Walla Walla County History

Walla Walla County History

The History of Walla Walla County

Recorded history of this area begins with Lewis and Clark. On October 10, 1805, the expedition camped near a site where the towns of Lewiston and Clarkston sit today. On November 15, 1805, Lewis and Clark arrived at the Pacific Ocean. The end of their westward trek held momentous implications for the United States, and greatly strengthened its claim to the Pacific Northwest.

On their return journey, Lewis and Clark made their way through the Walla Walla Valley. After the exploration by Lewis and Clark, many people became aware of the vast potential of the Pacific Northwest and the westward migration soon began.

In 1818, Donald McKenzie, employed by the Northwest Fur Company, established Fort Nez Perce, which became known as Old Fort Walla Walla. The fort's double wall design allowed guards stationed in the towers at each corner to monitor all activities both inside and outside the walls. Natives were allowed inside the area behind the first wall, but not inside the second.

The British-owned company which operated at Fort Nez Perce, began to refer to the fort as Walla Walla in the 1830's, in honor of the river and the Wallawalla Indians.

Sparked by accounts from explorers and traders, missionary interest in the west began to increase, but the remoteness of the territory discouraged anyone from actually venturing west. This changed when a hoax article in a Methodist publication described a tribe of Indians who journeyed from the west to St. Louis, ostensibly to learn about the bible. This fictitious article stimulated a group of missionaries, which included Reverend Henry Spalding and Dr. Marcus Whitman and their families. The wives of Spalding and Whitman, Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman, were the first white women to cross the continent. The party also brought the first wagons across the continent, inspiring many others to follow.

The small party reached their destination, Fort Vancouver in 1836. After a brief stay, the men returned up the Columbia to select mission sites. The Whitman family eventually opened their mission at Waiilatpu (Whitman Mission), and the Spaldings settled with the Nez Perce in Idaho. The missionaries learned the native languages. Spalding began to print bibles and other books in Nez Perce and Spokane languages on a press he brought. These were some of the first books published in the Pacific Northwest.

The missions slowly expanded, adding other missionaries and their families, and new missions were soon established throughout the region. At the original mission in Waiilatpu, a gristmill, sawmills and a blacksmith shop were constructed.

As the missions expanded, the nomadic lifestyle of the tribes made the work of conversion hard for the missionaries. The tribes traveled east in search of buffalo and west in search of salmon. Whitman tried to encourage the Indians to turn to agriculture, but was largely unsuccessful.

Due to a lack of funds, the original missions at Waiilatpu and in Idaho were ordered to close, but Marcus Whitman felt that this was unwise. He and Asa Lovejoy, took a journey east in the winter to plead his case. The board was moved by the journey he had made and his convincing arguments and rescinded the order to shut down. Whitman returned to the mission with a wagon train, in what became the beginning of a great westward migration.

Eleven years after the mission was founded, the effort to maintain a civil relationship with the local Indians failed. The attempts by the Christians to convert the Indians were viewed as a threat to their way of life, and their beliefs were being irreparably challenged. There were also conflicts resulting from emigrants taking land from the Indians, often times historic hunting grounds or sacred areas. The final straw came as emigrants, carrying measles, came into contact with the Indians. Having no natural defense, the Indians were decimated. Over half of the Cayuse tribe died from measles in less than two years. Many Native Americans thought of this as punishment for forsaking their heritage and allowing white families to inhabit their sacred lands. Many others believed that they were being poisoned to make way for the westward migration. On November 29, 1847, Cayuse Indians attacked the Whitman Mission. The Whitmans and others were killed and buried in a mass grave. 46 women and children were taken hostage. As captives, three children died of measles. A small force of Hudson's Bay Company trappers eventually negotiated for their release with $500 worth of traded goods.

Following this tragedy, the Oregon Territory was created. The act established a formal government west of the Rocky Mountains. With the Cayuse tribe held accountable for the attack, five Cayuse braves were turned over to the territorial government in Oregon City. They were baptized, given Christian names, and hung. It is written that all of the actions were done contrary to the will of the five Indians. With the death of the Whitmans, all missionary sites were closed. The killings also spurred the brutal Cayuse War which was followed by the Indian Wars of the 1850's. By the time the wars had ended settlement was once again allowed. The violence was firmly in the past and a new era was dawning.

Following the formation of the Washington Territory in 1853, the county of Walla Walla, along with 14 others, was created by the territorial legislature. Washington became a state in 1889.

Communities in Walla Walla County


Will Perry of Seattle established Burbank Power and Water Company. The business and town were named Burbank in honor of Luther Burbank, a horticulturist. Known as the tiny community across the river from Pasco, Burbank has flourished since the building of the reservoir behind McNary Dam. Nearby Hood Park was created from pioneer Frank Hood's farm by the Corps of Engineers. Continuous construction has caused Burbank to develop into one of the county's major townships, with a modern fire department, churches, stores, a restaurant and a tavern.

College Place

More than one hundred years ago pioneers envisioned the area of College Place as a good site for a college. An offer to donate 40 acres of land to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in order to establish a school spearheaded the movement. The entire town turned out to celebrate the opening of Walla Walla College. The college has always been the main focus of the town. As such the community has developed along with the college, growing and expanding to fill the needs of a true "college place." 

In 1882, the community of Dixie was platted on land which had been homesteaded a quarter century before. A moment of significance in the town's history was the arrival of the three Kershaw brothers, a family of musicians. Because their favorite tune was
Dixie, they became known as the Dixie boys. Their home was located near a cross roads which soon became known as Dixie Crossing. A school, cemetery, and a railroad station filled out the town.

Dr. Baker, who had completed his 30 mile pioneer railroad from Wallula to Walla Walla, continued the line into Dixie. Due to this development, which spurred agriculture and settlement in the area, the town was platted. As time marched on, the town of Dixie advanced and declined. At its height, for two years Dixie had its own newspaper.

Sitting near Walla Walla, Lowden is a small town, established at the turn of the century. Lowden was named for an early pioneer settler, Francis M. Lowden.

In 1869, Francis M. Lowden, a '49er and packer who had transported dry goods to gold mining regions in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, purchased a 160 acre ranch. The property was located at the point where Dry Creek and the Walla Walla River meet. It was here that Lowden established a cattle ranch and farm.

To meet the needs of transporting farm products from this area, the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company built a new siding in Lowden. Railroad officials decided to name it in honor of Francis Lowden. A business district quickly grew to accommodate the travelers and increased traffic from the trains. Today ever-expanding wineries allow this small community to not only survive but to thrive.


Prescott, located in central Walla Walla County, is named in honor of C.H. Prescott of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. At that time, the company established the community as a railway division with machine shops but they were later moved to Starbuck, in Columbia County. The town of Prescott was platted in 1862 by the Oregon Improvement Company.



Located west of Walla Walla, Touchet is a picturesque community on Highway 12. It has served as an important farming community since the late 1800's. The name is French-Canadian, owing its heritage to the fur traders who frequented the area. The area was named by Lewis and Clark, renamed by early settlers, but eventually a Methodist Minister called it by its early name and it stuck.

The earliest business in the small community was a stage station at the point where the Walla Walla and Touchet Rivers converge. One family owned and operated a hotel, river crossing and general store for travelers. This became a standard stop for travelers going between Wallula and Walla Walla.

The late 1800's saw the building of a narrow-gauge railroad. A siding was built near the river crossing and residents of the area were then able to send and receive goods, crops, and livestock. By 1871, enough people had settled in the area that a post office was established. The town was platted by John Hill in 1884, at which time the town had a blacksmith and several stores. The community continued to grow and, at one time, was a very prosperous area. Today most of the businesses serving Touchet are in Walla Walla but the community still supports several businesses and an agricultural chemical plant.



Located in the eastern section of the county, Waitsburg was named after Sylvester Wait who built a gristmill there in 1864. Wait had searched the country looking for a suitable site to build his mill. He met a homesteader in Lewiston, Idaho who offered to help build the mill in exchange for assistance on the trail.

Wait found the location to be perfect. Lying at the confluence of the Touchet and Coppei Rivers, the land was fertile and homesteaders were building, not only on the flatlands, but also on the rolling hills. These homesteaders were planting wheat that was growing in abundance. All that was needed was a mill, and that, Wait could provide.

The mill was built with large timbers carted from the Blue Mountains. The rivers provided plenty of power to turn the wheels. He equipped the mill with machinery from as far away as San Francisco. Wait bought wheat from the local farmers by the bushel and sold flour by the barrel.

The town went through several names. It was originally called Wait's Mill. The first schoolteacher suggested that it be called Delta, and for a period of time, it was known as Horsehead City. Finally in 1868, tired of the continually changing name, the city decided on Waitsburg. The town was platted in 1869, and the census showed about 100 people. By 1880, the city was populated by nearly 250 residents. In 1881, a fire destroyed nearly half the town, and the citizens of Waitsburg began the task of rebuilding.

The town of Waitsburg is still a thriving farming community, and takes a special pride in their long and storied heritage. As such, the Waitsburg Historical Society is very active in trying to preserve the old buildings. The Waitsburg Community Revitalization Committee is attempting to preserve the old Wait Flour Mill, which stands on the banks of the Touchet River at the end of Main Street in Waitsburg.


Walla Walla

Walla Walla began as New Fort Walla Walla, built during the Indian Wars. The town formed around the fort, both for the protection it afforded and the income it generated. In the mid 1800's, mining helped the community to grow beyond its military background into a thriving town. Eventually, agriculture grew to become the main economy, as the gold rush tapered out. The city was incorporated in 1862, and has held several names, including Garden City, Wieletpu, a short bout as Steptoeville, and finally back to Walla Walla.

The town continued to rely on agriculture and military economics throughout the 1800's as the various Indian Wars were fought and the fort was alternately occupied and abandoned. The city continued to grow, and today, as the largest city in the area, it is a major economic center in eastern Washington with its 3 colleges (Whitman College, Walla Walla College, and Walla Walla Community College), 2 hospitals (St. Mary Medical Center and Walla Walla General Hospital) and numerous churches, schools, and banks.



The city of Wallula grew up around Old Fort Walla Walla, a fort built by the Northwest Fur Company. The town was platted in 1862. Wallula became a booming port, serving as the heart of water navigation for many years. The town was connected to the towns of Walla Walla and Dixie by Dr. Baker's railroad. The town also served as a supply depot for miners in Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

After suffering fires and floods, the town was devastated. With the building of the McNary Dam, the town was moved. The only business still in the city is a post office. A sign and small monument commemorate the location where the fort used to sit. The site on which the fort once sat, guarding the small town and serving as a waypoint for travelers and emigrants is now covered by Lake Wallula, the reservoir behind McNary Dam.

Other Communities

Many other communities sprang up through the years. Some of these cities were very prosperous, serving as major waypoints for travelers, emigrants, miners and settlers. Some were started as train stations, others as irrigation points, and still others as agriculture centers. None of these towns were able to survive the changing times as our country switched from an agrarian nation to an industrial economy. As a result of the failure to change, many of these towns have simply died out.




Community information & pictures courtesy of Blue Book Publishing.

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