The Washington Territorial Legislature incorporates the city of Port Townsend on January 16, 1860.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 6/16/2009
  • Essay 9055
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On January 16, 1860, the Washington Territorial Legislature passes an act incorporating the city of Port Townsend. The settlement in Jefferson County at the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula becomes the fourth in Washington to incorporate, following Steilacoom (Pierce County), Vancouver (Clark County), and Olympia (Thurston County). The city charter set forth in the legislation establishes a five-member Board of Trustees to govern the city and creates the offices of City Clerk and City Marshall.

Port Townsend traces its origins to April 24, 1851, when Alfred A. Plummer (1822-1883) and Charles Bachelder became the first non-Indians to settle in the area called Kah Tai by its Klallam inhabitants. Six months later, Plummer and Bachelder joined with two newer arrivals, Loren B. Hastings (1814-1881) and Francis W. Pettygrove (d. 1887), to establish the town of Port Townsend, which they named for the large bay at whose mouth the town was located. Local Klallam leaders gave permission for the settlement after the founders offered needles, fishhooks, mirrors, and other trade items and promised payment from the United States government for the town site.

Petition to Incorporate

Bachelder soon departed for Port Ludlow, but the other three founders and their families stayed and played leading roles in the growing community. When Jefferson County was established in late 1852, Port Townsend became the county seat. In 1854, Washington Territory's Port of Entry was moved from Olympia to Port Townsend. Five years later the town's non-Indian population had reached 300, equaling or surpassing the nearby Klallam population.

By then the leading citizens of Port Townsend had decided that the town should run its own affairs, rather than being governed directly by Jefferson County. In December 1859, they submitted a petition to the legislature asking that the town of Port Townsend be incorporated and granted a charter setting up a town government. The petition was signed by Plummer, Hastings, and Pettygrove, the three remaining town founders, and numerous other prominent residents, including J. J. H. van Bokkelen, F. A. Wilson, and J. G. Clinger, who would go on to be named city officers in the new charter. Also signing was James G. Swan (1818-1900), who had just arrived in town earlier that year, but would go on to become one of Port Townsend’s most accomplished and intriguing residents and perhaps its greatest booster and chronicler.

The Territorial Legislature responded favorably to Port Townsend's petition. On January 16, 1860, the legislature passed "An Act to Incorporate the City of Port Townsend, Jefferson County, Washington Territory." Although the residents had asked to incorporate as a town, and the act as originally written did so, for reasons not explained in the record the legislature amended the act to incorporate Port Townsend as a city -- in the handwritten original copy of the legislation, each reference to "town" is crossed out and replaced with "city."

Original Charter

The act of incorporation included a charter, essentially a constitution for the new city that set up its governing structure. This original charter created a five-member Board of Trustees, to be elected annually, to run the city government, and provided that the trustees would appoint a City Clerk and City Marshall. The trustees were to serve without compensation, but the clerk and marshall were paid offices.

Under the charter, elections were to be held each April. Because the charter went into effect as soon as it was signed by the presiding officers of the legislature on January 16, it named the officers who would serve until the first election. F. A. Wilson, J. G. Clinger, George Gerrish, William Newton, and H. B. Wheeler became the first trustees. J. J. H. van Bokkelen was named City Clerk and Franklin Tucker was designated City Marshall.

By the 1870s, the board of trustees structure was deemed inefficient and Port Townsend re-incorporated, adopting a new charter with a mayor/ city council form of government. Charles Eisenbeis (1833-1902), a German immigrant and one of the city's leading businessmen, was elected the first mayor.

Lost and Found

A century after Port Townsend received its original charter in 1860, that historic document had disappeared. A 1962 news article by Ruth Jackson, then the director of the Jefferson County Historical Museum, recounts, "[i]t had been missing for a number of years, and no one knew what had happened to it or where it could be found" until William J. Daly, the Jefferson County prosecuting attorney at the time, "took it upon himself to see if it could be located" (Port Townsend Leader). Jackson wrote:

"Mr. Daly deserves a great deal of credit, as he has spent considerable time and effort in locating this charter. ..."

"After searching the city and county records without results, he went to Seattle to the King County library and to the University of Washington -- with no success. It was after considerable difficulty and by a stroke of good fortune that he was able to locate the charter in the library of a law firm in Seattle."

"These Territorial acts were printed only in pamphlet form (there were no bound volumes) which were easily lost. The ones that now exist came from individuals who are historically minded" (Port Townsend Leader).

Daly framed a copy of the original charter and presented it to the Jefferson County Historical Museum in April 1962, shortly before the 111th anniversary of Port Townsend's founding. Copies of the charter and the petition asking to be incorporated are (in 2009) still preserved at the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Center.

Sources: Ruth Jackson, "Daly Turns Sleuth, Locates Original City Charter for Historical Museum," Port Townsend Leader, April 26, 1962, p. 1; "List of Acts Passed at the Seventh Session of the Legislative Assembly," Pioneer and Democrat, February 3, 1860, p. 2; With Pride in Heritage: History of Jefferson County ed. by the Jefferson County Historical Society (Port Townsend: Jefferson County Historical Society, 1966), 64; City of Dreams ed. by Peter Simpson (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1986), 83-84, 96-100, 142; William D. Welsh, A Brief Historical Sketch of Port Townsend (Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce, 14th printing, revised, 1973), 5-7, 16; "Incorporations of Washington Cities and Towns by Year," Municipal Research and Services Center website accessed April 24, 2009 (; "An Act to Incorporate the City of Port Townsend, Jefferson County, Washington Territory," dated January 16, 1860, and petition "To the Legislative Assembly of Washington Territory," dated December 13, 1859, copies in possession of Jefferson County Historical Society Research Center.

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