Wahkiakum County History

Wahkiakum County lies on the broad tidal estuary near the mouth of the Columbia River in southwest Washington. It is named for the Wahkiakums, as the people whose villages once occupied the area were called by the explorers, traders, and settlers who arrived in the early nineteenth century. Cathlamet, the county seat and only incorporated town, is named for a related group who founded it some time before the Birnie family, the county's first pioneers, settled there in 1846. The Washington Territorial Legislature established Wahkiakum County in 1854. Early immigrants to the county, including many from Scandinavia, came for the seemingly inexhaustible fish in the river and the free homestead land. With Wahkiakum County's prodigious rainfall and immense rainforest trees, logging soon became the leading industry. For a century, forestry, fishing, and agriculture were central to the County's economy and way of life. As they have declined in recent years, Wahkiakum County has moved from a rural, resource-based existence to a more suburban one, as residents commute to, or retire from, urban areas in other counties.

Crowd standing on Cathlamet Pier

Wahkiakums and Cathlamets

The lower Columbia River, including the future Wahkiakum County, was home to one of the most numerous and richest indigenous populations north of Mexico. Villages of large rectangular longhouses built of huge cedar planks lined both banks of the Columbia from its mouth to beyond The Dalles. Their inhabitants spoke a variety of languages in the family known as Chinookan.

Although each village constituted an independent social and political entity, non-Indian explorers attempted to identify larger bands or tribes, which did not necessarily reflect local reality. Their accounts gave the name Wahkiakum (said to mean tall timber and probably the name of a local leader) to the residents of all the villages along the north bank of the Columbia from Grays Bay upriver to Oak Point -- essentially the stretch of river now occupied by the county that adopted the name. Villagers across the river were labeled Cathlamet (said to refer to a rocky stretch of river channel). In fact, people on both sides of the river spoke the same Chinookan language, given the name Cathlamet.

Like the other Columbia River peoples, the Wahkiakums lived well off the river's rich fishery, with its five types of salmon, sturgeon, smelt, and other fish. Lacking the vast shellfish resources of their neighbors on the coast, they relied somewhat more on hunting deer, elk, and other game. They used controlled burning to maintain prairies where game animals and edible plants flourished, raised camas and tobacco, and harvested wapato roots from lowlands and river islands. They supplemented local resources with extensive trade, ranging far up and down river in large cedar cargo canoes.

Explorers and Epidemics

In May, 1792, American fur trader Robert Gray (1755-1806) became the first non-Indian to enter the Columbia River. He sailed upriver some 15 miles to the shallow bay on the north shore at the western edge of Wahkiakum territory that is now named for him. It was Gray who named the river "Columbia" (for his ship, the Columbia Rediviva); the Wahkiakums and other Chinookan speakers called it "Wimahl" (Big River).

Gray's own name is preserved in Wahkiakum County not only by the bay (named by British Royal Navy Lieutenant William Broughton, who used Gray's charts to explore farther up the Columbia later in 1792) but also by "Grays River." The latter is the name both of a river that rises in the Willapa Hills on the divide between Wahkiakum and Lewis counties and flows into the Columbia at Grays Bay and of the small community that grew up on its banks a few miles before it reaches the bay.

Neither Gray nor any other outsider witnessed the full extent of Chinookan population and culture. Smallpox and other European diseases, either traveling from the east over Indian trade routes or originating with mariners exploring the Northwest coast, had devastated Columbia River villages years before Gray arrived. When Captains Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) led their party down the Columbia in 1805, they noted many abandoned village sites and saw smallpox survivors.

The expedition spent several days in the future Wahkiakum County in November 1805. On the 7th, the explorers famously but prematurely celebrated the sight of the Pacific Ocean -- actually just the broad Columbia estuary -- from near Pillar Rock (a prominent basalt column in the river that rises high above the water surface about a mile from shore and still bears the name they bestowed). Lewis and Clark bartered with the Wahkiakums as they traveled and during their winter stay downriver at Fort Clatsop, where a leader the captains called Scum-ar-que-up, better known as Skamokawa (d. 1855), led a trading party.

Within a few years of Lewis and Clark's departure in 1806, surviving Cathlamets from the south bank crossed the river and joined with some Wahkiakums who had abandoned an ancient village site on Elochoman Slough to establish a new village a mile east, on the main river channel opposite Puget Island. Called Cathlamet, it became one of the largest Indian centers on the lower Columbia, the site of the first white settlement in the future Wahkiakum County, and eventually the county seat.

Traders and Settlers

For a generation, those who followed Gray and Lewis and Clark to the Columbia came not to settle but to trade, especially for furs. The Pacific Fur Company established Astoria downstream from Wahkiakum territory in 1811. It was soon taken over (and temporarily renamed Fort George) by the British North West Company, which was in turn absorbed by the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1825, Hudson's Bay moved its Columbia headquarters to Fort Vancouver in present-day Clark County, leaving Fort George as a minor outpost.

The Wahkiakums, located between the two posts, traded at both and frequently provided transportation up and down river. In the 1830s, James Birnie (ca. 1800-1864), the "factor" in charge of Fort George, organized a salmon-salting station near Pillar Rock during the salmon run, to acquire and preserve fish caught by the local Wahkiakum villagers.

Despite previous epidemics, at the end of the 1820s the combined population of the Wahkiakums, Cathlamets, and Clatsops and Chinooks (who lived downriver to its mouth and on the coast) remained as high as 6,000, far out-numbering the scattered fur traders in their midst. That changed calamitously in the early 1830s, when repeated outbreaks of a disease referred to at the time as "fever and ague" (probably malaria) decimated them. Although it sickened many non-Indians, most of them survived, but up to 90 percent of the local population died.

Even as the Chinookan population fell, increasing numbers of American settlers were arriving. At first most settled south of the Columbia in the Willamette Valley. In 1844, some time after the Hudson's Bay Company abandoned its Pillar Rock salmon saltery, one Willamette trader expanded operations to the future Wahkiakum County. Captain John Couch opened a trading station at Bay View, "with a space of about ten feet between it and the house occupied by the old Indian chief [Skamokawa] and his people" and about a mile downriver from the town presently named for the Wahkiakum leader (Martin, 25). Couch bought fish from the local fishermen and salted it for sale in Hawaii, but his enterprise did not last long.

Birnie's Retreat

Two years later, James and Charlotte Birnie and their children became the first pioneers to settle permanently in Wahkiakum County. Charlotte Beaulieu Birnie's mother was Kootenay and her father French Canadian; James was born in Scotland. When James Birnie retired from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1846, the family (there were then 10 children, two more being born later) moved to the Indian town of Cathlamet, which still had 300 or 400 inhabitants, and opened a trading post called Birnie's Retreat.

With the help of some 15 Indian slaves (like Americans of the time, the Columbia River peoples practiced slavery, and traders sometimes acquired slaves along with other goods) the Birnies cleared land for a garden and orchard and built a store. Birnie's Retreat prospered, becoming an important stop along the river between Astoria and the growing city of Portland. Due in part to Charlotte Birnie's Indian heritage, the family maintained good relations with the local inhabitants, who provided furs, fish, and other food for the post. They were noted for their hospitality to travelers and encouraged other settlers to join them at Cathlamet.

Rose Birnie (1805-1880) arrived in 1850 to organize classes for her brother's growing family, becoming the future Wahkiakum county's first schoolteacher. Five years later she married former Hudson's Bay clerk George Barber Roberts (1815-1883). The Roberts's Cathlamet home, built in 1857 by James Birnie, was for years a social center of the growing town and is now the oldest surviving house in Wahkiakum County (it is preserved as the Julia Butler Hansen Heritage Center, having been the home of Hansen and her family for many years).

Another 1850 arrival was William Strong (1817-1887), who had been appointed the previous year as one of Oregon Territory's first three Supreme Court justices. Each of the three also served as a district judge. Strong's district encompassed Clatsop County in the present state of Oregon and all Oregon Territory north of the Columbia, including all of present Washington and Idaho and part of Montana -- reportedly the largest district of any judge in American history. Strong later served as Wahkiakum County's first Superintendent of Schools and as a justice of the Washington Territory Supreme Court.

In August 1851, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon Territory, Anson Dart, negotiated numerous treaties with Columbia River and other Indian groups, including the Cathlamets and Wahkiakums. The Wahkiakum treaty, signed by Skamokawa and seven other men, ceded their land to the federal government for $7,000 in cash and goods. The Senate never ratified the treaty, so the Wahkiakums are not a federally recognized tribe. Some Wahkiakum descendants are members of the Chinook Nation and others have joined with other groups in the Confederated Treaty Tribes of Tansey Point, but neither of these has recognition either.

Wahkiakum County

A year after Washington Territory was created in 1853, the new Territorial Legislature carved out eight new counties, including Wahkiakum. The County extended from the Cowlitz County boundary near Eagle Cliff downriver (west) past Cathlamet to KM Mountain between Skamokawa Creek and Grays River. Until a boundary adjustment in 1879, what is now Wahkiakum's "West End," including Grays Bay and the rivers flowing into it, was part of Pacific County.

Even after the expansion, Wahkiakum County is only 264.2 square miles in area, the third-smallest of Washington's 39 counties and the smallest on the mainland (only San Juan and Island counties have less land area). It is bordered by Cowlitz County on the east, the Columbia River on the south, Pacific County on the west, and Pacific and Lewis counties on the north. Cathlamet was named the county seat when Wahkiakum was created and has continued in that role. It incorporated in 1907 and is still the only incorporated town in the county.

Homesteaders began farming the Elochoman Valley near Cathlamet in the 1850s. By the 1860s, communities appeared at Skamokawa, Deep River, and Grays River, each named for the streams they grew up on.

The new county's first major industry was based on the same salmon fishery that sustained the Wahkiakums and their Chinookan neighbors. While the Indians had dried fish for trade, and early traders and settlers salted it, the rise of canning propelled salmon fishing to commercial prominence, and eventually helped decimate the river's massive salmon runs. William Hume began the Columbia River canning industry in 1866 when he began canning fish near Eagle Cliff in eastern Wahkiakum County.

More canneries soon followed, opening all along Wahkiakum's Columbia River shoreline, including at Cathlamet, Bayview, Brookfield, Knappton, and Pillar Rock. As the industry boomed in the 1870s, the canneries hired many Chinese immigrants. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese workers -- almost all men -- comprised a significant percentage of the county's population, but few remained after that.

Homesteaders and Loggers

Scandinavian immigrants also began arriving in the 1870s. As famine, overpopulation, and unemployment affected Norway, Sweden, and Finland, men and women made their way to Wahkiakum County where they could take donation land claims. Men who had worked in fishing or logging in their home countries found similar work in Wahkiakum County.

Although homestead claims were free to those who could improve them, doing so was no easy task. Most of Wahkiakum County was covered by one of the greatest and most productive forests ever seen on Earth. The mild temperatures and heavy rains -- parts of the county exceed 120 inches per year -- promoted the rapid growth of Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, western red cedar, western hemlock and other huge conifers. Newcomers from Europe or the eastern United States were astounded at entire forests of trees larger than any they had seen.

Until the late 1800s, removing the trees either to clear land for farming or to mill for lumber was a painstaking process using hand tools to cut the massive trees and ox teams to drag them to waterways. Technological improvements made widespread logging commercially viable. Donkey engines powered by steam and then by diesel replaced oxen. Railroads vastly expanded the forest that could be logged by providing transportation far from waterways. With the railroads came logging camps, established deep in the forest, where men lived and worked for months at a time.

By the early decades of the 1900s, large national forestry corporations, including Crown Zellerbach (previously Crown Willamette) and Weyerhaeuser, played major roles in Wahkiakum timber production. For much of the twentieth century they were among the leading employers in the county.

The formidable rainfall that promoted Wahkiakum's forests was less conducive to raising crops, but the mild rainy climate did grow grass well when the trees came down, so dairy farming flourished. Creameries were built to process milk into butter and other products. Although the first creameries were privately owned, many Wahkiakum farmers came from Scandinavian countries where there was a long tradition of cooperative enterprises. Skamokawa farmers organized the West Coast's first cooperative creamery in 1898, and more dairy co-ops flourished in the early years of the twentieth century.

Farmland was claimed not only from the forest but from the river. Diking districts organized in the early 1900s drained much of the county's tidelands to create agricultural land. Farmers on fertile and unforested but frequently flooded Puget Island diked some 3,200 acres. The island became noted for its mint production, and after the mint crop was destroyed by disease and flooding, turned to cucumbers for pickling until that crop also was reduced by disease.

Rivers and Roads

Until well into the twentieth century, the Columbia River and its tributaries were virtually the only transportation system for Wahkiakum County. Fish, timber, and dairy products departed, manufactured goods and consumer products arrived, and people came and went, on steamboats and sailing schooners that called at Wahkiakum towns as they plied the Columbia from Astoria to Portland and beyond.

It was not until 1917 that a road was built between Cathlamet and Skamokawa. A road across Puget Island opened in 1925, soon after separate car ferries connected the island to Cathlamet and to Westport, Oregon. (A bridge from Puget Island to Cathlamet opened in 1939, but the Puget Island-Westport ferry remains in operation, the last on the lower Columbia.) In 1930, the state opened the portion of Ocean Beach Highway (now State Route 4) from Longview to Cathlamet. It was extended westward in ensuing years.

The connection to the state highway system reduced the isolation of many Wahkiakum communities, but it also changed the county's entire orientation. As automobiles supplanted steamboats after the 1930s, the Cowlitz County cities of Longview and Kelso, rather than Portland and Astoria across the river in Oregon, became the primary urban destinations. And with the demise of river transport, some Wahkiakum river communities that were not on the highway, such as Brookfield and Altoona, became more rather than less isolated.

Better roads also had a decidedly mixed affect on the county's agriculture and dairy industry. Farmers could get their goods to market more easily, but also faced increased competition from goods shipped into the county and consumers shopping outside. Local creameries disappeared as milk was shipped to larger dairies in the metropolitan areas. As log trucks replaced railroads, the state highway system and an ever-increasing network of logging roads across the county expanded the reach of logging even further.

Industrial Evolution

Wahkiakum's oldest industry, fishing, was affected less by local roads than by developments upstream -- the series of dams erected along the Columbia River beginning in the 1930s. Over-fishing and habitat loss had already reduced both the size of historic runs and the quality of the fish, but the dams, which blocked access to upriver spawning grounds, proved the death knell. Wahkiakum County canneries had built their reputation on a prime product no longer available, and the last closed in 1947. Canneries elsewhere continued operating and fishing remained a viable although declining industry for another generation.

Forestry outlasted farming and fishing. Although the huge old growth was largely gone by mid-century, by then substantial second growth was available. Crown Zellerbach and Weyerhaeuser remained major employers until the mid-1980s. When they pulled out, unemployment skyrocketed, reaching 34.6 percent in 1984, and the county entered a downturn that took some time to pull out of.

Tree harvesting continues, but increased regulation, faster cutting schedules, and the disappearance of the big trees make it very different than it was 100 years ago. Many lowland areas along the river are now cultivated as cottonwood plantations and harvested in seven-year intervals. Hemlocks in the hills are cut almost as quickly, not for timber but for fiber.

Resource industries remain Wahkiakum County's second leading economic sector. Government employment is a strong first, and retail trade a somewhat distant third. Although tourism is increasing, Wahkiakum has not seen the explosive growth that some other formerly resource-dependent counties have. With an estimated 3,900 residents in 2005, it remains the second smallest Washington county in population (after Garfield). An increasing number of those residents now work outside the county, and retirees are a significant percentage of those who move to Wahkiakum County.


Irene Martin, Beach of Heaven: A History of Wahkiakum County (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1997); Robert Michael Pyle, Wintergreen: Listening to the Land's Heart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996); Rick Rubin, Naked Against the Rain (Portland, OR: Far Shore Press, 1999); Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest (Norman Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986); The (Cathlamet) Eagle, "Special Centennial Edition," August 22, 1946; Wahkiakum Community Foundation website accessed November 9, 2006 (www.wahkiakumfoundation.org); "Wahkiakum County Industry Sectors," Washington State Business and Project Development website accessed January 9, 2006; Diane Harris, "George Barber Roberts," Cowlitz Co., WA GenWeb Project website accessed November 12, 2006 (http://www.drizzle.com/~jtenlen/bios/gbroberts.html); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,"Lewis and Clark prematurely celebrate their arrival at the Pacific Ocean on November 7, 1805" (by Cassandra Tate) http://www.historylink.org (accessed November 15, 2006).

HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Wahkiakum County -- Thumbnail History, November 18, 2006" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 21, 2013).


Made possible with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Washington State Library, Office of the Secretary of State.