For a major US city, Seattle’s civic history begins very late in the chronicle of the nation. While the rest of the country was establishing firm roots, most of today’s Seattle was covered in deep forest that was perennially drenched in rain. Though native groups lived here long before, colonialist settlement didn’t reach Puget Sound until 1851. The history of Seattle as a city is itself only about 130 years long, but in that time it’s become the cultural and economic center of the Pacific Northwest. Not that the city would ever brag about that status itself, mind you.
Despite its achievements and importance to the region, Seattle still has the mellow sense of modesty and self-deprecation that characterizes the Northwest. This dates back to its laid-back origins as ‘New York Pretty Soon’. The attitude peaked in the 1950s and ’60s, with the wild antiboosterism of newspaper columnist Emmett Watson (who wrote things like ‘Have a nice day – somewhere else’ and ‘Our suicide rate is one of the highest in the nation. But we can be No 1!’). And it colored the way the nation perceives Seattle with the popularization of the antiglamourous in the form of grunge, a trend whose fame seemed to mortify the city. Then there was the city’s naive excitement at being selected to host the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) conference and many residents’ shock at the resulting fallout. Seattle always seems to have an uncomfortable relationship with the success it has struggled to achieve.
When the accumulated ice of the great polar glaciers of the Pleistocene Epoch lowered sea levels throughout the world, the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from Siberia to Alaska via a land bridge across the Bering Strait. By this reckoning, the present tribes of Puget Sound arrived here 11, 000 or 12, 000 years ago, before the glaciers receded.
Unlike the Plains Indians living further inland, who were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers, the first inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest were intimately tied to the rivers, lakes and sea. The tribe living on the site of today’s Seattle was called the Duwamish. They and other tribal groups along Puget Sound – notably the Suquamish, Coast Salish and Chinook – depended on catching salmon, cod and shellfish. On land, they hunted deer and elk, more for their protective hides than for their flesh. Though each group had its own dialect, coastal natives communicated through a language called Lushootseed, which natives today struggle to keep from extinction.
Summer and fall were dedicated to harvesting the bounty of the sea and forest. Food was stored in massive quantities to carry the tribes through the long winter months, when the most important ancient legends and ceremonies were handed down to the younger generations. In terms of artistic, religious and cultural forms, the Northwest coastal Indians reached a pinnacle of sophistication unmatched by most Native American groups. Ornately carved cedar canoes served as transportation, and extensive trading networks evolved between the permanent settlements that stretched up and down the coast and along the river valleys.
Extended family groups lived in cedar longhouses, which were constructed over a central pit-like living area. The social structure in these self-sustaining villages was quite stratified, with wealth and power held by an aristocratic class of chiefs. Social and religious rituals were dominated by a strict clan system. Wealth was measured in goods such as blankets, salmon and fish oil. These items were consumed and to some degree redistributed in ceremonial feasts in which great honor accrued to the person who gave away valued items.
Puget Sound natives evolved complex cultural, social, and economic structures, which the invasion of Euro-American settlers in the mid-1800s almost erased. Today tribes struggle for survival, respect and renewal.
Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest in general were among the last areas of the Americas to be explored by Europeans. In fact, almost 300 years passed between the arrival of white explorers in America and their ‘discovery’ of Puget Sound.
The first white expedition to explore the Puget Sound area came in 1792, when the British sea captain George Vancouver sailed through the inland waterways of the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Georgia. In the same year, the USA entered the competition to claim the Northwest when Captain Robert Gray reached the mouth of the Columbia River.
The major reason for European and American eagerness to claim this forested and well-watered corner of the map was its immense wealth in furs. The region’s waterways were especially rich in beavers and otters, the pelts of which were a highly valued commodity in Europe and Asia and thus an important article of trade.
None of these exploration or trade expeditions led directly to a pioneer settlement or even a permanent trading post. This development came with the powerful fur-trading companies, especially the British Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). From Fort Vancouver, the HBC – and hence Britain – controlled all trade in the Pacific Northwest. The Puget Sound area was linked to the fur-trading fort by the Cowlitz River. Because of its strict code of conduct, the company had legal authority over the area’s few whites, mostly French Canadian and Scottish trappers. The HBC also policed trade relationships between the whites and the region’s native inhabitants.
The first US settlers straggled overland to the Pacific Northwest in the 1830s on the rough tracks that would become the Oregon Trail. The HBC chief factor, Dr John McLoughlin, sought to restrict American settlement to the region south of the Columbia River, in Oregon. In doing so, he kept the prime land along Puget Sound from settlement. McLoughlin sensed that one day the USA and Britain would divide the territory; if US settlement could be limited to the area south of the Columbia, then Britain would have a stronger claim to the land north of the river. It worked. When the settlers in Oregon voted in 1843 to become a US territory, present-day Washington remained in British hands.
American settlers continued rolling in to the Pacific Northwest. Between 1843 and 1860 some 53, 000 settlers migrated across the 2000-mile-long Oregon Trail. As they pushed northward into land controlled largely by the HBC, boundary disputes between the USA and Britain became increasingly antagonistic. The popular slogan of the 1844 US presidential campaign was ‘Fifty-four Forty or Fight, ’ which urged US citizens to occupy territory in the Northwest up to the present Alaskan border, including all of Washington state and British Columbia. Finally, in 1846, the British and the Americans agreed to the present US–Canadian border along the 49th parallel.
Arthur and David Denny were native New Yorkers who, in 1851, led a group of settlers across the Oregon Trail with the intention of settling in the Willamette Valley. On the way, they heard stories of good land and deep water ports along Puget Sound. When the Denny party arrived in Portland in the fall, they decided to keep going north. The settlers staked claims on Alki Point, in present-day West Seattle. The group named their encampment Alki–New York (the Chinookan word Alki means ‘pretty soon’ or ‘by and by’). After a winter of wind and rain, the group determined that their fledgling city needed a deeper harbor and moved the settlement to the mudflats across Elliott Bay. The colony was renamed Seattle for the Duwamish chief Sealth (pronounced see-aalth, with a guttural ‘th’ being made up of a hard ‘t’ and an ‘h’ that’s almost a lisp off the end of the word), who was the friend of an early merchant.
The attitudes of Seattle’s first settlers established it as a progressive, budding community. Traversing the Oregon Trail was an arduous and costly adventure. The Pacific Northwest was not settled by penniless wanderers, but earnest young men and women, mostly in their twenties, who had the wherewithal to make the six-month trip and were determined to establish farms, businesses and communities.
Still, early Seattle was hardly a boomtown. The heart of the young city beat in the area now known as Pioneer Square. Although there was a small but deep harbor at this point in Elliott Bay, much of the land immediately to the south was mudflats, ideal for oysters but not much else. The land to the north and east was steep and forested. The early settlers (whose names now ring as a compendium of street names and landmarks: Denny, Yesler, Bell, Boren) quickly cleared the land and established a sawmill, schools, churches and other civic institutions. From the start, the people who settled Seattle never doubted that they were founding a great city. The original homesteads were quickly plaited into city streets, and trade, not farming or lumbering, became the goal of the little settlement.
Since it was a frontier town, the majority of Seattle’s male settlers were bachelors. One of the town’s founders (and sole professor at the newly established university), Asa Mercer, went back to the East Coast with the express purpose of inducing young, unmarried women to venture to Seattle. Fifty-seven women made the journey and married into the frontier stock, in the process establishing a more civilized tone in the city.
Seattle’s early economic growth came from shipping logs to San Francisco, a city booming with gold wealth. At the time, loggers had to go no further than the bluffs above town, now First and Capitol Hills, to find hundreds of acres of old-growth fir forest. As the sawmill was located on the waterfront, the logs had to be transported down the steep hillside. A skid road was developed on which horses and mules pulled the logs down a chute of ever-present mud. This skid road later became Yesler Way, the prototype of the term ‘skid road’ or ‘skid row.’
Because of the region’s many railroad and mining companies, and Seattle’s position on the Pacific Rim, a large number of Chinese immigrants settled in the city. The fact that Asian laborers worked at jobs that most white Americans shunned didn’t prevent the perception that these ‘foreign’ workers were taking jobs away from ‘real Americans’ and then, as now, it didn’t prevent episodes of ugly racism.
As anti-Chinese sentiment grew in outlying communities around the Pacific Northwest, more and more Chinese moved to Seattle, where the multitude of employment opportunities offered them continued security and led to a sense of community. The area south of Yesler Way was considered Chinatown, where most of the new arrivals made their homes; today it has a more varied population, including ‘Little Saigon, ’ and is known as the International District.
The first recorded clash between the Chinese minority and white settlers came in 1885, when a Chinese immigrant was knifed to death. That year, a group called the Anti-Chinese Congress – primarily composed of radical labor unions – used fear tactics and mob assent to establish a date by which all Chinese would be forced to leave the Puget Sound area. Between 750 and 1000 Chinese workers left. But about 500 Chinese continued to live and work in Seattle. In February 1886, a mob entered Chinatown and attempted to forcibly remove the remaining Chinese, driving them onto ships. State and city officials tried to mediate, but violence erupted. Five people were shot. One white protester died from his wounds. Federal troops were called in to restore order.
The Chinese population plummeted, especially in light of court rulings that barred Chinese men from sending for their wives in China. This restriction was a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was finally repealed in 1943 when China became a US ally during WWII.
Frontier Seattle was a thrown-together village of wooden storefronts, log homes and lumber mills. Tidewater lapped against present-day 1st Ave S, and many of the buildings and the streets that led to them were on stilts. No part of the original downtown was more than 4ft above the bay at high tide, and the streets were frequently a quagmire.
On June 6, 1889, a fire started in a store basement on 1st Ave and quickly spread through the young city: the boardwalks provided an unstoppable conduit for the flames. By the end of the day, 30 blocks of the city had burned, gutting the core of downtown.
What might have seemed a catastrophe was in fact a blessing, as the city rebuilt immediately with handsome structures of brick, steel and stone. This time, however, the streets were regraded, and ravines and inlets filled in. This raised the new city about a dozen feet above the old. In some areas the regrading simply meant building on top of older ground-level buildings and streets.
The sense of transformation inspired by the Great Fire also fueled another great rebuilding project. One of Seattle’s original seven hills, Denny Hill, rose out of Elliott Bay just north of Pine St. Its very steep face limited commercial traffic, though some hotels and private homes were perched on the hilltop. City engineers determined that if Seattle’s growth was to continue, Denny Hill had to go. Between 1899 and 1912, the hill was sluiced into Elliott Bay. Twenty million gallons of water were pumped daily from Lake Union and sprayed onto the rock and soil. Under great pressure, the water liquefied the clay and dislodged the rock, all of which was sluiced into flumes. Existing homes were simply undercut and then burned.
Seattle’s first real boom came when the ship Portland docked at the waterfront in 1897 with its now-famous cargo: two tons of gold newly gleaned from northern Yukon goldfields. The news spread quickly across the USA; within weeks, thousands of fortune seekers from all over the world converged on Seattle, the last stop before heading north. That summer and fall, 74 ships left Seattle bound for Skagway, Alaska, and on to the goldfields in Dawson City, Yukon.
In all, more than 40,000 prospectors passed through Seattle. The Canadian government demanded that prospectors bring a year’s worth of supplies, so they wouldn’t freeze or starve to death midway. Outfitting the miners became big business in Seattle. The town became the banking center for the fortunes made in the Yukon. Bars, brothels, theaters and honky-tonks in Pioneer Square blossomed.
Many of Seattle’s shopkeepers, tavern owners and restaurateurs made quick fortunes in the late 1890s. Far more so than most of the prospectors. Many who did make fortunes in Alaska chose to stay in the Northwest, settling in the thriving port city on Puget Sound.
Seattle grew quickly. The Klondike Gold Rush provided great wealth, and the railroads brought in a steady stream of immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Seattle controlled most of the shipping trade with Alaska and increasingly with nations of the Pacific Rim. Company-controlled communities like Ballard sprang up, populated almost exclusively with Scandinavians who worked in massive sawmills. A new influx of Asian immigrants, this time from Japan, began streaming into Seattle, establishing fishing fleets and vegetable farms.
At the height of the gold rush in 1900, Seattle’s population reached 80,000, double the population figure from the 1890 census. By 1910, Seattle’s population jumped to a quarter million. Seattle had become the preeminent city of the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle’s boom continued through WWI, when Northwest lumber was in great demand. The opening of the Panama Canal brought increased trade to Pacific ports, which were free from wartime threats. Shipyards opened along Puget Sound, bringing the shipbuilding industry close to the forests of the Northwest.
One of the significant events in Seattle history occurred in 1916 when William Boeing, a pioneer aviator, designed and produced a pontoon biplane. Boeing went on to establish an airline, Boeing Air Transport (later United Airlines). But it was WWII that really started the engines at Boeing. The factory received contracts to produce the B-17 and B-29 bombers, which led in the US air war against Axis nations. Huge defense contracts began to flow into Boeing and by extension into Seattle, fueling more rapid growth and prosperity.
WWII brought other, less positive, developments to Seattle. About 7000 Japanese residents in Seattle and the nearby areas were removed forcibly from their jobs and homes. They were sent to the nearby ‘relocation center, ’ or internment camp, in Puyallup, then on to another camp in Idaho where they were detained under prison conditions for the duration of the war. This greatly depleted the Japanese community, which up to this point had built a thriving existence farming and fishing in Puget Sound. In all, an estimated 110, 000 Japanese across the country, two-thirds of whom were US citizens, were sent to internment camps. Upon their release, many declined to return to the homes they’d been forced to abandon.
Meanwhile, the boom in aircraft manufacturing and shipbuilding brought tens of thousands of new workers to the region. Because of Boeing, and the shipyards at Bremerton, Puget Sound became a highly defended area, which led to the building of several military facilities in the region. These bases also brought in thousands of new residents. By the end of the war, Seattle had grown to nearly half a million people.
Seattle’s population hit 565,000 in 1965 before economic realities began to draw baby boomers out of the city center and into the cheaper housing available in the suburbs. By 1970, the population of the rest of King County had passed Seattle’s. It’s still twice as large today.
In an attempt to win people back from the suburbs, downtown businesses dreamed up so-called ‘urban renewal’ projects such as razing Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market to build apartment towers and parking garages. Not many people liked this idea, of course, and the public banded together to preserve these and other historic landmarks. Around the same time, activists used new environmental-protection laws to defeat proposals for two local freeways and scale down an expansion plan for Interstate 90. With this new interest in its preservation, downtown’s vitality gradually started to return.
By 1972, voters had approved an all-bus transit system. In 1990 Metro Transit opened a bus tunnel beneath downtown. Voters gave rail transit the nod in 1996. One year later, voters also approved a new monorail system, but inadequate funding meant it never happened. Later came new stadiums for the Mariners and Seahawks, as well as voter-authorized funding for park improvements and new libraries.
The city is currently about to be reshaped yet again, and probably quite dramatically. The Alaskan Way Viaduct between the city and the Waterfront, generally considered an eyesore, will most likely be torn out and replaced (plans were still being formulated at the time of research). Rail transit is set to be expanded, and a planned new bio-tech center and surrounding neighborhood on the southern shore of Lake Union will be served by the city’s first streetcar in 65 years. And, for the first time in recent history, Seattle’s population is growing again.
The Boeing Airplane Company, started in 1917, was founded and named by William E Boeing and his partner, Conrad Westervelt. (Boeing tested his first plane, the B&W, in June 1916 by taking off from the middle of Lake Union.) For years, Boeing single-handedly ruled Seattle industry. After WWII, the manufacturer diversified its product line and began to develop civilian aircraft. In 1954, Boeing announced the 707, and the response was immediate and overwhelming. The world found itself at the beginning of an era of mass air travel and Boeing produced the jets that led this revolution in transportation. By 1960, when the population of Seattle topped one million, one in 10 people worked for Boeing, and one in four people worked jobs directly affected by Boeing.
But the fortunes of Boeing weren’t always to soar. A combination of overstretched capital (due to cost overruns in the development of the 747) and a cut in defense spending led to a severe financial crisis in the early 1970s, known as the ‘Boeing Bust.’ Boeing was forced to cut its work force by two-thirds; in one year, nearly 60,000 Seattleites lost their jobs. The local economy went into a tailspin for a number of years.
In the 1980s, increased defense spending brought vigor back to aircraft production lines, and expanding trade relations with China and other Pacific Rim nations brought business to Boeing too. But just a few days after Seattle was rattled by a mighty earthquake, the city received a blow that rocked it even more. Boeing head honcho Phil Condit announced in March 2001 that the world’s largest airplane manufacturer, the company as synonymous with Seattle as rain, was blowing town. Boeing, he said, would relocate at least 50% of its headquarter staff to bigger and brighter digs in Chicago in September 2001.
At that time, the company employed 78, 400 people in the Seattle area and 198, 900 people worldwide. Only the headquarters was moved to Chicago; the company’s major production center remains in the Seattle area. But the announcement, followed by several stages of layoffs, left Seattleites more than a little concerned about what the future would hold.
The company later took a beating in the economic slump that swept the US – and especially the Northwest – during the early 2000s.
Things were beginning to look up in early 2004, as Boeing announced it would build the major new 7E7 plane in Everett, Washington, and promised that its new business strategy would avoid its previous pattern of massive hiring followed by large-scale layoffs.
Starbucks aside, the biggest story in Seattle’s economic history is the business behemoth of Microsoft. Springing onto the scene in the mid-1970s and ’80s, it was a force that would change Seattle forever. After tinkering around with a little notion called BASIC (a programming language for the world’s first microcomputer), local boy Bill Gates joined up with his childhood chum Paul Allen to start Microsoft in 1975. Though the software giant, located in Redmond across Lake Washington, never achieved quite the total control over the Seattle economy that Boeing once had, it became increasingly hard to find someone who wasn’t a contractor, caterer or car dealer for the Microsoft crowd. Microsoft also attracted other high-tech companies to the area, making the city particularly vulnerable to the high-tech slump that hit the country during its recent economic crisis.
Microsoft’s heyday hit something of a capitalist brick wall in the late 1990s, when the federal government began a very long and politically hot suit against Microsoft. The Justice Department accused the company of monopolistic practices and alleged that it used – and abused – its prodigious market power to prevent any competition from getting in its way. Microsoft’s reputation for bullying other players on the technological playfield was deemed legally unfair.
In April 2000, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that Microsoft had violated antitrust laws by ‘engaging in predatory tactics that discourage technological competition.’ The judge ruled that Microsoft needed to divest the company. Microsoft launched a barrage of appeals, which resulted in various settlements with the federal government and several states. Then, in 2004, the European Commission found that Microsoft had violated antitrust laws, slapping it with a €497 million ($657 million) fine.
Through the 1990s, internet start-up companies – often financed by the young, affluent millionaires that Microsoft’s early days spawned – sprouted like weeds and attracted a younger, more educated population than Seattle had ever seen. It seemed too good to be true and, in fact, it turned out that way. The ‘dot-com’ fiasco was the economic equivalent of a candy bar, providing a major rush followed by a depressing crash.
The Northwest’s first rail link was the Northern Pacific Railroad, which linked Portland to Chicago in 1883. The young towns of Puget Sound – Seattle, Tacoma, Port Townsend and Bellingham – believed their dreams of becoming major trade centers depended on luring a national rail line to link them to the east. Land speculators especially profited when railroads like the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern came shopping for a Puget Sound terminus. Seattle lost out to Tacoma when the Northern Pacific built its shipyards there, but it later became the terminus for the Great Northern Railroad and the Milwaukee Rd.