State Research Guide: Washington

By Leslie Stroope Premium

Washingtonians’ tenacious spirit began with the pioneers who braved the journey across the Oregon Trail, and it lives on in the state’s newsmaking technology companies. And though Evergreen Staters have a history of hunting for elusive things – the Northwest Passage, gold, even Sasquatch – you needn’t fear chasing genealogical bogeymen. Using these tips and resources, you’ll have no problem tracking down your most elusive Evergreen State ancestors.

Out of obscurity

In 1775, Spaniards Bruno Hezeta and Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra landed at Point Grenville on the Olympic Peninsula – becoming the first European explorers to set foot on Washington’s soil, though others had spied its coast while seeking the fabled Northwest Passage.

They quickly erected a cross and buried a wax-sealed bottle containing Spain’s claim to the region. Thirty years later, Englishman George Vancouver’s mapping expedition of the Pacific Northwest coastal region dashed hopes for any Northwest Passage, but didn’t discourage the flood of explorers, missionaries and settlers that followed.

Both natives and newcomers gave Washington’s rivers, lands and forests a potpourri of titles. Edmund S. Meany’s book Origin of Washington Geographic Names (on subscription site < >) and the Washington Place Names Index <> can explain the etymology of the place your ancestors called home.

Spain ceded its original claim to “Oregon Country” to the United States in 1819, allowing simultaneous British and American settlement, and expansion of the maritime fur trade. In 1846, both nations agreed on the 49th parallel as the United States’ northernmost boundary and two years later, Congress created Oregon Territory, which encompassed modern-day Washington. Five years later, Congress cleaved off Washington and parts of Idaho and Montana to create Washington Territory.

Westward ho(me)

Midwestern pioneers from Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa hit the Oregon Trail and arrived in Washington during the 1830s and 1840s. Look for these early settlers in Family Records of Pioneers – books of marriage, death, Bible, cemetery and church records transcribed by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) <>. The first 40 volumes are on Family History Library (FHL) <> microfilm, which you can rent at your local Family History Center (check FamilySearch for locations). DAR has volumes since 1970. Shirley Swart’s two-volume Index to Washington State Daughters of the American Revolution (Yakima Valley Genealogical Society) will help you pinpoint your clan’s records.

The US government’s donation lands program further encouraged settlement by granting land patents to settlers or their heirs after four years of living on and cultivating the property. The Washington Secretary of State’s Digital Archives <>, home to more than 23.6 million searchable, digitized historical records, includes a Washington Territory Donation Land Claims database for 1852 to 1855. You’ll find microfilm of indexed abstracts and the original claims from 1855 to 1903 at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <> and FHL.

The discovery of gold near Walla Walla and the institution of homestead laws fueled more settlement in the 1860s. Like donation lands, homesteads provided free land but opened up the process to single women and widows. Although NARA hasn’t microfilmed its homestead applications, you can order copies using NARA’s OrderOnline system <>. Contact the county auditor for deeds.

Immigrant sightings

As the first of three transcontinental railroads reached Washington in 1883, the territory’s population continued to skyrocket – the latest wave of immigrants came from Germany, Norway, Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands and the Philippines. Settlers from Canada and Midwestern states fueled Washington’s next in-migration, followed by an influx of Japanese in the late 1880s.

NARA and the FHL have microfilm of Seattle’s passenger and crew lists from 1890 through 1921; keep in mind, however, that most immigrants came to Washington via East Coast ports (whose records are also on FHL and NARA microfilm).

NARA has indexes to naturalization records for various Washington counties as far back as 1850. The Digital Archives’ naturalization indexes span 1854 to 1988; if you find your ancestor, you can order the full record from the Washington State Archives <>. Or contact NARA’s Pacific Alaska Region in Seattle <> for post-1906 records.

Bigfoot forward

Washington’s population boom and increasing accessibility by rail fueled the push for statehood, which it achieved in 1889. By then, most of the state’s American Indian tribes had been sequestered on reservations throughout the state. The FHL has microfilmed Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) vital, school and family records from 1887 to 1952; NARA’s Seattle facility houses the originals. Begin investigating your tribal ties in the Portland, Ore., BIA office’s collection of Family Index Cards, 1938-1950, also on FHL microfilm. To find applicable records, search the FHL catalog by tribe name or agency.

Whether your kin came before or after statehood, be sure to consult the Washington State Genealogical Resource Guide <>: It contains downloadable fact sheets for 33 of Washington’s 39 counties, with formation dates, history, settlement patterns, neighboring counties and contact information for various record offices.

Military tracks

Washington Territory residents fought for the Union during the Civil War. To research your ancestor’s role, search the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System <> and check microfilmed indexes to service records, pension applications and the 1890 special census of Union veterans (get them from the FHL or NARA).

The state archives holds muster rolls, and NARA and the FHL have microfilmed enlistment registers for 1798 to 1914 (they’re arranged by first letter of the surname, and the year). Check NARA and FHL indexes for soldiers who applied for Indian Wars pensions, as well as WWI draft registration cards for 18- to 45-year old men – even if they ultimately didn’t serve, they still had to register.

Not-so-evasive enumerations

Numerous sources – including the Digital Archives and < > online, plus NARA and many of Washington’s universities and libraries offline – have territorial and federal census records, many dating back to 1850, when Washington was counted with Oregon Territory. Intermittent territorial censuses occurred between 1857 and 1892; you’ll find them at the Washington State Library <>, state archives and FHL. Look for youngsters in censuses of schoolchildren taken from the late 1800s to the 1930s. Each county’s records may not span the entire date range, so check the applicable state archives regional branch’s holdings for available years.

Signs of life

Though statewide birth and death registration wasn’t mandatory until 1907, many Washington counties were recording them by 1891. Start the search for your ancestors’ certificates in the Digital Archives’ vital-records databases. The state health department’s Center for Health Statistics has indexes to and copies of birth certificates and post-1907 death certificates, some of which you can get through the state library and on microfilm through FHL. For earlier records, contact the county health department or auditor’s office.

For marriages before 1968 – the start of statewide reporting – contact the county auditor where the license was obtained: Most counties started recording marriages shortly after organization. The Digital Archives has marriage records from 20-plus counties, some with images of the originals.

Article spotting

The state library has searchable scans of 10 historical Washington newspapers dating back to September 1852 – beginning with The Columbian, the first newspaper north of the Columbia River. More titles are being digitized, and the library holds 40,000 reels of microfilmed papers from the 1850s on. Several online indexes are at <>. Subscription sites and Genealogy Bank <> also offer select Washington titles you can peruse for news of your ancestors – and perhaps an occasional Sasquatch sighting.

From the September 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.  

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