Whitman County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 10/13/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7882
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Whitman County, located in southeastern Washington, has a population of 40,740 (2000 Census) and a land area of 2,159 square miles. The county was formed on November 29, 1871, and is named after Marcus Whitman, the missionary killed (along with his wife Narcissa Prentiss Whitman [1808-1847]  and 12 others) by Cayuse in 1847. Whitman County is in the Palouse country, and is bordered by Spokane County to the north (and a small part of Lincoln County at its northwest corner), by Adams County to the west (and a small part of Franklin County at its southwest corner), by the Snake River to the south, and by the Idaho state line to the east. The county has a primarily agricultural history, with an emphasis on wheat (today it ranks first in wheat production among Washington counties and second among counties in the nation); it was also known for its fruit orchards along the Snake River before the 1970s, when lakes inundated them upon completion of the Little Goose and Lower Granite dams. Although agriculture remains significant, today higher education plays a larger role: Washington State University (WSU), located in Pullman, reported 18,690 students enrolled on the Pullman campus in 2005 and is the single largest employer in the county. Pullman, with a population in 2000 of 24,675 (which includes WSU's student population), is the largest town in Whitman County. The county seat, Colfax, recorded a population of 2,844 in the 2000 Census.

First Peoples and First Contact

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the lower Snake River, which forms the southern boundary of Whitman County, was home to bands of Palouse and other Sahaptin-speaking people, including the Nez Perce tribe. Bands of Indians from the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane tribes made their home in the northern reaches of the county. These peoples found plenty of food and game to sustain them: root, berries and nuts abounded in the forests and wetlands, and deer and elk roamed the hills and grasslands. Fish were plentiful in numerous rivers and streams. The Nez Perce Trail, long used by Native Americans on their treks to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo, also ran through a small part of southeastern Whitman County, entering the county from the south at the Red Wolf Crossing below Silcott (Asotin County), about seven miles west of present-day (2006) Clarkston, Washington, and then continuing eastward into Idaho.

Lewis and Clark canoed on the Snake River along the southern boundary of Whitman County from October 11-13, 1805. They spent the night of October 10 north of the junction of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, probably very close to the intersection of the southeastern corner of Whitman County and Nez Perce County, Idaho. Although they spent the night of October 11 south of the river (in the future Asotin County), on October 12 they spent the night at the mouth of Alkali Flat Creek, near the future site of the town of Riparia in Whitman County. On October 13 they continued their journey west and left what would be the southern boundary of Whitman County.

The Steptoe Incident

An 1858 encounter between United States Army troops and Native Americans near present-day Rosalia resulted in the defeat of American forces under the command of Colonel Edward J. Steptoe (1816-1865). Steptoe was under pressure to enforce treaties between the Americans and Indians in which the tribes relinquished their lands in exchange for reservations. The Palouse, Yakima, Spokane, and Coeur d’ Alene tribes refused to sign the treaties, and Steptoe and a group of 158 soldiers set out from Fort Walla Walla in May 1858 to attempt to coerce them into cooperation.

Steptoe’s troops were poorly armed, and after marching to the Spokane River decided to turn back. The next day, May 17, they were were attacked by hostile Nez Perces, Yakimas, Palouses, Columbias, Walla Wallas, and Umatillas in a canyon along Pine Creek. Various sources say either five or seven American soldiers died and 13 were wounded. The troops managed to escape during the night of May 17-18 south across the Snake River and to safety with the help of Chief Timothy (1808-1891), chief of a band of the Nez Perce located at the mouth of Alpowa Creek in Asotin County.

Early Settlement

The first recorded Euro-American exploration along Union Flat Creek, the birthplace of settlement for Whitman County, was in June 1859. Lieutenant John Mullan (1830-1909) of the United States Army was searching for a favorable military wagon road route between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Benton, Montana. Mullan commissioned several advance parties to scout the route, and Gustavus Sohon headed the first party, scouting Union Flat Creek along its length through central and southeastern Whitman County.

Scheuerman writes that the first settler in the Palouse Hills (in Whitman County), George Pangburn, first squatted in 1862 on land along Union Flat Creek and in 1863 farmed and raised hogs there. Many sources, though, say that the first settlement in Whitman County didn’t occur until 1869. There is no dispute that beginning in the summer of 1869 settlers began to settle in increasing numbers along Union Flat Creek. The 1870 Census listed 116 settlers on Union Flat.

County Formations and Development

Whitman County was formed on November 29, 1871, as the result of being partitioned from what was then an enormous Stevens County (encompassing most of northern Washington east of the Cascades). The Whitman County of 1871 included Franklin and Adams County, which did not separate from Whitman County until November 1883. After 1883 Whitman County was its present size of 2,159 square miles, but between 1889 and 1903 there were three more attempts in the state legislature to carve additional counties out of Whitman County. The Legislature rejected all of these attempts.

Many of the early settlers were stockmen who raised cattle, sheep, and hogs, but during the 1870s newer settlers began growing crops. In 1876 the first shipment of Whitman County wheat was shipped by steamer on the Snake River from Almota to Portland. Production increased and by the mid-1880s Whitman County’s economy had transformed into a primarily agricultural one. Wheat was king, but oats, barley, rye, and flax were also mainstays. Around 1910 seed peas were first planted in the county, and by 1930 had grown to the point where "$2.5 million worth of peas were being grown [that year]" (Erickson).

Apple, peach, and plum orchards also bloomed in the county, particularly along the Snake River. The land along the banks of the river was known for its orchards until it was inundated by lakes resulting from the completion of Little Goose Dam and Lower Granite Dam in the first half of the 1970s.


The population in Whitman County grew fairly slowly during the early years of the 1870s. As the decade ended the pace picked up and in 1880, 7,014 people lived in the county. The 1880s saw particularly rapid growth; by 1890, the United States Census reported a population of 19,109 -- and this was after Franklin and Adams counties had been partitioned from Whitman County in 1883.

By 1910 Whitman County’s population had reached 33,280. For much of the next 50 years the county’s population fluctuated around 30,000, but between 1960 and 1980 the population rose again, reaching 40,321 in the 1980 Census. This was due for the most part to a more than doubling of the student population at Washington State University in Pullman between 1960 and 1980. Since 1980, the county's population has hovered around 40,000.

Growing and Transporting Wheat

With the growth in population and with passage of time came technological change. In the nineteenth century, farm labor was done by hand and with horse-drawn plows and threshers (used to separate wheat from chaff). Steam-driven threshers appeared in the Palouse in the 1880s, but each machine still "required 18 horses and many men to operate" (Anne E. Black, et al.)

In 1893 the first mechanical device appeared in the county to cut, thresh, and sack grain in one operation. But such "combines" were expensive and it wasn't until the Idaho Harvester Company in Moscow began to manufacture a smaller machine that widespread combine harvesting became feasible. By 1930, according to historian K. R. Williams, 90 percent of Palouse wheat was harvested by combine.

The Columbia and Palouse Railroad came into Whitman County in 1883, and on November 10, 1883, the first train arrived in Colfax. Additional rail lines were built in the mid-1880s through the county, making transportation easier. The first rudimentary telephone system arrived in Colfax 1884. In that same year Charles Hopkins bought an old army telegraph line between Colfax and Almota and converted it into a long-distance telephone line -- it was a rarity to have long distance telephone service in the rural West in 1884.


On July 10, 1870, James Perkins and Thomas Smith claimed the land at the confluence of the north and south branches of the Palouse River. Smith later moved to Union Flat, but Perkins remained on the site and built a cabin there. In 1871 H. S. Hollingsworth joined Perkins at the site that would soon become Colfax. Colfax was named in honor of Schuyler Colfax (1823-1885), Vice President of the United States from 1869-1873.

During the summer of 1871 others settled in Colfax (as well as on Union Flat), and in February 1872 Perkins and others hired A. L. Knowlton to plat a town site. That summer building began in earnest.

The town grew fairly slowly during much of the decade, but growth accelerated in the late 1870s. The town incorporated on January 14, 1879 (but for reasons unknown was obliged to reincorporate on November 29, 1881).

Growth was much more rapid during the 1880s. A disastrous fire struck Colfax on July 14, 1882, which caused more than $400,000 in damage (only half of which was covered by insurance) and nearly destroyed the town. But Colfax rebuilt and continued to grow and flourish in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

Electricity arrived in 1886, and Colfax had a water system by 1893. On July 4, 1900, the first automobile appeared on the streets. Carley Iron Works built the flimsy-looking contraption, which resembled a large spindly child’s wagon. It weighed 550 pounds and was capable of a speed of 12 miles per hour.

Colfax’s rapid growth continued in the first decade of the twentieth century. The 1910 Census recorded the population as 2,783. Since then the town’s population has remained relatively stationary, hovering between 2,600 and 3,100.

Because of its location at the confluence of the north and south forks of the Palouse River, Colfax has been struck by flooding repeatedly during its history. The flood of March 1910 was one of the worst -- water from three to five feet deep flowed through downtown. But another disastrous flood struck in February 1948. This prompted government studies for a flood-control project, which provided for deepening the river channel, building retaining walls along the banks, and concrete channels to better control the flood of water.

Colfaxians were divided on the project and twice narrowly defeated bond measures for it, but finally approved it in 1959. Construction began in 1962 and was completed several years later. The result was greatly reduced flooding in the city during winter and spring snow-runoffs and rains.


In the 1870s Pullman was known as "Three Forks," so named because three streams, Missouri Flat Creek, Dry Fork, and the South Palouse intersect there. The first recorded settler on the present town site of Pullman was Dan G. McKenzie in September 1877. Several other settlers arrived that fall and a town began to take shape.

The town site was platted twice in 1882. McKenzie platted 50 acres in the spring, but Charles Moore platted a larger area in November 1882 and the first plat was resurveyed so the streets would correspond. In 1882 the town only had only a few buildings, but development soon increased, and increased further when the Moscow branch of the O.R. & N. (Oregon Railroad & Navigation) rail line was completed through Pullman in October 1885.

Pullman was incorporated on April 11, 1888. The town was named in honor of George Pullman (1831-1897) of the Pullman Car Company, who is said to have given $50 toward the town’s first Fourth of July celebration in 1881. Although some historians claim the town’s first post office was established as "Three Forks," Erickson writes that other historians dispute this and says there is no historical record of a post office by the name of Three Forks having ever been applied for. Erickson does note that postal archive records show a postal application in the name of Pullman on September 30, 1881.

A big fire struck Pullman on July 3, 1890, causing over $200,000 in damage. Fortunately, these losses were well insured, and the town’s development quickly resumed. In 1910 Pullman’s population of 2,602 was only slightly less than Colfax’s 2,783, but if you included its local college population, Pullman was by then actually larger than Colfax. By 1930 Pullman was the largest town in Whitman County, even without counting the local college students, and has remained the largest town since. Much of Pullman’s growth, though, has resulted from the establishment of a college in the town, today known as Washington State University.

Washington State University

In March 1890 the Washington State Legislature passed an act to create a land-grant college in southeastern Washington. The legislation was not specific as to where the college would be, but after considerable debate, a governor’s committee announced in April 1891 that Pullman would be the site for the new college.

Construction of the campus began immediately, and on January 13, 1892, the Agricultural College, Experiment Station and School of Science of the State of Washington opened to 59 students. Classes were so limited initially that the students themselves soon organized certain classes and activities, such as a college newspaper and a literary society.

But the college quickly grew and by 1900 the campus was taking shape. In 1905 the school was renamed State College of Washington (soon shortened to Washington State College). By 1910 there were 1,016 students enrolled at Washington State College.

Enoch A. Bryan (1855-1941) served as president from 1893 to 1915. Although he was actually the college's third president, many consider him to be the institution’s true founder. Bryan influenced a broad expansion of the college’s curriculum that went far beyond its initial focus on agriculture.

Controversy reigned over the college’s future during the 1910s. A legislative committee recommended that Washington State College be trimmed down to trade status. University of Washington President Henry Suzzallo (1875-1933) eagerly embraced this idea. But in 1917 the Legislature rejected the attempt to curtail Washington State College, thus assuring the college’s growth into the future.

Washington State College’s next threat came with the economic collapse brought on by the Great Depression in the 1930s. Between 1932 and 1935 the college’s budget was cut by more than 75 percent. Teachers were laid off and enrollment dropped. The college did not begin to recover until the latter years of the decade.

Change accelerated by the enrollment of returning veterans after World War II ended in 1945, as well as improvements in technology, began to reduce Washington State College’s relative isolation in the mid-twentieth century. In September 1959 the Legislature changed the name of the college to Washington State University (affectionately called by many "Wazzu").

More change, both academically and socially, came to the university in the 1960s. The university developed a nuclear research program early in the decade. Then, later in the 1960s, enrollment mushroomed as the first wave of Baby Boomers arrived, resulting in sweeping changes in both academic and campus life. Enrollment at Washington State University during the 1960s more than doubled, from 6,837 students in 1960 to 14,520 in 1970.

During the 1980s, branch campuses of the university were developed in Spokane, in the Tri-Cities (in Richland), and in Vancouver, Washington. Total enrollment of all campuses in 2005 was approximately 23,000, with 18,690 enrolled at the 600-acre main campus in Pullman.

Whitman County Today

Agriculture remains a mainstay of Whitman County’s economy. Whitman County ranks first in wheat production in the state and is the second wheat-producing county in the nation (2002 data). It ranks first in the nation in the production of edible dry peas, barley, and lentils, and is also the largest producer of hogs and pigs in the state. Peas and grass seed (particularly Kentucky bluegrass) are also produced in significant quantities. In 2002 Whitman County had more than a thousand farms (more than a million acres) with the average size farm being more than a thousand acres.

But agriculture is no longer the driving force of the county’s economy, at least in terms of employment. Production of grain crops today does not require a great deal of labor, and in 2005 agricultural employment in Whitman County was outranked by five other industries, including manufacturing, retail trade, and of course, employment at Washington State University, which remains by far the county’s largest employer.

Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) is an up-and-coming major employer in Whitman County. Incorporated in 1982, SEL designs and manufactures digital relays for automation, protection, and control of electric power systems. In 2004 SEL employed 700 at its headquarters in Pullman, with 1,100 employees reported in its offices worldwide.

Sources: Edith Erickson, Colfax 100 Plus (Colfax: Edith Erickson, 1981); Edith Erickson, Whitman County: From Abbieville to Zion (Colfax: University Printing, n.d.), 17, 79; Richard Scheuerman, Palouse Country: A Land and its People (College Place, WA: Color Press, 1994), 16-17, 21-23, 29; W. H. Lever, An Illustrated History of Whitman County, State of Washington (San Francisco: W. H. Lever, 1901); "Census 2000," website accessed July 29, 2006 (http://www.census.gov/); City of Pullman website accessed August 3, 2006, (http://www.ci.pullman.wa.us); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Native Americans Rout U.S. Army Troops Under Lieutenant Colonel Edward Steptoe on May 18, 1858" (by David Wilma), "Washington State University -- Snapshot History, Parts 1 and 2" (by Cassandra Tate), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 31, 2006); Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, website accessed August 4, 2006, (http://www.seling.com); "The Volcanoes of Lewis and Clark," U.S. Geological Survey, website accessed July 30, 2006, (http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/LivingWith/Historical/LewisClark/volcanoes_lewis_clark.html); "Whitman County Overview," Washington State Business and Project Development website accessed August 4, 2006, (http://www.choosewashington.com/); "Whitman County Profile, June 1999," Labor Market and Economic Analysis Branch, Washington State Employment Security Department website accessed July 30, 2006 (http://www.wa.gov.esd/lmea/pubs/profiles/whitman.pdf); Profile of Washington State University," website accessed July 29, 2006 (http://www.wsu.edu); Anne E. Black, Eva Strand, Penelope Morgan, J. Michael Scott, R. Gerald Wright, and Cortney Watson, "Biodiversity and Land-use History of the Palouse Bioregion: Pre-European to Present" in Perspectives on the Land-use History of North America ed. by T. D. Sisk (U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, Biological Science Report USGS/BRD/BSR 1998-0003, [1998] 1999) available online at (http://biology.usgs.gov/luhna/chap10.html); United States Department of Agriculture, "2002 Census of Agriculture: County Profile: Whitman Washington," Washington Agricultural Statistics Service website accessed October 14, 2006 (http://www.nass.usda.gov/wa/counties/cnty075.htm).
Note: This essay was revised on February 17, 2016.

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