Jefferson County History

Jefferson County, Washington

Washington State USGenWEB Project

Jefferson County History

Remember always that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionaries.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt



The history of Jefferson County has been shaped by location, climate, terrain, transportation — and governments. East Jefferson County is at the northwest end of Puget Sound. Port Townsend, the county seat, lies on a large, protected natural harbor; all marine traffic entering and leaving Puget Sound goes past Port Townsend. The climate at sea level is benign, with cool dry summers and relatively warm wet winters. Nearly all of the 1,815 square miles is hilly to mountainous. The combination of climate and terrain made logs and lumber the principal cash crop. Governments have had many roles, among them: customs, forest management, defense of Puget Sound, and recreation in State and National parks. The Olympic Mountains bisect Jefferson County forming a natural barrier to east-west travel and settlement. West Jefferson County, which abuts the North Pacific Ocean, is known locally as "The West End," is a sparsely settled area with high winter rainfall.

Native Americans

For several thousand years the only occupants were native Indians. In the late 1700s and early 1800s the Indian population was decimated by disease transmitted by contact with explorers. In some places disease — notably smallpox and measles — killed a large percentage of the Indians; by the time white settlers arrived local tribes had populations of no more that a few hundred and were so weakened they could not effectively resist the intruders.
Native American tribes located in what is now Jefferson County in the mid-19th century included the Chemakum (or Chimacum), Hoh (a group of the Quileute), Klallam (or Clallam), Quinault, Snohomish, and Twana (the Kilcid band — Anglicized: Quilcene).
There is only one reservation (created in 1893) in Jefferson County: the Hoh occupy 640 acres on the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Hoh River. Other tribes have disappeared from Jefferson County by combination of disease, warfare, migration, intermarriage and assimilation.

Early settlement

Much of Jefferson County history is a history of Port Townsend, the only incorporated city in the county. Port Townsend, originally called Kah-tai by the native Indians, lies at the northwest end of Admiralty Inlet, the entrance to Puget Sound from the sea. The first white settlers arrived at Port Townsend in 1851. During the first decade, settlers began to clear and farm the Chimacum Prairie, and sawmills were built at Port Ludlow and Port Discovery (now Discovery Bay.) Both are natural deep-water ports near large stands of marketable timber. Later other small communities were established and remained as long as raw material was available and access to transportation and markets existed.

Port Townsend

Port Townsend is a city divided by gravity. The original settlement was on the waterfront, located there were the businesses needed to support the ships and crews of a thriving 19th Century maritime industry. As the city grew houses were built on the bluff behind the city, this area became known locally as the "uptown district," and is the site of homes built during the Victorian era.
During its first 70 years Port Townsend was a seaport and trading city; commerce and travel were almost entirely waterborne until the early 1920s. Port Townsend was the Customs port of entry from 1854 to 1913; sailing ships usually stopped for a least a few hours on both entering and leaving Puget Sound to clear customs and await favorable winds and tides for continuing their voyage.
The first 30 years showed a slow, steady growth in population. The period from 1880 to 1890 was a decade of rapid growth. The first transcontinental railroad was completed to Puget Sound opening new global markets and creating opportunities for trade. The population of Washington territory increased almost five-fold, from 75,000 in 1980 to 357,000 in 1890. As a result, maritime traffic increased, and Port Townsend grew and prospered giving rise to the ornate Victorian homes and buildings erected during that era. Some of the population in those years was transient; one challenge for the genealogist and historian is identifying those members of the marine community, such as ship's officers and crew, who were residents and played a role in Jefferson County's development.
The worldwide financial panic which began in 1893 had its impact on Port Townsend. Marine traffic declined; many businesses closed; the population shrank from nearly 7,000 to about 2,000. Recovery began in 1898 with the increased marine traffic generated by the Klondike gold rush and by the construction and staffing of local coastal defense facilities — Fort Worden and Fort Flagler. Steam powered ships, less dependent on the vagaries of the sea and the weather, were able to bypass Port Townsend when entering and leaving Puget Sound.
The military played a significant role in Port Townsend during the 1st half of the 20th century. By 1910, 1,250 officers and men were stationed at Forts Worden and Flagler; Port Townsend had about 3,300 residents. The two posts were closed in the 1950s; they are now Washington State Parks.

Other settlements

Other settlements are on or near salt water. Brinnon and Quilcene were first settled in the early 1860s. The sawmill sites of Port Ludlow and Port Hadlock grew to become communities in the 1880s. Irondale was platted in 1901. All are now residential areas. Several small logging and sawmill communities (Fairmont, Junction City, Port Discovery, and Uncas) existed at the head of Discovery Bay at various times over a period of 60 years. Elsewhere in the county the population density was and is very low.

Economic activity

Once the first settlers were established they began exporting logs and lumber to generate cash. Logging has continued to this day. Dairy farming, fishing and fish processing have generated income on an ongoing basis. Ocean-going sailing vessels were built at Port Ludlow from 1873 to 1903. Iron smelting was done on an intermittent basis at Irondale from 1901 to 1917. A paper mill was built near Port Townsend in 1929 which is still in production. Except for the Chimacum valley, agriculture has had a very limited role in Jefferson County; nearly all of the land is hilly to mountainous and unsuited for use as cropland.

Role of government

Washington Territory was created by dividing Oregon Territory in 1853. Jefferson County was created from Lewis County by the Washington Territorial Legislature on 23 December 1852. Clallam County was created from the northwest portion of Jefferson County on 26 April 1854. The legislature made minor boundary adjustments between the two counties during the remainder of the 19th century. Port Townsend was incorporated as a city on 16 January 1860.

A US Territorial District Court, part of 3rd Judicial District, was established in 1854. Clallam, Island, and San Juan Counties were attached during the entire territorial period (1854-1889). Cases included criminal, civil, chancery, admiralty and probate.

Fort Townsend was established as a military presence in 1865 because of native uprising; the post was decommisioned and abandoned in 1895, the land is now a Washington State Park. Part of the property became a US Army Airfield, it is now Jefferson County International Airport. Government has had a major role in Jefferson County. Port Townsend was the US Customs Port of Entry for Puget Sound from 1854 to 1913. A US Marine Hospital opened in Port Townsend in 1855 and served seafarers for almost 100 years. Two coastal defense facilities, Fort Flagler and Fort Worden, protected the entrance to Puget Sound from 1902 until 1953; these forts are now Washington State Parks. Indian Island has been a US Naval ordinance depot since 1940. Olympic National Park, and Olympic National Forest, (both created by the US Congess 1n 1938) and forests owned by Washington State now occupy 78% of the land in Jefferson County. (Privately owned forests occupy another 15%.) All these facilities are characterized as having a transient staff and clientele who leave little record of their passage.

To Learn more

For excellent pictures and an alternative history, see: Images of Ameica Jefferson County,prepared by members of the Jefferson County Historical Society, published 2006, ISBN 0-7385-4856-1, published by Arcadia Publishing.

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Maintained by Phil Kohl, Jefferson County coordinator.
Revised: 10 September 2018
Copyright © 1998-2019 Philip H. Kohl