Whidbey Island’s History Part 1

Whidbey Island is the western part of Washington’s Island County. In 1792, Captain Vancouver named the island after Joseph Whidbey, Captain of the HMS Discovery who was probably the first western explorer to set foot on this land at Penn’s Cove (near what we know as Coupeville). Whidbey Island is Puget Sound’s largest island, some 45 miles long and between one and a half and ten miles wide.

One of Whidbey Island’s early settlers in the 1850’s, Samuel Maylor, inscribed in a hand-written family album, “To my sons: Remember’ memories, if once lost, are gone forever.” So it is. Let no history be “gone forever”! Visitors and residents alike tend to think of “original” Coupeville, Langley, and Oak Harbor as “quaint” Victorian villages that evidence the early beginnings of Whidbey’s European history.

Not so, though Whidbey’s earliest white settlers left few indications of their passing on our landscape – unless you know where to look. We tend to think of Coupeville, founded by two dozen New England sea captains, as representing our European beginnings. Coupeville is, in fact, Washington’s second oldest town, after Ft. Walla Walla, the terminus of the Oregon Trail. But, before there was a ‘Washington’ and before Thomas Coupe even arrived at Whidbey Island to lend his name to Coupeville, there was Coveland.

This article explores the earliest colonial history and settlement of Whidbey Island and the impact of Whidbey Island on the history of the Pacific Northwest and the United States. Nothing in this sketch is intended as a slight to the many human groups who for thousands of years have occupied Whidbey Island and where every seed is telling a story. Someday perhaps their “history” can be better written. For now, we have so little documentation of Indian groups living here at the time of initial white contact, as to make this ‘history’ mostly speculation. There are a few photographs and many unreliable “eyewitness accounts”, but little solid documentation. Any understanding of even earlier times, “prehistory”, requires intensive research hardly begun to even faintly outline the lives of those who lived on Whidbey, say 5,000 years ago. For live here they did in this beautiful part of the world where living is known as “life in the Rain Shadow”.

Whidbey Island holds a uniquely important place in the history of settlement in the Pacific Northwest, at an especially interesting time in American history. Indeed the island figures importantly in the negotiations over territorial claims between the young United States and Britain following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and running through the War of 1812, until the 1860’s and ’70’s. In fact, it is the geographical setting of Whidbey Island and a couple of its extraordinary settlers that are partly responsible for the fact that British North America (known as Canada after Parliament passed the North American Act of 1867), lies no further south than the present-day United States-Canadian boundary, or that Puget Sound (the water body lying south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca) is now in the United States.

Britain and the U. S. were involved in an epic struggle for control of the land and waters accessed by the Strait. Britain thought the Northwest ‘vital’ to their commercial interests. Our national policy was to resist all European claims and activities in accordance with the Monroe Doctrine. The U.S. had to be careful, however. We had only two small ships, under Naval Lt. Randolf Jones in our “North Pacific Fleet”. This at a time when the British fleet virtually ruled the world’s seas. However, our little community, Coveland, was the ‘capital’ of a northwestern effort to blunt British activities, reflected by Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts, ultimately to push them further north, out of Puget Sound. In the end, the struggle was settled by colonization – we got Americans to settle the Northwest faster than Britain, so they ultimately lost the ‘race’. Read also about help for Whidbey Island’s shores.

Take this quiz. Where was the first court and voting precinct in the Oregon Territory, north of the Columbia and west of the Cascades? Where was the first post office west of Walla Walla and north of Astoria (Oregon)? What caused the Hudson’s Bay Company to abandon its two early ‘Washington’ trading posts: Ft. Steilacoom (south of Tacoma) and “Psa’tse’ta”, Whidbey Island? Or what induced the British government to settle the U. S. boundary at 49 degrees of parallel, and finally abandon Puget Sound under the terms of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, following the “Sheep War of 1853”, and later, the “Pig War of 1872”? Where were there a trading post, post office, court, judge, physician, postman and settlers when not a single white family lived in what came later to be Seattle, Portland, Tacoma, Olympia (originally called Smithfield), or Bellingham (formerly called Whatcom)? The answer to all these questions is Coveland. Where is Coveland? More can be read in a next post that will come out in a few weeks.