Yakima County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 2/25/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7651
See Additional Media

Yakima is Washington's second-largest county in area, covering 4,296 square miles (2.7 million acres), and ranks seventh in population with 222,581 residents counted in the 2000 United States census. The city of Yakima is the county seat. Yakima County encompasses most of the Yakama Indian Reservation, and federal, state, or tribal governments own nearly 200 million acres of land in the county. The location of many towns within Yakima County was largely determined by the Northern Pacific Railroad, along whose route the sites were chosen, named, platted, and eventually sold to settlers. Yakima County's primary industry is agriculture, bolstered by an annual average of 300 days of sunshine and nutrient-rich volcanic soil and enabled by Yakima River irrigation projects.

Political Geography

Yakima County is bordered on the west by wilderness areas: the Norse Peak Wilderness and Pierce County to the northwest, the William O. Douglas Wilderness/Snoqualmie National Forest/Goat Rocks Wilderness and Lewis County to the central west, and the Cascade Mountain Range/Mt. Adams Wilderness and Skamania County to the southwest. Kittitas County borders Yakima to the north and the two counties share the 260,000-acre Yakima Firing Center United States Military Reservation. Benton County borders Yakima to the east, and Klickitat County to the south. The Yakama Indian Reservation comprises 1,271,918 acres (1,573 square miles) in the southern portion of Yakima County and extending into Klickitat County. The reservation encompasses several towns including Parker, Wapato, Toppenish, Vessey Springs, and White Swan, as well as part of the Simcoe mountain range.

The eastern half of Mount Adams (12,276 feet), an active andesitic stratovolcano, extends into the southwestern corner of Yakima County. Mount Adams is the third highest peak in the Cascade Range and the second highest peak in Washington (after Mount Rainier). A portion of the mountain extends into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Skamania County. Gifford Pinchot National Forest was established as the Columbia National Forest in 1908 and renamed to honor Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), first Chief of the National Forest Service, in 1949.

Yakima County's mountainous western topography gives way to semi-arid foothills and sagebrush in the central portion of the county. The Yakima River, a tributary of the Columbia, runs through the Yakima Valley and with its tributaries the Naches and Tieton rivers feeds some 2,100 miles of irrigation canals throughout the Yakima Valley.

The name Yakima has been translated to mean black bear (from yah-kah, meaning black bear, and the plural ending ma), or runaway, referring either to the rushing waters of the Yakima River or to a tribal legend about a runaway or deported daughter of a Yakama chief.

The earliest inhabitants of the region were the confederated bands and tribes of the Yakama Indian Nation who gathered camas, bitter root, and berries, hunted deer, and harvested salmon from the Yakima and Columbia rivers. These bands were nomadic, especially so after they began to acquire horses from northern Great Basin tribes sometime between 1730 and 1760.

Euro-American Settlement

The earliest European settlers were members of the Catholic Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate. At the invitation of Yakama chiefs Ow-hi (d. 1858) and Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877), the Oblates established several small missions in the Yakima Valley beginning in 1848 and a larger mission, St. Joseph's Mission on the Ahtanum, in 1852. The first irrigation ditch in the future Yakima County was dug on the grounds of this mission that same year.

Washington Territory was established on March 2, 1853, and newly appointed Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens quickly set out to extinguish Indian claim to the land and encourage white settlement. On June 9, 1855, 14 tribal leaders signed the Treaty of Yakima, ceding 10,828,800 acres of their ancestral lands to the United States government.

The Yakama Nation

Yakama tribal leader Kamiakin was a reluctant signatory. The nearly immediate failure of Stevens to enforce parts of the agreement that protected some Yakama rights led Kamiakin to withdraw his acquiescence to the treaty. On October 5, 1855, gunfire erupted between Kamiakin's men and Major Granville Haller's troops at Toppenish Creek, marking the beginning of the Yakama Indian Wars.

The United States government established Fort Simcoe in 1856 and by 1858 the uprising had been quelled by the slaughter and starvation of many members of the tribe. Many remaining members settled on reservation land, surviving difficult years of transition and carrying on a continual fight for their land rights.

In 1994 the tribe changed the spelling of their name to Yakama. The Yakama Nation controls nearly 1.3 million acres, the largest land mass controlled by any of the 29 federally recognized tribes in the state. The tribe has 9,600 enrolled tribal members, more than any other Washington tribe. Three language families were indigenous to the 14 bands and tribes that constitute the Yakama Nation: Sahaptian, Salishan, and Chinookan. The 14 bands and tribes are the Palouse, Pisquouse, Yakama, Wenatchapam, Klinquit, Oche Chotes, Kow was wayee, Sk'in-pah, Kah-miltpah, Klickitat, Wish ham, See ap Cat, Li ay was, and Shyiks.

Cattle in the Yakima Valley

The Indians had wintered herds of cattle in the Yakima Valley since Kamiakin brought the first herd to the area in 1840. In 1859 legendary cattleman Ben Snipes (1835-1906) drove his first herd of cattle through the Yakima Valley to the gold fields of the Fraser River in Canada. John Jeffries, Major John Thorp, and many other cattle owners followed. Some stock was also shipped by steamboat to Portland or Kalama and then by rail to Puget Sound. Long cattle drives through the area were common until the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad, after which cattle were driven to rail stations and shipped to market by rail.

Mortimer Thorp (1822-1893) and Margaret Bounds Thorp (1822-1888) with their nine children were the first non-Indian, non-missionary settlers to the Yakima Valley, arriving in 1861 at the future site of Moxee to join the 250 head of cattle Thorp had driven there to graze the year before. The Alfred Henson family and widow Nancy McHaney Splawn Bond (1812-1905) with her five sons, Charles, William, George, Moses, and Andrew J., moved to the Yakima Valley soon after. Other settlers followed, many of them young men associated with the area's increasing cattle culture. W. D. Lyman's History of the Yakima Valley Washington (Vol. 1), published in 1919, quotes Leonard Thorp's description of what he called a cattleman's paradise:

"There was rye grass in the bottom as high as a man's shoulders on horseback, so that the stock were fairly swallowed up in it. Though the plains were mainly covered in sagebrush there was mixed with it, and yet more in the hills, the most luxurious bunch grass. This limitless supply of feed, together with the pure cold waters of the Yakima rushing by, made a little world of themselves for the stock" (p272).

Present-day Yakima County was briefly (from January 1863 to January 1865) part of a large county called Ferguson County. When Ferguson was dissolved after only two years, the County of Yakima, including more or less present-day Yakima and Kittitas Counties, was established on January 21, 1865. On November 24, 1883, Kittitas County was divided from Yakima, leaving the county boundaries approximately as they remain.

Towns and Trains

The first town in the county was Yakima City, established in 1861 and incorporated in 1883. In 1884 the Northern Pacific Railroad located its station four miles north of Yakima City and the townspeople moved most of the town's buildings north to the station. Incorporated in 1886 and initially called North Yakima, in 1918 the new town became simply Yakima. The old town was then renamed Union Gap.

Moxee was founded in 1867. Over the next four decades other Yakima County towns were established, although some were little more than names for their first few years and were not officially incorporated for many more: Mabton (incorporated 1905), Toppenish (incorporated 1907), and Wapato (incorporated 1908) were founded in 1885. Zillah was established in 1892 and incorporated in 1911, Sunnyside was established in 1893 and incorporated in 1902. Granger, established in 1902, and Grandview, established in 1906, both incorporated in 1909. Selah was founded in 1907 and incorporated in 1919, Naches was established in 1908 and incorporated in 1921. Tieton incorporated in 1942 and Harrah in 1946.

The River and the Railroad

Two overwhelming forces shaped Yakima County's development: the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Yakima River. Snaking through the Yakima Valley, the Northern Pacific tracks linked the valley with Puget Sound through the Stampede Pass Tunnel. The first train rolled through Stampede Pass on May 27, 1888, replacing a slightly earlier series of track switchbacks that had been the only way across the Cascades.

The Northern Pacific owned a vast tract of land along the railroad right-of-way between Lake Superior and Puget Sound, courtesy of the May 23, 1864, Northern Pacific Land Grant. This grant deeded to the railroad alternating square miles of public land adjacent to the track right-of-way in a band 40 miles wide in states and 80 miles wide in territories in exchange for construction of a northern transcontinental line. The Northern Pacific was able to sell irrigated land for as much as $40 to $50 per acre as compared with $2.60 per acre for dry land, a powerful inducement for the railroad to fund irrigation. The Yakima River was the means to irrigate, populate, and make this land productive.

Walter Granger (1855-1930) was an irrigation engineer without whose diligence and determination Yakima County might not have attained its global reputation as an agricultural cornucopia and the fruit basket of the nation. Hired by Northern Pacific president Thomas Oakes (1843-1919) in 1889, Granger organized and managed the Yakima Canal and Land Company (in partnership with the Northern Pacific Railroad under the name Northern Pacific, Yakima, and Kittitas Irrigation Project) and the Washington Irrigation Company.

Charged with building irrigation systems and deciding where town sites and stations would be established along the railroad's Yakima Valley route, Granger and Northern Pacific employees took frequent scouting trips, often accompanied by the press or railroad VIPs. Granger determined the locations and names of Zillah, Granger, Sunnyside, and possibly other towns in the county and built the Sunnyside Canal, the largest irrigation canal in the Northwest at the time.

Irrigating the Valley

Most of Yakima County's population is centered along the Yakima River. Irrigation for farming was crucial to the success of these communities, and individual farmers had created small canals from the time of non-Indian settlement. The Sunnyside Canal began operation in 1892 and other private irrigation canals followed. These unregulated projects over-appropriated Yakima River supplies.

The United States Congress passed the Reclamation Act on June 17, 1902, paving the way for federally funded dam and irrigation construction projects throughout the arid West. The Act required that water users repay construction costs of the irrigation projects from which they received benefits. The Yakima Project, authorized on December 12, 1905, was one of the first and largest efforts of the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, and has irrigated the Yakima Valley since 1910. The government purchased many of the earlier canals and incorporated them into the Yakima Project. Water from the Keechulus, Kachess, and Lake Cle Elum reservoirs feed the Yakima River, while the Tieton and Bumping Lake Reservoirs feed the Yakima's tributaries, the Naches and Tieton Rivers. These rivers in turn supply the Yakima Valley's nearly 2,100 miles of irrigation canals.

Planting and Growing

On March 15, 1893 the Washington State Legislature passed the State Fair Act designating North Yakima in Yakima County the site for an annual State Agricultural Fair. Yakima got the event as a consolation prize after losing (to Olympia) the race to have Yakima City proclaimed state capital. With the exception of 1895, the Washington State Fair was held annually from 1894 until 1930, when the state legislature declined to fund a budget. From 1932 to 1936, scaled down versions of the fair occurred but were not considered successful. In 1939 the Central Washington State Fair was founded, using the old State Fairgrounds. The Central Washington State Fair is held annually in September.

The first wine grapes in the Yakima Valley were planted in 1869, the first hops in 1872, and the first commercial fruit orchard in 1887. All of these crops would eventually become major parts of Yakima County's primary industry, agriculture. Once the land was pegged for commercial fruit production, the transformation from sagebrush to cultivated acreage was accomplished briskly. In the Selah Valley, for example, 36,000 fruit trees were reportedly set out in one year alone. The Northern Pacific Railroad provided a ready way for farmers to ship their produce to market, and processing plants and fruit storage facilities soon flourished near railroad stations.

Migrant Labor in the Valley

Commercial farming was dependant on migratory harvesters. Indian pickers harvested hops each fall. During the Great Depression of the 1930s Yakima County's laden trees and fields provided much-needed employment for the thousands of families from across the country seeking work, and migrant campsites dotted the region. Conditions at these migrant camps varied, but many lacked basic sanitary facilities. By the early 1940s many families of Japanese origin were farming in Yakima County. These families, more than 1,000 individuals, were forced to abandon their farms and enter internment camps under Executive Order 9066.

Increased farm production to aid the war effort and labor shortages caused by internment and the exodus of men into the military during World War II led to the creation of the Bracero Program, a federal program that brought Mexican and Mexican American migrant workers into Washington and other states to harvest crops. After the Bracero Program was discontinued in 1964 Mexican and Mexican American workers continued to provide a substantial portion of the farm labor in Yakima County. In recent years a federal guest worker program has brought Thais to Yakima County to harvest field and tree fruit crops.

Today (2006) 558,000 acres of private land in Yakima County are used for agriculture. Manufacturing (especially of food-related products) and fruit warehousing are other major industries in the county. Forestry and livestock are significant industries. Yakima County is a leading global producer of apples, hops, mint, and asparagus, and the county's wine industry continues to expand and flourish.


An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, With An Outline Of The Early History of The State Of Washington (Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, [1904] 1977); W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley Washington, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919); Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, A Guide To The Indian Tribes Of The Pacific Northwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), p. 272; Yakima: A Centennial Perspective, 1885-1985 ed. by Jim Newbill and Herb Blisard (Yakima: Franklin Press, 1985), p. 34, 45, 50; Valda Turner, Under All Is The Land (Yakima: Yakima Board of Realtors, 1985); "About Us," Yakima County website accessed February 13, 2006 (http://www.co.yakima.wa.us/about.asp); Roscoe Sheller Courage and Water (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1952); Roscoe Sheller, Ben Snipes: Northwest Cattle King (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1957); Elizabeth Gibson, Yakima Washington (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2002); Richard D. Daugherty, The Yakima People (Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1973); Ronald Wayne Young, O.M.I., “The Mission of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate to the Oregon Territory (1847-1860)” (Ph.D. diss., Pontifica Universitas Gregoriana, Romae, 2000); Click Relander, Treaty Centennial, 1855-1955: The Yakimas (Yakima: The Republic Press, 1955); Maurice Helland, They Knew Our Valley (Yakima: Maurice Helland, 1975); Thomas Heuterman, The Burning Horse: The Japanese-American Experience in the Yakima Valley 1920-1942 (Cheney, Washington: Eastern Washington University Press, 1995), p. 125; A. J. Splawn, Ka-mi-akin: The Last Hero Of The Yakimas (Portland: Bindords & Mort, [1917] 1944); Workforce Explorer website accessed February 13, 2006 (https://www.workforceexplorer.com/article.asp?ARTICLEID=2797); H. Dean Guie, Bugles In The Valley: Garnett's Fort Simcoe (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1977); W. A. "Bill" Luce, Washington State Fruit Industry: A Brief History (np, 1972?); Valley Of The Strong: Stories of Yakima and Central Washington History ed. by Joseph C. Brown (Yakima: Kit Publication, 1974); Wapato History Committee, Wapato History and Heritage (np, 1978); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Yakima Indian War begins on October 5, 1855" (by Paula Becker), "Ferguson County is established on January 12, 1863" (By Paula Becker), "Yakima County is established on January 21, 1865" (by Paula Becker), and "United States Establishes Fort Simcoe at the foot of the Simcoe Mountains in 1856," http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 13, 2006); As The Valley Was ed. by Jeanne R. Crawford (Yakima: Yakima Federal Savings and Loan Association, 1968); "Yakima County Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy 2005," datafile provided by Kevin Wickenhagen at www.YakimaCounty.us, February 13, 2006; "Yakima Project," United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation website accessed February 14, 2006 (http://www.usbr.gov/history/borhist.htm); "Washington Place Names" search function, Tacoma Public Library website accessed February 15, 2006 (http://search.tacomapubliclibrary.org/); Jan Halluday and Gail Chehak, Native Peoples of the Northwest (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2000), p. 181; "Federal Program Allows Hiring of Thais in State," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 8, 2005, p. E-1; "Braceros," The Farmworkers website accessed February 15, 2006 (http://www.farmworkers.org/bracerop.html); Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998); Carlos A. Schwantes, Railroad Signatures Across The Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993); "State Fair Park History," State Fair Park website accessed February 19, 2006(http://www.fairfun.com/aboutus/history.html); Kurt E. Armbruster, Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle, 1853-1911 (Pullman: WSU Press, 1999), p. 17; "Mt. Adams," United States Geological Survey Cascade Volcano Observatory website accessed June 4, 2006 (http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Volcanoes/); "Gifford Pinchot National Forest," United States Forest Service website accessed June 4, 2006 (http://www.fs.fed.us/).
Note: This essay was revised and updated on May 3, 2013, to list incorporation dates for all Yakima County's incorporated cities.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You