Agriculture in Washington 1792 to 1900

  • By Kara Rowe
  • Posted 3/14/2018
  • Essay 20523
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Washington's soils and climate make it one of the most productive agricultural states in the union. When explorers and fur traders from the East Coast and Europe reached the Northwest in the late 1700s they brought new animals, plants, and agricultural practices to a region where Native Americans had long cultivated a variety of crops. By the 1840s more U.S. citizens were moving to the area and establishing farms. Wheat, apples, potatoes, grapes, sheep, and cattle were early commodities raised. On the east side of the state, ranchers used free-range practices on the vast prairies and crop farmers broke sod on the lush grasslands. On the wetter western side, immigrants drained bogs near the coast and developed small mixed farms, raising a wide range of crops. Railroads reached the Northwest in the second half of the nineteenth century, opening markets across the nation to Washington farmers. By the end of the century, agriculture was not only a major state industry but a subject of study at Washington State College (later University) and elsewhere, and a hundred years of increasingly intensive agriculture had brought major changes to the people and landscapes of the region.

Forts, Gardens, Livestock, and Fruit

Agriculturally, Washington is divided into two sections by the Cascade Mountains. The west side of the state has a wet, coastal climate. The eastern side of the state is dry with a more desert-like climate. While the weather varies year to year, patterns of rain, sunshine, and heat make both sides of the state well-suited for growing various crops and raising herd animals. Washington's soil history can also be divided north to south. The northern half was covered by glaciers that did not finish retreating until around 10,000 years ago and so has younger soils than the southern half to which glaciers did not extend. Much of the state holds volcanic ash deposits within its soils, from the eruption of volcanoes in the region throughout the ages. The various climates, vegetation, geology, and age of the soils make Washington home to 12 different soil types. This diverse soil makeup helps Washington farmers grow more than 300 different crops and makes the state a haven for livestock.

Native Americans across what would become the state of Washington cultivated a variety of plants and crops for millennia. Many tribes on the western side of the mountains maintained herds of dogs as a source of wool for weaving, and after Europeans introduced horses to the Americas, the animals were traded northward, by the early 1700s reaching Columbia Plateau tribes in Eastern Washington, who made horses a centerpiece of their lifestyle. When explorers, traders, and settlers from Europe and the United States began reaching the Pacific Northwest later that century, they brought more new plants and animals to the region.

In the spring of 1792, Spanish Captain Salvador Fidalgo established a military fort at Neah Bay on the Northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula and planted a garden from "seedlings transported and carefully nurtured in containers ready for planting" (Bradsher). The explorers also brought cows, sheep, hogs, and goats to sustain their fort. The outpost did not last more than a few months before the Spanish abandoned the area.

American President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) hoped to lay claim to the Pacific Northwest before the British. In the spring of 1806 the Lewis and Clark expedition noted the fertile prairies of the Walla Walla area.

"It possesses a fine dry pure air. The grass and many plants are now upwards of knee high. I have no doubt but this tract of country if cultivated would produce in great abundance every article essentially necessary to the comfort and subsistence of civilized man" (Meinig, 31).

But it was British fur traders, not American farmers, who first brought new agricultural traditions to the inland Northwest. Fur-trading companies established trading posts in the region with gardens to help sustain those stationed there. In 1818 Donald McKenzie of the North West Company used early irrigation practices to grow a garden at the Fort Nez Perce trading post near the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia rivers, which thrived for years. In 1824, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) began building Fort Vancouver on the lower Columbia River, at a location chosen in part for its farming potential, and the farm there became the first to introduce many new agricultural products to the future state of Washington.

"Coincident with the first blows of the axe which felled the timber for the new buildings was the laying out of Governor Simpson's cherished farm. Sod was broken on the upper prairie adjoining the construction site, and a field was laid out for potatoes and other vegetables" (Scouler).

Fort Vancouver housed one of the earliest cattle herds in the state. Other livestock, such as hogs and goats, also filled the stomachs of early settlers and fur traders. The fort was also home to the first apple trees and grape vines in Washington, and life continued improving for the trappers as the abundance of food increased. "[A]fter 1828 the wheat grown at Fort Vancouver would supply all the flour needed in the Company's establishments west of the Rockies" (Hussey).

The Oregon Trail emigrant route from the eastern United States to the Northwest barely existed and the journey was long for missionaries and settlers making their way to the region. When young American missionary Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847) finally arrived at Fort Vancouver in the fall of 1836 with her husband Marcus (1802-1847) after their long trip across the continent, she was happy to enjoy some variety.

"We entered the Fort and were comfortably seated in cushioned armed chairs. They were just eating breakfast as we rode up and soon we were seated at the table and treated to fresh salmon, potatoes, tea, bread and butter. What a variety, thought I. You cannot imagine what an appetite these rides in the mountains give a person" (Whitman).

Managing the growth of the HBC's footprint in the region, George Simpson (ca. 1787-1860), governor of the company's Northern Department, often sent supplies and seeds to other company outposts. A bushel of seed wheat was sent to Fort Colvile, near today's Kettle Falls in Northeastern Washington. Like Fort Vancouver, Colvile functioned as a center of supply for the sparsely populated upper Columbia area. A farm there supplied the fort with wheat, oats, barley, corn, and potatoes that fed trappers and miners in the area. Later the company added a flourmill and bakeshop, as well as blacksmith and carpenter shops. The HBC also established a farm on the Cowlitz Prairie along the Cowlitz River south of Chehalis.

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman traveled onward from Fort Vancouver and established their mission near where Walla Walla would later be located. They hired Hawaiian laborers from Vancouver to get the mission and farm up and running. It became the first major inland farm site in the region. The Whitmans maintained a herd of Durham dairy cows, tended sheep, and grew crops. The mission had to be self-sustaining, as it was 25 miles from the nearest trading post, Fort Walla Walla.

Traditions Collide

Beginning in the1840s, more American settlers moved west and settled in the Northwest. Britain gave up its claims to land below the 49th parallel, and the Oregon Territory became an official region of the United States in 1848. As more settlers arrived, Native Americans in the region adopted some of the agricultural practices, plants, and animals the newcomers brought with them. Many members of the Cayuse Tribe began farming near the Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu. They fenced off their fields and planted wheat, corn, peas, and potatoes. They raised cattle, hogs, chickens, and sheep. "In 1842, several went down to the Willamette to trade horses for cattle. Two years later, Narcissa Whitman reported that some were going out eastward along the Oregon Trail as far as Fort Hall to trade their 'cayuses' (Cayuse horses) for emigrant cattle" (Stern). Some Native Americans also worked on settlers' farms both east and west of the mountains as hired help.

But the new settlers' practices also interfered with land-management techniques that the Indians had long employed. Fire was a tool Native Americans used to cleanse the land, maintain healthy prairie ecosystems, and prepare ground for planting and cultivation of camas, berries, and other crops. For generations, tribes shaped the habitat of the region through low-intensity, controlled burns, usually set in the late summer. But as the settlers built their farms and houses on the land, fire was not welcome. Their reaction was to suppress the management fires that tribespeople set.

The United States Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act, which granted 320 acres to each adult U.S. citizen who arrived in Oregon Territory before December 1850, made a claim and resided on the claimed land for four years. This encouraged more pioneers to move into the region. These new settlers built roads, plowed the land, and brought more new plants and animals with them. Wheat and potatoes, cattle and pigs spread across the countryside in 320-acre chunks. These additions did not always coexist easily with the region's native plants. The spread of new crops and livestock, along with other habitat changes -- the arrival of new kinds of weeds, the outbreak of disease, the suppression of tribal fires -- greatly altered existing ecosystems. The newcomers were aware of the changes, which many saw as an improvement: One farmer explained that the goal was "to get the land subdued and the wilde nature out of it. When that is accomplished we can increase our crops to a very large amount and the high prices of every thing that is raised heare will make the cultivation of the soil a very profitable business" (White, 215).

Hostilities between the new settlers and the longtime inhabitants grew as more farmers, ranchers and miners moved to the area. Territory Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) signed multiple treaties with individual tribes throughout the region. The treaties, however, were confusing and unclear in many respects. Under the treaties Native Americans were to move to designated spaces known as reservations. These lands prohibited non-Indian settlement, but many reservations were not the traditional homelands of those required to move there. These treaties, along with other factors, ultimately provoked warfare between the U.S. Army and various tribes in Washington Territory between 1855 and 1858.

More Mouths to Feed

After the majority of fighting ended in 1858, mining increased in the region. This in turn increased the need for more food sources, and that led to efforts to increase agricultural productivity through such measures as irrigation. While the wet coastal climate brought ample rain to farms west of the Cascades, settlers east of the mountains faced life in a desert climate, in the lowlands of Central Washington, and a semi-arid one farther east. As a result farmers looked to bring in a reliable source of water. "The first large-scale irrigation project in the Columbia River Basin was built in 1859 in the Walla Walla River valley" and others soon followed (Harrison).

In 1860, the U.S. census (which excluded most of the Indian population from its figures) counted roughly 12,000 people in Washington Territory. Largely removed from the Civil War that began the following year, Washington farmers continued to reshape the landscape slowly. Gold was discovered in the mountains of western Montana, northern Idaho, and British Columbia. Walla Walla became the supply center for equipment and livestock for miners and mule packers traveling to the mines. Merchants and farmers came to the area to claim land and build a community.

Wheat was the main crop grown in the Walla Walla area, along with apples, peas, and grapes. Sheep and cattle ranchers often established a homestead and then allowed their livestock to graze the land freely on the open range. Cattle from two or more owners often mingled on the same land. Ranchers branded their cattle with unique marks to identify ownership. Winters were mild for the first few years of ranching in the area, and ranchers maintained their herds with minimal supervision or assistance throughout the year. Then the weather changed, and they learned that area winters were anything but mild. The winter of 1861-1862 was especially hard. One of the first settlers recorded the devastation:

"[We had wheat] intended for seed for the coming year but the hard winter of 1861 and 1862 followed when food for man and best became so scarce that most of it was sold to the needy for food, and to keep the teams from starving ... This was the most terrible winter ever experienced in the valley. The snow drifted so deep that many of the cattle were frozen standing up ... [and] only a narrow trail could be kept open to Walla Walla by miners coming to and from the Idaho mines" (Kirk and Alexander, 179).

The range was a graveyard of livestock by spring. Some ranchers lost entire herds. Starvation and exposure killed thousands of sheep and cattle that season.

In the Puget Sound region, settlers transformed bogs near the saltwater shoreline into farmable land. As early as 1863, settlers built dikes to drain wet marshy flats in the Skagit River delta near present-day La Conner. This process made farming possible on the swamplands that ebbed and flowed with the tidal cycles. Logging camps also grew in number, which opened up additional land for farming. Locals used the waterways to transport products and supplies up and down the coast, but logjams in most rivers made it difficult for them to navigate smoothly.

More immigrants moved to the region after Congress passed the Federal Homestead Act of 1862 to encourage the nation to expand west. For a small fee, settlers purchased 160 acres of land from the federal government. Settlers had to "prove up," or improve, the land by building a homestead and living on it continuously for five years. The new homesteaders often fenced their land with barbed wire to keep open-range livestock away from water holes, streams, and newly planted crops. By the 1870s many of the mines were exhausted and wheat farmers quickly came to rely on exporting their crops to overseas markets.

Tensions on the Open Range

As America rebuilt after the Civil War, eastern businessmen wanted a better way than wagon trails to get goods and people to Washington Territory. Construction of the Northern Pacific Railway began in 1870 with the goal to connect the Great Lakes and the Northwest coast. The rail line became a vital partner for farmers and ranchers and provided a more efficient way to get crops and livestock to cities on the East Coast. The Great Northern Railway moved into the region and completed construction in Washington in 1893.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers was also interested in the potential of the less-populated Central Washington area. It surveyed the desert of the Columbia Basin and in 1882 Lieutenant Thomas Symons charted the region. Although he called it "a desert pure and simple, an almost waterless, lifeless desert," he went on to predict that, "With irrigation properly conducted, it is safe to say that every foot of land now classed as desert will be found as productive as the regions more favored by rain" (Harrison). Symons's proposal was popular among local settlers who hoped for federal funding to build irrigation infrastructure throughout the state. But the U.S. Congress was not willing to spend millions to irrigate the Central Washington desert at that time.

Farther east in the hills of the Palouse and Big Bend region, the ample supply of grass created a healthy stock of cattle. Buyers in Wyoming were reported to consider cattle from the Northwest superior to those of Texas. The cattle rancher of that time was chronicled as a special type of character:

"The old-time cattleman, the rangeland operator of 1850-1890, was probably the toughest, most courageous, most independent, sometimes the kindest, and often the orneriest character this country ever produced. From where we are now, he appears to have been in some respects a man of vision and in others a man without foresight ... Let's look at some of the facts of life that faced him. First, he had to acquire a few head of cattle and get them to the open range. Then his troubles really began. To name a few, there were marauding Indians; rustlers (other men trying this method of getting a start for themselves); natural predators such as coyotes, wolves and cougars; poison weeds and roots which cattle often ate; rattlesnakes; natural disease; grass and forest fires; and bitter cold winters. These things the cattleman accepted, fought, and finally overcame. His real fight for existence was yet to come" (Galbraith and Anderson, 8).

Dairy farmers also found Washington to be a prime place for milk production and marketing. The first creamery in the state opened in Cheney. In the 1880s farmers brought the first purebred dairy-cattle herds into the region: Jerseys to Ellensburg, Holsteins to Skagit County, and Guernseys to Island County.

Some settlers took up other occupations before becoming farmers or ranchers. Some were placer miners and railroaders, others merchants and hired hands. For many, raising sheep was the cheapest and easiest way to start ranching on their own. Men who were short on capital often started their herds by working for larger herdsmen on a "shares" system. "They took only minimal pay and exchanged their talents for part ownership of future lamb crops" (McGregor, 23). The Northeastern Washington town of Sprague in Lincoln County served as the main sheep-shearing ground for the region. From there, the Northern Pacific shipped wool to the East Coast. As more sheep arrived on the open range, they competed with cattle and horses for forage on lands that were not able to sustain the growing numbers of grazing stock:

"Basic to all this mismanagement was the inability of the stockmen to understand the fragile nature of the local vegetation. Forage grasses here had developed over the ages without grazing pressure, and thus were not prepared to stand up to intensive grazing" (Harris, 224).

The increase in homesteaders created additional tension among cattle ranchers. Fences and barbed wire were seen as a noose on the open range system. In the Creston area, feuds between homesteaders and ranchers were notorious. "In frustration and vengeance, ranchers occasionally drove their herd through fields. They also pulled up surveyors' stakes to stymie homesteaders intending to file legal claims" (Kirk and Alexander, 86).

Railroads also added pressure to the open range. To encourage westward expansion by the railroads, the U.S. government granted land to railroad companies. Some railroads allowed open grazing on their lands, and intense grazing continued where fences didn't exist. Cattle ranchers competed among themselves for rangeland and waterholes, but sheep became the focus of their hatred. There was constant friction between cattle ranchers and sheep herders. Sheep could be fed and cared for on the range at much lower expense than cattle. Cattlemen argued that sheep stamped out grass with their small hooves. Another brutal winter in 1889 devastated herds throughout Eastern Washington. Douglas County ranchers saw as many as 90 percent of their herds starved or frozen.

Expanding and Studying Agriculture

By the time Washington became the 42nd state in the union in 1889, farmers were growing a diverse number of crops on the state's western side, including oats, spinach, hops, flax, sugar beets, cabbage, flower bulbs, potatoes, lettuce, celery and berries. New settlers from Europe liked the area because of its rich timber resources, coal, metal ores, fisheries, and the prospect of highly productive farmland. The region developed a population of small mixed farms, cultivating a wide range of different crops. Near Auburn, in southern King County and northern Pierce County, hops became a dominant crop until hop lice wiped out much of the crop and many farmers switched to dairy cows.

Many Norwegian and Dutch immigrants settled in the northwest corner of Washington, as the wetlands and forests of Whatcom and Skagit counties reminded them of their home countries. They introduced Holstein cows, making Northwest Washington the state's largest milk-producing area at the time. Dairy farmers created creameries and sent fresh milk to customers by steamship. Fruit and vegetable processors also formed, and Seattle's first commercial winery opened in the Pioneer Square neighborhood. Olympia Brewing Company began brewing beer in Tumwater.

Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act in 1887, authorizing the government to survey Indian reservation land and divide it into allotments for individual ownership. Prior to this, reservation land was held in common by all tribal members. These new allotments allowed individual Indian families to claim farmland within the reservation for themselves. It also gave them the opportunity to sell or lease their lands out to be farmed by others. Some non-Indian settlers bought lands on reservations, including in the Yakima and Colville areas.

In 1891 the Washington State Agricultural College, Experiment Station, and School of Sciences was established in Pullman. The citizens of Pullman donated 200 acres for the new school. Researchers at the agricultural college worked to find improvements in plant breeding and growing techniques for farmers. One was William J. Spillman: "He was a plant scientist, mathematician, and the first wheat breeder. His job was to improve the economic health of farmers" (Von Bargen). Courses such as soil analysis, plant chemistry, crop rotations, and manures and fertilizers were offered. Faculty also taught classes and conducted research in entomology, dairying, livestock, and poultry. Forestry and range management programs and farm economics were also studied. Washington State College became home to the foremost experts on agricultural science in the state.

As more immigrants moved west the 1890s, cities in the region grew; at the same time the entire nation was rapidly shifting from a focus on agriculture to industry. At the same time, gold reserves dropped and a national depression hit in 1893, affecting every citizen and farm community. Mines shut down, and the lumber industry slowed. Banks closed throughout the state. The panic ended for most of the state in 1897 when gold was found in Alaska and the Klondike gold rush began. Seattle became the outfitting hub for those trekking to the frontier. Miners stocked up on food and supplies as they moved north. Farmers again had a strong market for their abundant crops. They used railroads to move their products. Steamships traveled up and down waterways in the Puget Sound region moving food and goods. Steamboats operated on inland waterways, including the Okanogan, Snake, and Columbia rivers. Wheat farmers used tramways to transport grain sacks from the top of the Palouse coulees down to river's edge to load steamboats. Horses and wagons also moved farm products to storehouses and urban communities. By 1900, 70 percent of Washington wheat was exported overseas and urban port cities, such as Tacoma and Seattle, became headquarters for large shipping firms.

The first hundred years of non-Native settlement in the Northwest bought significant change to the region's people and landscape. The introduction of new animals, plants, and agricultural practices, and the ongoing expansion of both farming and herding, transformed the grasslands, forests, rivers, and communities of Washington. The next hundred years of agriculture in Washington would mark new transformations in and understandings of how to care for the land and to feed people.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum. 

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