The Creation of Washington
By Dennis P. Weber
Columbia Magazine, Fall 2003: Vol. 17, No. 3
Securing Democracy North of the Columbia
On March 2, 1853, President Millard Fillmore signed legislation creating the Territory of Washington. That event
capped a remarkable 21-month campaign by a handful of Americans to bring home-rule governance to the land
"north of the Columbia."
Pioneer demands for separation from Oregon, led by settlers on Puget Sound, poured into the seething cauldron of
sectional rivalry that described national politics in the 1850s. The future of slavery colored nearly every decision
made by Congress following the Mexican War, especially the plans for building a transcontinental railroad.
Local political rivalries and personal ambitions also created roadblocks in the path toward separation for northern
Oregon residents. And considering the small population of their proposed "Columbia Territory," their request simply
did not rank high among the nation's priorities.
In fact, the conventions and public demonstrations organized by these pioneers in 1851-52 could be likened to a
"tempest in a teapot," as the old expression goes. While the leaders poured energy into the meetings, the participants
fell silent afterwards. There seems to have been no private "buzz" about these activities. Original documents, diaries,
and letters about what went on at the convention in the Cowlitz Corridor town of Monticello are practically
nonexistent. The identity of several delegates remains a mystery. And yet, a new territory was created. It has been
left to historians to try to piece together the fascinating story of how Washington came into being. And with key
pieces of evidence still missing, the story remains unfinished.
Of the 44 pioneers whose ambitions and dreams led to the signing of the Monticello Convention Memorial and the
founding of the Territory of Washington 150 years ago, over half had been in Oregon Territory less than two years.
At least 14 were under 35. Only four were over 50, and few had been settlers in Oregon longer than five years. It is
fair to say that as a group they were in a hurry to achieve success.
Politically, 1851 proved to be a contentious year. As Americans populated the Puget Sound basin, Shoalwater Bay,
and the Chehalis and Cowlitz valleys, pioneer discontent north of the Columbia rose on several fronts:
1) As immigration increased, the need for basic services, such as mail delivery, roads, troops to guard against
possible Indian attacks, and swifter law enforcement also grew. In general, the lack of spending north of the
Columbia by the Oregon Territorial Legislature was a frequent bone of contention.
2) Settlers were lodging ever more complaints against the Hudson's Bay Company, which still held valuable
agricultural lands—especially when HBC livestock were allowed to roam and trespass on neighboring farmers'
3) Former Supreme Judge of the Oregon Provisional Government (OPG), Columbia Lancaster, serving in 1851 as a