Stevens County -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 11/05/2006
  • Essay 7995
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Named after Washington Territory’s first governor, Stevens County stretches 100 miles along the east bank of Lake Roosevelt (once the left bank of the Columbia) above the Spokane River in the Selkirk Mountains. The Hudson's Bay Company founded the first European community in the county at Fort Colvile near Kettle Falls. Americans were first attracted by mineral riches in the 1850s and within 60 years, the county was one of the state’s top silver and copper producers. Approximately 41,000 people make their homes there and work in forest products, agriculture, tourism and recreation, and public services. The character of the county is decidedly rural, but increasingly, commuters are making the southern end of the county a bedroom community of Spokane. The largest municipalities are Chewelah, Colville, Kettle Falls, Marcus, Northport, and Springdale, but only 7 percent of the population live within their limits.

Colvilles and Spokanes

What would become Stevens County was originally occupied by the Native Americans of the Sohweihlp (also called Kettle and Colville), Lake, and the Spokan (Spokane) tribes as far back as 13,000 years B.C.E. The Colvilles and the Lakes generally occupied the northern part of the county up the Columbia and the Spokanes lived in the south along the Spokane River. They spoke variations of the Salish or Salishan language and intermarriage linked these and other tribes of the Columbia Plateau and Puget Sound.

The Colvilles and Spokanes were at first primarily hunters, but the conifer forests thinned and big game such as antelope and buffalo moved east. They learned to subsist more on roots, berries, and fish, particularly the annual runs of salmon. Kettle Falls, where the Columbia dropped 50 feet through a series of cascades, became an important fishery and trading location that in the summer months attracted as many as 14 different tribes from as far away as the Rockies. Every July, a Colville salmon chief decided, after a period of meditation, when fishing should begin and he allocated the catch among the visiting tribes. The Spokanes similarly managed three important fisheries along the Spokane River, sharing resources with other tribes.

Beginning about 1730, the Indians acquired the horse, which changed their culture. Improved transportation enabled the hunter/gatherers to carry more fresh game over wider areas so the horse became a measure of wealth and political power.

European diseases, particularly smallpox introduced first in the 1780s by contact on the coast with explorers, swept through tribal communities that had little natural immunity. By the time non-Indians began exploring the interior, the populations had been reduced dramatically, perhaps by half or more. By the time of resettlement to reservations in the 1880s, the Indian Agent at Fort Colville supervised no more than a thousand people.

The Spokanes and the Colvilles did not sign treaties with the U.S. government in the 1850s as did many other Washington tribes, so there was no formal cession of their lands to the United States. Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) approached the tribes in the summer of 1855, but when they balked at his terms, he moved on. It fell to the Congress to designate reservations for the tribes whether they agreed or not. In 1872, the Colvilles and tribes of the Big Bend Country received the Colville Reservation in Okanogan and Ferry counties (later greatly reduced due to settler pressure). This reservation became home to the Colville Confederated Tribes. In 1881 the Spokanes received their reservation along the Spokane River at the southern end of Stevens County.

Fur Trading

The first European to visit Stevens County was Canadian explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) in 1811 and this led to the establishment of Spokane House where the Spokane River met the Columbia, just over the future county line.

In about 1816, the Northwest Fur Company operated a trading station near Kettle Falls, making it perhaps the first non-Indian settlement in the county. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) took over the Northwest Company in 1821. In 1825, under John Work, HBC built a stockade about one mile above Kettle Falls calling it Fort Colvile after Andrew Wedderburn Colvile, the London head of the company. Fort Colvile became second in importance only to Fort Vancouver in HBC's operations in the Northwest. Hudson's Bay Company operated this post until 1871 when the last factor, Angus McDonald, moved all the goods north to British territory. Company employees of French, Canadian, and Scottish origins became the county’s first European settlers and they married into Native American families.

The Word of God

In September 1838, Congregationalist missionaries Elkanah Walker (b. 1805) and his wife Mary Richardson Walker (1811-1897) and Cushing Eells (b. 1910) and his wife Myra Eells arrived in the Pacific Northwest to establish a mission to convert Native Americans to Christianity. On the suggestion of Fort Colvile Factor Archibald McDonald, they built their mission in the Tshimakain Valley between the grounds were camas roots grew and the fisheries and on the main trail between Fort Colvile and the Walla Walla country. Already some 2,000 Spokanes made their home there. Tshimakain is Spokane for "the place of springs" (Bohm, 9). This became Walker’s Prairie. In nine years, Walker and Eells did not recruit a single Spokane convert. The murder of their coreligionists Marcus and Narcissa Whitman at Waiilatpu in 1847 led to the abandonment of Tshimakain in May 1848.

Shortly after Walker and Eells arrived, Jesuit priests Francis Norbert Blanchet (1795-1883) and Modest Demers (1809-1871) visited Fort Colville and identified the Kettle Falls area as a likely spot for their mission. In 1847, Fathers Joseph Joset and Louis Vercruysse built the log St. Paul’s Mission overlooking the fishing and meeting grounds. The Catholics had better luck at proselytizing and St. Paul’s served the faithful through the end of the nineteenth century.

The Indian War

Just as Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens was concluding treaties with tribes in the summer of 1855, word of gold strikes in the Colville and Okanogan Valleys leaked out. Prospectors blatantly ignored the closure of Indian lands to whites and war erupted all over the territory. This conflict lasted a little more than a year, as did the gold strikes. In 1858, another strike drew gold seekers to the Fraser River in British Columbia. Miners again trespassed on Indian lands. The Columbia was a natural highway for miners and two of them died in the Colville Country at Indian hands. Settlers relayed rumors of malicious tribal alliances and begged the territorial government for protection.

In May 1858, Governor Stevens dispatched U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Steptoe (1816-1865) from Fort Walla Walla to build a post in the Colville Valley. A stronger Indian force turned back Steptoe and his column on May 17 near the future Rosalia in what would become Whitman County. There followed the Indian War of 1858, fights between the Army and Indians south of the Spokane River, and the defeat in September of the tribes, including the Colvilles and the Spokanes. After peace, the Army established a post three miles from the Colville (American spelling) River.

About the time that Fort Colville grew up, civilians gathered north of the post and called it Pinkney City or Pinkneyville after the fort’s first commander. It soon became an important trading center and the county seat.


At the time the Territory of Washington was created in 1853, there was little in the way of non-Indian settlement in the area that eventually became Stevens County. After the Indian wars of 1855 and 1858, the government opened the area east of the Cascades to settlement. In January 1858 the Territorial Legislature created Spokane County, encompassing some 76,000 square miles between the Columbia River and the Rocky Mountains and appointed county officers. When the officers took no steps to organize a government, the legislature created the county again the next year and appointed officers, but neglected to name a county seat. Still no county government formed.

When the legislature created Spokane County a third time, it set the county seat on the land claim of a Dr. Bates near Fort Colville. This was enough to get the commissioners to meet for the first time on May 8, 1860. They set the election precinct at nearby Pinkney City.

In 1863, miners in the Okanogan Valley petitioned the legislature to create a new county for them since the seat at Pinkney City was so far away. The legislature created Stevens County between the Columbia River and the Cascades (present day Chelan, Okanogan, and Ferry counties), naming it after the territory’s first governor, Isaac Stevens, who had died in a Civil War battle at the head of his regiment the prior September. The miners appointed to form the county had other things to do and took no action.

The residents of Spokane County's Pinkney City asked the legislature to make Stevens part of Spokane for judicial purposes, the motive being to control both banks of the Columbia and make it harder for Chinese immigrants to avoid taxation. In 1864, the legislators did the opposite and made Spokane part of Stevens, which as a result then encompassed most of northern Washington east of the Cascades. Pinkney City became Fort Colville in 1868 to synchronize the name of the county seat with that of the post office. After the fort was abandoned in the 1880s, the town of Colville was established three miles away, closer to the trail to Walla Walla.

In 1875, the ambitious village of Spokane Falls convinced the legislature to move the county seat there. But the commissioners at Fort Colville simply nullified the act of the legislature and kept the county seat where it was.

The legislature carved Whitman County (including what eventually became Adams and Franklin counties) out of Stevens in 1871, followed by Spokane (including future Lincoln, Douglas, and Grant counties) in 1879, Okanogan (including Chelan) in 1888, Ferry in 1899, and finally Pend Oreille in 1910, resulting in Stevens County's present-day boundaries.


The county’s first immigrants were the Euro-American and Chinese prospectors who sifted flakes of gold out of sand and gravel beginning in the 1850s, but these efforts soon played out. In 1883, prospectors discovered lead and silver two miles east of Chewelah and in 1885 E. E. Alexander and his partners opened the Old Dominion Mine near there. Eastern capital came into the county as did wage-earning workers and economic growth. The development of electricity to illuminate homes and business and to power motors large and small made copper a profitable ore as well.

Mine profits suffered from the remoteness of Stevens County. Crude roads connected the area to the Northern Pacific Railroad at Spokane Falls, but were ill-suited for carrying ore. Riverboats along the Columbia and its tributaries could only operate from winter to summer before the water dropped below navigable levels. In 1890, the Spokane Falls & Northern Railroad reached Marcus and two years later, Northport. The Spokane Falls helped tap the mineral resources of the Colville Country and helped keep Spokane afloat during the financial Panic of 1893. The railroad also enabled loggers to ship trees and cut lumber.

In 1896, more gold and silver hunters flooded into the "North Half" of the Colville Reservation in Ferry County when the reservation was opened for mineral entry. In 1897, the "South Half" was similarly released to the miners. All had to travel through and ship their ore out of Stevens County. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Steven County economy was firmly based on mining, smelting, logging, and agriculture. In 1917, the majority of silver produced in Washington state came from Stevens County and the Chewelah District led the state in copper production. Big smelters turned ore into metal at Northport and at Trail in British Columbia.

When World War I cut off magnesite (needed for high-quality steel) from Austria, the crystalline magnesite deposits near Chewelah became particularly profitable. Other mineral deposits yielded up clay for pottery and terra cotta, lime for smelting and fertilizers, and ornamental stone.

Hard Times

The end of World War I in 1918 saw a plunge in Stevens County’s fortunes. Since armies no longer needed lead for their bullets, the lead mines and the Red Mountain Railway closed. A worldwide agricultural depression beginning in 1919 precipitated drops in crop prices and farmers and ranchers unable to meet expenses abandoned their homesteads. By 1929, half the north county’s population had moved away and then things got bad.

The Great Depression (1929-1939) led to bank failures, foreclosures, and more unemployment. Hundreds of sections of land settled between 1910 and 1925 reverted to county ownership for delinquent taxes. Many residents relied on a subsistence and barter economy where they ate what they raised and traded goods and services. Everyone was poor.

Prohibition started in Washington in 1916, but many sought to avoid or evade its strictures. Liquor was still legal in Canada and drinkers could cross the border for libation. On the main road from the interior of British Columbia into Eastern Washington, the county was a natural conduit for smugglers seeking to quench the thirst of Spokane and the rest of the state. Smuggling and bootlegging provided badly needed cash to the local economy.

Beginning in 1934, the New Deal of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration provided much-needed help in the form of conservation improvements by the Civilian Conservation Corps and infrastructure improvements by the Works Progress Administration. Construction of Grand Coulee Dam down river offered jobs beginning in 1935 to workers willing to move to the boom towns of Coulee City. The Farm Security Administration provided loans to farmers to buy farms. The Resettlement Administration paid farmers to move from marginal land, which was then made part of national forests. Grand Coulee backed up the Columbia to become Roosevelt Lake, flooding some communities. Kettle Falls moved, but some towns just disappeared.

Grand Coulee and other Columbia River dams killed the great runs of salmon that meant so much to the Native American way of life, and flooded the cascades at Kettle Falls. On the day that the water inundated the falls, the Colvilles gathered and held a "Ceremony of Tears" to mourn the passing of the life-giving fish. The lake provided the basis for a new industry, recreation and tourism.

In a reversal of the trend, Stevens County voters decided in 1955 to sell its public utilities district (PUD) to Washington Water Power Co. (WWP) instead of buying up the private utility. Elsewhere in the state, residents annoyed at the high rates charged by private power companies voted to form PUDs.

Mining declined through the rest of the twentieth century. In 1975, Alcoa built a magnesium smelter at Addy next to a dolomite deposit and became the largest employer in the county. But technology, markets, and the cost of electricity changed. By 2001, the processes used were no longer competitive and the plant closed at a cost of 325 jobs adding to a county unemployment rate of 12 percent, and leaving as well vegetables that might be contaminated with arsenic and cadmium.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Colville National Forest is the largest public employer, and three of the four largest private employers in Stevens County are forest products companies. Together the county and the school district employ 700.

Many county residents found employment in the Spokane area, but more Spokane workers moved to Stevens County, accepting long commutes as the price for rural lifestyles. They built homes, and highways to Spokane filled with commuters even before dawn. As Colville’s population declined, new developments sprouted in the south part of the county. Retirees from urban areas all over the country found the same attractions and built their homes in the wide valleys and among the conifers.

This created pressure on the county’s frontier approach to land use. In 2005, Stevens was one of the last three counties in the state without building codes or zoning. County officials struggled to meet a deadline set under the State’s Growth Management Act for regulations to funnel growth into areas with the infrastructure to support it. Activists concerned about nuisances and environmental protection used the Act to block property subdivisions until county commissioners adopted a management plan. Property-rights advocates resisted regulation of private property. On June 27, 2006, the commissioners adopted the Stevens County Comprehensive Plan to comply with a state-imposed deadline for regulations.


Robert L. Bennett and George Hill, The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun, Expanded Edition (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1996); Fred C. Bohm and Craig E. Holstine, The People's History of Stevens County (Colville: The Stevens County Historical Society, 1983); Online encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Ferry County -- Thumbnail History” (by Laura Arksey), “Kettle Falls” (by Cassandra Tate), and “The North West Company establishes Spokane House in 1810” (by Kit Oldham), (accessed October 23, 2006); W. P. Winans, Stevens County, Washington: Its Creation, Addition, Subtraction, and Division typescript dated January 1904, Calll No. R979.782 W72S, The Seattle Public Library; Carl Oman with Ida Mae Culler, Carl Oman Remembers: From Stevens County, Washington (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1987); Richard F. Steele, An Illustrated History of Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Chelan Counties, State of Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1904), 65-181; Lawrence E. Davies, “Coast Area Split by Power Battle,” The New York Times, November 20, 1955, p. 74; “Private Power Wins Election in the West,” Ibid., November 24, 1955, p. 53; Robert T. Nelson, “Alcoa Smelter Closure Will Cost 325 Jobs,” The Seattle Times, June 23, 2001, p. E-2; “County Adjacent to Spokane Beset By Growing Pains,” Ibid., January 22, 1995; John Craig, “Poisonous Metals Detected Stevens County Residents Near Canadian Border Warned,” Spokesman Review (Spokane), April 27, 1994, p. B-2; Jennifer Langston, “Stevens County Faces a Sign of the Times -- Zoning,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 5, 2005, p. A-1; “Stevens County Adopts County Comprehensive Plan,” Focus: Stevens County Land Use Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Summer 2006), p. 1 (; "Stevens County Timeline & Boundary Changes," Stevens County Crossroads on the Columbia Digital Archive website accessed February 17, 2016 (
Note: This essay was corrected on February 3, 2007, and February 17, 2016.

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