Olympia is the capital of the US state of Washington. It is also the county seat of Thurston County and the largest city in that county. It was incorporated as a town in 1859, and incorporated as a city in 1882. It has a population of about 50,000 people, making it the twenty-fourth most populous city in the state. Olympia borders the town of Lacey on the east and the town of Tumwater on the south. The city is the cultural center of the southern part of Puget Sound. Additionally, Olympia is sixty miles southwest of Seattle, which is the largest and most populous city in Washington.
The area that would become Olympia was home to various Native American tribes long before European settlers came. The Stehchass people, a Lushootseed-speaking tribe (that became part of the Squaxin Island tribe after treaties were signed giving control of the Olympia area to European settlers) lived there for thousands of years. There were other tribes that visited the Olympia area on a regular basis to hunt and to trade with the Stehchass. These tribes included the Puyallup, Nisqually, Chehalis, Duwamish, and Suquamish tribes.
The Olympia area was highly desirable to the Native Americans who lived there because it was abundant in food and water. There was plenty of shellfish to be had in the tide flats there, and there were several streams that spawned salmon each year that entered the Puget Sound. Though the Stehchass people called the area home, they happily shared its resources with a number of other local tribes. Accounts of early European settlers to the Olympia area say that the Native Americans called the area Cheat Woot, which meant “the cool place of the bear.”
The first known Europeans to reach the Olympia area arrived in 1792 in an expedition from Vancouver (which was then controlled by the British). This expedition was called the British Vancouver Expedition. Peter Puget, another explorer of European descent, visited the Olympia area at the same time as the Vancouver expedition. Neither expedition recorded themselves as having had any encounters with Native Americans in the area.
In 1833, the Canadian-based Hudson Bay Company established a fort in the Olympia region called Fort Nisqually, after one of the local Native American tribes. The fort was a trading post for other people of European descent who came to or through the area. Most of the Europeans coming to the Olympia area at this time were there for fur trading. Eventually, the fur trade in the area declined due to over-hunting the local animals, and the Hudson Bay Company formed a subsidiary company called Puget Sound Agricultural Company. This subsidiary company transformed the trading post, and other smaller ones in the area, into working farms. The Americans came to the Olympia area in 1841 with an expedition led by Lt. Charles Wilkes, and they camped near Fort Nisqually and charted the area
Later, in 1846, there were two American men, Edmund Sylvester and Levi Lathrop, who came to the Olympia area and claimed it for the United States. Congress established a Customs District for Puget Sound in the newly formed Washington Territory in 1851, and the town of Olympia became the home of the customs house. Because Olympia was near the Oregon Trail, its population increased after the customs house was established there, largely by Oregon Trail pioneers. The town was officially named Olympia in 1850, at the urging of resident Colonel Isaac N. Ebey. He liked this name for the town because of its stunning view of the Olympia Mountain range to the northwest of the city.
In December of 1854, Washington governor Isaac I. Stevens met with representatives from nine local Native American tribes and negotiated the Treaty of Medicine Creek with them. The treaty provided for the protection of the local fishing, hunting, and gathering rights of all the represented tribes. It also included a section that required all of the Natives who were part of the treaty to move to one of three nearby reservations that were set aside for them. But, the Natives did not interpret the treaty this way. In fact, the treaty forced the Nisqually tribe to give up their traditional living space, which had prime land and locations coveted by the European settlers.
The chief of the Nisqually, a man named Leschi, was furious when he discovered he had been duped into giving up his people’s land by the treaty. He refused to give it up and encouraged his people to fight the Europeans to retain control of it. This was the beginning of what became known as the Puget Sound War. The Nisqually lost the war, and Leschi was executed by European officials, though the decision to do this was highly controversial among the settlers at the time.
Olympia, being located near several bodies of water, was an easy and strategic place to go to and from during a time when travel by water was often the simplest way to go somewhere. Making travel to and from Olympia even simpler was the presence of an overland trail between the Cowlitz River and Puget Sound. This made Olympia a desirable location to settle in for western-going American pioneers. The first American settlement in the area was called New Market and is now known as the town of Tumwater, which borders the city of Olympia. Not only was the area easy to reach, which made it an excellent location for trade, it also had extremely fertile land and an excellent climate, which made it perfect for growing crops. Both traders and farmers from the east flocked to the Olympia area in the mid-1840s.
After Washington achieved statehood in 1889, it was decided to allow Olympia to continue to be the new state’s capital city, as it had been the territorial capital of Washington territory, thanks to its excellent location. A temporary capitol building served the state until the current one finished construction in 1928 (having begun in 1912). Today, the Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia has the fourth-largest free-standing masonry dome on the planet.