site of Denny Park (north of downtown and west of Capitol Hill). When Washelli Cemetery was closed, all the burials were removed to other cemeteries.

The city had purchased the hilltop land from James and Agnes Colman in 1876, in hopes that Seattle would be designated the state capital and a capitol building would be constructed on the prominent hill northeast of downtown. When Olympia became state capital (leaving Seattle's would-be Capitol Hill with its name but no capitol), Seattle leaders repurposed the tract as a municipal cemetery. The city required a new cemetery because the existing Seattle Cemetery was being converted to a park (Denny Park). Burials in the new Washelli Cemetery occurred on the portion of the site where the Volunteer Park Reservoir would be completed in 1901.

West Wind

The Seattle Cemetery Commission, established to oversee the removal of bodies from the old Seattle Cemetery, also came to be responsible for naming the new cemetery. Names the Commission considered included Wildwood, Evergreen, Interlake, Forest Hill, Cedar Grove, Fir Hill, and Ridgewood.

The name that was finally adopted for the new cemetery was suggested by the wife of Seattle Mayor John Leary (1837-1905), Mary B. Leary (d. 1890), and a friend of hers, Port Townsend resident James Gilchrist Swan (1818-1900), an early chronicler of Washington history and an amateur ethnographer with a particular interest in the Makah Tribe of the Olympic Peninsula. In his diary entry for November 30, 1884, Swan writes:

"Recd letter from Mrs. Mary B. Leary Seattle requesting me to give her an Indian word suited for the new City Cemetery. I suggested 'Washelli' the Makah word for west wind, and quoted from 'Hiawatha' to show that the west is the 'region of the hereafter,' and that 'Washelli Cemetery' would mean the 'Cemetery of the land of the hereafter'"(Swan Diary).

The Seattle Cemetery Commission oversaw creation of a plat that followed the natural contours of the land where the cemetery was to be located. The commission also oversaw clearing of the land, marking of lots, and preparation for burials.

Early in 1885, the Seattle City Council passed Ordinance 642, officially creating Washelli Cemetery. The ordinance came some time after the first burials were made in 1884. The price of a cemetery lot was set at $30 and the city sexton was assigned to sell lots and to keep records of all transactions and burials. Because this was a municipal cemetery, part of the grounds was set apart to be a potter's field (for the burial of the poor).

The municipal cemetery on Capitol Hill did not last long. At the end of 1887, Ordinance No. 877, "An ordinance converting Washelli Cemetery in the City of Seattle into a public park, and providing for the removal of the bodies of persons buried therein and for the purchase by the city of the burial lots therein owned by private persons," did just that. Just as the Seattle Cemetery was converted into a park, so was the Washelli Cemetery.

Unquiet Dead

For some of the bodies removed from the cemetery, it was the fourth interment: From one of the first Seattle cemeteries, they had been moved to the Seattle Cemetery, to Washelli, and finally to one of the other cemeteries in the city.

The repurposed Washelli Cemetery was initially named Lake View Park, but when the adjacent Masonic Cemetery changed its name to Lake View Cemetery in 1890 (it had been alternatively known as Lake View for most of its existence) the park name became confusing, and so it was changed to City Park. In 1901, the park was renamed again, as Volunteer Park in honor of the volunteers who served in the Spanish-American War. In 1914, the Oaklake Cemetery in what is now North Seattle was renamed Washelli Cemetery (in 1962 it became Evergreen Washelli Cemetery).


Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 7, 1983; Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 642; Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 877; Reports of the Seattle Cemetery Commission; James Gilchrest Swan Diary, November 30, 1884, James Gilchrest Swan Papers, Box 3, Special Collections, Archives and University Manuscripts, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle; Laura C. Daly, A History of the Cemeteries of Seattle and A History of Evergreen-Washelli Cemeteries (Seattle: Evergreen-Washelli Cemeteries and Funeral Home, 1984); Thomas Prosch, A Chronological History of Seattle from 1950 to 1897, typescript dated 1900-1901, Northwest Collection, University of Washington Library, Seattle; Robert L. Ferguson, The Pioneers of Lake View (Bellevue: Thistle Press, 1995); Jacqueline B. Williams, The Hill with a Future: Seattle's Capitol Hill 1900-1946 (Seattle: CPK Ink, 2001); "History of Evergreen Washelli Cemetery," Evergreen Washelli website accessed February 7, 2014 (http://www.washelli.com/cemetery/history.html).
Note: This essay, including the title, was extensively revised on May 9, 2014.

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