Before British Captain George Vancouver sailed into Puget Sound Bay in 1791 and made the first known European contact with the native tribes, the Nisqually, Duwamish, Suquamish, and Puyallup Indians hunted, gathered, and fished in the region where Olympia now stands. The United States and Great Britain jointly controlled the region until the boundary between U.S. territory and Canada was established in 1846. The Pacific Northwest Region was then called Oregon Territory.
White settlement of what later became Olympia began in 1846 with a joint claim filed under a homestead law by partners Edmund Sylvester, a Maine fisherman, and Levi Lathrop Smith, an easterner who wanted to be a minister but was prevented by epilepsy from pursuing that career. Smith called his portion of the claim Smithfield. For two years, Smith and Sylvester were the only white residents in Smithfield (then Oregon Territory); the area was covered with virgin forest. When Smith drowned in Puget Sound in 1848, Sylvester took over his partner's claim. By the end of 1848, a trail had been cleared between Smithfield and New Market to the south (now Tumwater), and four families, about fifteen single men, and Father Pascal Ricard and his small band of Oblate missionaries had settled in Smithfield. In 1850 a city was laid out and Smithfield was renamed Olympia after the Olympic Mountains that can be seen in the distance. In 1853 Washington Territory became separate from Oregon Territory. Olympia (population 150), the largest settlement in Washington Territory, was named its capital and Isaac Stevens arrived to serve as Washington's first territorial governor.
Governor Stevens predicted a golden future for Washington Territory. He moved quickly to open up the area to white settlement, promising to survey a route for a transcontinental railway and to convince the natives to cede their land and move to reservations. By 1854 most of the tribes had done so, but intermittent outbreaks of hostility throughout the 1850s deterred extensive settlement. Delays in constructing a transcontinental railroad and the 1849 discovery of gold in California drew prospective settlers from the Northwest. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 nearly halted the westward migration of settlers.
Blessed with abundant natural resources, Olympia remained small but prospered. The year 1852 marked many firsts for the town. Coal was discovered, saw mills were built, a fledgling trade industry was started with California, road and school districts were established, and Washington's first newspaper, the weekly Columbian, published its first issue. In 1853 a Methodist minister took up residence and began to build a church, classes began at the Olympia Public School, and the city's first theatrical performance was held. Olympia's population grew from fewer than 1,000 people in 1860 to 1,203 residents in 1870. By 1872 Olympia seemed on its way to becoming Washington's great city; that year, however, a severe earthquake shook Olympia, as did the decision by the Northern Pacific railroad not to end the line at Olympia. Instead, the railway went to Tacoma, taking with it much of Olympia's trade and industry.
Meanwhile, people began moving to Seattle instead of Olympia. Still, with its strategic location near virgin forest land and the waterfalls at Tumwater, Olympia flourished as a saw mill town. Furniture, shingles, timber, pilings, and coal were loaded aboard ships bound from Olympia Harbor to California. Olympia served as a social center for isolated settlers throughout Washington, who traveled by steamboat to attend picnics and fairs there. By 1890 Olympia's population stood at 4,698 inhabitants. A year earlier, in 1889, Washington had become a state; Olympia fought bids by several other cities for the right to remain state capital and won in a statewide vote. At the time, state government was housed in a single frame building.
The decade of the 1890s was marked by progress and disappointments. The Olympia Brewing Company, which would become one of Olympia's greatest claims to fame, was founded in 1896 in Tumwater. Telephone lines and electric light poles were erected, dredging began for a modern port, a street railway system was built, and the elegant Olympia Hotel was completed (but destroyed by fire in 1904); however, an economic depression left citizens complaining that their diet consisted of nothing but clams, and Olympia's population fell to 3,863 residents by 1900. By this time, Seattle and Tacoma had surpassed Olympia as the big cities of the Puget Sound area.
In 1901 the state bought Olympia's Thurston County Court House to serve as the Capitol building, but Olympians could not rest easy with their title of state capital until the present Capitol complex was finally completed in 1935 after delays due to the 1890 and 1930 depressions.
Olympia had escaped the worst of the Indian wars of the 1850s, and in the twentieth century managed to escape the labor troubles and various upheavals that beset other Washington cities. The city benefited when World War I brought a huge demand for Olympic peninsula spruce to make airplanes. Waterborne trade lost by 1920 to other Puget Sound ports picked up after a 1925 revitalization of the Port of Olympia, and ships once again began loading lumber bound for the Orient.
Olympia suffered a severe earthquake in 1949. A year later the city celebrated its centennial, 100 years from the date Olympia was laid out. By then Olympia ranked twelfth among Washington's cities in population and boasted one high school, one radio station, a "video" station, and two newspapers. With a population in 1953 of 16,800 people, Olympia was a typical small town where the sidewalks were "rolled up" each evening. One by one, state government offices were moving from Olympia to Seattle, and the city feared it would lose its capital status. Finally, four local businessmen filed a lawsuit against the state to stop the exodus; the eighteen state agencies were ordered back to Olympia in a decision that opined: "it was not the intention of the framers of the constitution that the state capital should be composed of empty buildings to collect cobwebs and stand in disuse."
Then began a flurry of construction of government buildings on what had once been residential streets. Despite decades of effort, Olympia was less successful in luring industry, thus managing to escape the attendant smog and pollution. In the 1960s and 1970s Olympia lost many of its downtown retail businesses to shopping malls in the then-rural towns of Lacey and Tumwater.
Efforts to preserve the downtown emphasized people-friendly projects while discouraging skyscrapers. Olympia served as a west coast port of entry and exit from which agricultural products and oysters were shipped. However, government had become the leading source of local employment and has a strong influence on most aspects of life in the city.
The turn of the century brought several challenges to Olympia. Some, like a national recession and the terrorist attacks of 2001, affected the entire United States and beyond. Others were more specific to the region. On February 28, 2001, the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually Earthquake occurred, with an epicenter only 10 miles from Olympia. A gradual yet significant loss of manufacturing jobs spurred the goal of diversification, particularly into technology—a segment in which Olympia was lagging behind the state's other regions. The question of the new resident of Olympia's Executive Mansion hung in the balance for two months. The gubernatorial race between Democrat Christine O. Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi was finally settled, after several recounts, in Gregoire's favor in January 2005.
Historical Information: Washington State Capital Museum, 211 W. 21st Ave., Olympia, WA 98501; telephone (360)753-2580