Washington Territorial Legislature creates Snohomish County (out of Island County) on January 14, 1861.

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 12/02/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9655
See Additional Media

On January 14, 1861, the Washington Territorial Legislature creates Snohomish County out of Island County and designates Mukilteo as the temporary county seat. The background is as follows. In November 1860, in the Snohomish River valley of Washington Territory, three local Indians murder trade post operator T. P. Carter. An Indian posse pursues the killers into December and fearful settlers, hoping to gain greater protection and local government control, assemble in the small home of Emory C. Ferguson (1833-1911) in Snohomish and draft a petition to create a new county. During a snowy week in January 1861, the Legislature creates Snohomish County out of Island County. In July 1861, an election will be held to select officers and, in a vote of 17 to 10, the county seat will be moved to Snohomish City. In 1897, Everett will become county seat.

A Snowy Night

In Olympia the Legislature deliberated on the matter of Snohomish County during a week of unusual snow. The atmosphere of the time can be glimpsed by this journalistic rhapsody that appeared in an Olympia newspaper the week the county was created.

“During Friday night the first snow of the year fell upon us. On Saturday morning, the hill side clearings appeared as if they put on, while the dark hours were yet supreme, a white overcoat, to gently surprise us with when the day should come. All day Saturday the white flakes drifted down upon our winter scenery, reminding many of us of our old houses far away over the mountains. The air was mild and invigorating.  The only disagreeable thing was the melting soft snow wetting our feet; but the soaking, spongy ground soon absorbs the winter fleece that remains in a mass upon the ground no longer than merely to put us in mind of sleigh bells. From the end of the wharf, the scene was unusually winter like. The snow flakes dropped silently, but swiftly, into the hurrying tide, where the docks were moving gracefully to and fro; and on both shores of the bay, looming through the falling storm, were the sloping, pure white hills, crowned with the deep evergreen, cathedral like forest, now flocked with snow ...” (The Pioneer and Democrat [Olympia], January 11, 1861).   

Unsettled Times: Background of County Formation

Pioneers who ventured into the Pacific Northwest following the formation of Washington Territory in 1853 were few in number and included several adventurous sea captains who filed Donation Land Claims on Whidbey Island and established Coupeville as the county seat of Island County, which included all of what is now Snohomish County. 

A settlement on Tulalip Bay in 1853 is often referred to as the birthplace of Snohomish County.  Here pioneer John Gould (1823-1900), Hudson’s Bay trapper Peter Goutre (1804-1875), and Jehial Hall staked claims and began a water-powered sawmill. Charles C. Phillips (1824-1867), who ran a canoe mail service, and Seattle pioneer Dr. Wesley Cherry (d. 1854) partnered in the mill operation. 

But it was short-lived. The Point Elliott Treaty signed on January 22, 1855, placed the Tulalip Reservation at this location, putting an end to the settlers’ mill plans.  The treaty was not ratified until 1859, giving mill investors time to fulfill their land claim provisions before moving on.     

The small number of settlers in the Snohomish River valley had reason to feel powerless and vulnerable.  The Point Elliot Treaty had been a confusing and disagreeable settlement for local tribes and the four-year delay in ratifying it had left them adrift with growing frustration over encroaching white settlement. Their frustration sometimes took the form of harassing individual settlers. In turn, settlers  often took matters into their own hands, increasing tension on both sides.   

Hoping to control Indian unrest following the treaty, Company I, First Regiment of Washington Territory Volunteers, under Col. Isaac Ebey (1818-1857) was dispatched to build a fort on the Snohomish River. The men boarded the schooner Trask in November 1855 and were towed by the steamer Traveler to a small island at the head of Ebey Slough, about a mile southeast of Lowell. Here the men erected a crude cedar-log building and christened it “Fort Ebey.” Following an uneventful winter, they withdrew from the site early in 1856.  

A syndicate was formed in Steilacoom in 1859 to capitalize on an expected military road that would connect Fort Steilacoom and Fort Bellingham. E. T. Cady (b. 1828) , Hiel Barnes (1828-1910?), and E. H. Tucker (1933-1912) were sent to claim land where a ferry was to be built crossing the Snohomish River. 

Emory C. Ferguson, a carpenter from Westchester County, New York, scouted opportunities at this location, taking a claim at what would become Snohomish, on the banks of the Snohomish River.  Barnes held the claim for Ferguson who built a cottage for himself in Steilacoom and then had it shipped to Snohomish aboard the steamer Ranger 2. Barnes reassembled it on Ferg’s property; Ferguson came to live there in 1860. 

It was in his small cottage that a petition was drafted requesting formation of Snohomish County.  A settlement was developing at Mukilteo as well, location of the Point Elliot Treaty.  In 1860 Port Townsend federal customs officer Morris H. Frost (1804-1882) built a store and saloon at Mukilteo, and convinced Jacob Fowler (1837-1892) from Ebey’s Landing to join him as a business partner.   

The presidential election in November 1860 held big issues as the country became increasingly divided on the slavery issue. Some local settlers wanted to vote.  Seventeen votes from the mainland that would become Snohomish County were unofficially sent to Coupeville, but arrived too late to be counted.   

Murder of T. P. Carter  

As the country moved toward civil war, a new president, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was elected on November 6, 1860.  That same month, across the river from Snohomish, three Indians murdered trade post operator T. P. Carter (d. 1860) Indians in what was thought to be an incitement to riot. 

While a large Indian posse led by M. T. Simmons (1814-1867) pursued the killers, settlers met at Ferguson’s house on December 20, 1860, and discussed the urgency of forming a new county. In January they met again and drafted a petition to create Snohomish County, to be formed from the mainland portion of Island County. But the Washington Territorial Legislature was already enacting this legislation and it is likely that Morris Frost, who had strong connections in Olympia, had petitioned as well.  

The petition submitted from Snohomish read: 

We the undersigned citizens of Island County Wash Ty. do respectfully petition your honorable body; that you will take under consideration, and in your wisdom think proper to grant this our request; which is, that all that part of Island County which lies on the main land between the Counties of King and Whatcom, be set aside and incorporated into a separate county, to be called Snohomish County. 
E. C. Ferguson
John O. Riley
Salem Woods
Francis Dolan
John Reeche
Charles Short
J. P. Voisard
H. Brockman or Brachman
Jacob Wilson
A. Davis
B. King
George Allain (Allen)
George Saunders
William Fisher
James Martin
George Kelsey
Henry McClurg
Samuel Howe
John Harvey
P. Doyle
B. F. Johnson

 A New County

Snohomish County was formed by the Washington Territorial Legislature on January 14, 1861, and the temporary county seat placed at Mukilteo. Boundaries were delineated as follows: 

“Beginning at the northwest corner of the county of King, being at the point where township line north of township number twenty-six strikes Puget Sound waters, thence running due east,  by said north line of township No. 26, to the summit of the Cascade Mountains, thence northerly, by the said summit, till it strikes the easterly continuation of the eighth standard parallel, thence due west, by the said parallel, till it strikes the channel of the waters near the mouth and southward of the Skagit river, thence by the channel, running eastward of Camano or McDonald’s Island, and through Port Susan Bay, and leaving Gedney’s Island to the east, thence southerly to the place of beginning” (General Laws, 19). 

A rough census taken at this time counted Snohomish County’s non-Native population at 49 men and no women.  (Snohomish County’s earliest male settlers often formed families with local Indian women.) 

The County’s first officers were: Sheriff, Jacob Summers; County Commissioners, E. C. Ferguson, Henry McClurg (b. ca. 1832), John Harvey (1829-1886); Auditor, J. D. Fowler; Judge of Probate, Charles Short; Treasurer, John Harvey.  New commissioners met at Frost and Fowler’s store in Mukilteo on March 12, 1861, to begin conducting business, which included accepting a petition for the county to build a road from Snohomish City following the Snohomish and Skykomish rivers to Woods Prairie (Monroe). 

Fowler’s request for a liquor license was rejected since commissioners held they could only issue full licenses, in the amount of $300.  When Frost and Fowler agreed to pay the full amount, the license was granted. Salem Woods of Woods Prairie was appointed assessor with Fowler taking over as treasurer. C. M. Stilwell was chosen Justice of the Peace for Mukilteo and Snohomish and Salem Woods (1839-1897) became sheriff.  Frost and Fowler agreed to the full liquor license, and Ferguson and Cady were licensed to operate their ferry across the river at Snohomish.

The first Snohomish County election was held on July 8, 1861, and it set the tone for county politics by establishing Snohomish City as the permanent county seat (a position it would hold until 1897 when Everett became the county seat) and Ferguson’s leadership (Republican) emerged over Frost and Fowler’s (Democrat). 

In his after-dinner speeches in the years following, E. C. Ferguson enjoyed telling how he had personally carried record books from Mukilteo back to his house in Snohomish.  His small home served as the county’s first courthouse.  It still stands, near its original site, and is now honored with a historical marker.


David Cameron, Charles LeWarne, Alan May, J. C. O’Donnell, Lawrence O’Donnell, Snohomish County: An Illustrated History (Index: Kelcema Press, 2002), 61-64;  David Dilgard, “The Tulalip Settlement of 1853, Journal of Everett & Snohomish County History, No. 1 (Winter 1980-1981), 2-13;  “Council Bill W.T. 113, On Act Amendatory of An Act to Create and Organi[s]e Snohomish County, passed January 14, 1861,” Washington State Archives; “An Act: To Create and Organize Snohomish County,” General Laws, Washington Territory January 14, 1861; David Dilgard, “Documents: Fragments of Proceedings of a Meeting of Settlers in the Snohomish River Valley, December 20, 1860,” an unpublished and undated manuscript, and David Dilgard, “Snohomish County Census, 1861: An Alphabetical Listing which combines the Northern Star and Ferguson census lists of 1861,” and David Dilgard notes, “Poll Book of July 9, 1860 Election at Snohomish City,” and “Petition to Territorial Legislature Requesting Formation of Snohomish County, Washington Territory, drawn from the Everett Public Library, Northwest Room files on Snohomish County’s formation; History of Snohomish County, Washington ed. by William Whitfield (Chicago: Pioneer Publishing Company, 1926); An Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish County Washington (Chicago:  Interstate Publishing Company, 1906);  HistoryLink.org the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Snohomish County Thumbnail History” (by Margaret Riddle) and “Snohomish Thumbnail History” (by Warner Blake); Pioneer and Democrat, January  4, 11, 18 and 25, 1861; Margaret Riddle phone conversation with David Dilgard, November 29, 2010.

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