In the 18th century, Europeans were attracted to the coast of present-day Washington by the valuable fur of the sea otter, an animal found there in great numbers. The Spanish explorer Bruno Heceta visited the area in 1775 and claimed it for his country. In 1790, however, Britain and Spain concluded the Nootka Sound Agreement, which opened the coast between California and Alaska to trade and settlement by both nations. George Vancouver explored much of the Washington coast and Puget Sound between 1792 and 1794, claiming the land for England. By 1800 British interest had shifted from sea-dwelling furbearers to land animals, particularly the beaver, and the Montréal-based North West Company played a major role in opening Washington to the fur trade.
The first Americans interested in the Pacific Northwest were merchants who came from Boston as early as the 1780s, among them Robert Gray, who explored the Columbia River in 1792 and claimed all land surrounding the area. The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-06) stimulated public interest, and gave the U.S. a second claim to the Northwest. In 1811 John Jacob Astor established a fur-trading post-Astoria-near the mouth of the Columbia and a fort at the mouth of the Okanogan River. In 1818 the U.S. and Britain agreed to a 10-year period of joint occupancy of the Oregon country. In 1825, John McLoughlin of the British Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Vancouver.
Rival American and British settlers and conflicting territorial claims threatened war in the early 1840s. In 1846, a treaty was signed with Great Britain creating the 49th parallel as the border between Washington and Canada. By 1850, more than 1,000 people lived in Washington. This led to the creation of the Washington Territory in 1853. When it was separated from Oregon in 1853, the new territory contained fewer than 4000 white inhabitants and stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the crest of the Rocky Mountains. The first territorial governor, Isaac I. Stevens, moved quickly to extinguish Native American title to the land and to improve transportation, the two keys to rapid settlement and economic development. The treaties negotiated by Stevens in 1854-55 were an attempt to defuse tensions between natives and settlers, but for various reasons the treaty structure quickly deteriorated, and intermittent warfare took place between 1855 and 1858. Because of this strife, and numerous delays in constructing a northern transcontinental railroad, the territory languished until the 1880s.
The railroad connection with the East brought many new settlers to Washington with the completion of the Northern Pacific (1886) and Great Northern (1893) rail lines boosted Washington's economy, and statehood as Washington became the 42nd state on Nov. 11, 1889, with Olympia as the state capital. This brought political stability, beginning a period of rapid growth that lasted through World War I.
In 1890, Washington's population reached more than 350,000. During that time the population increased from 75,000 to 1.25 million. Wheat growing and cattle raising in eastern Washington and lumbering and fishing in the western portions of the state were the main economic activities. The Boeing Airplane Company, founded during World War I, became the largest private employer in the state during and after World War II. Lack of diversification and the cyclical nature of the major elements of the economy led to a series of boom-and-bust periods. The availability of inexpensive hydroelectric power after 1940 attracted the energy-intensive aluminum industry.
Due to irrigation projects during the 1890s, farmers moved to Washington to plant fruit orchards and wheat fields. Fishing, lumbering, and mining industries continued to increase as well. Railroad expansion allowed coastal cities to become great port centers, the largest among them being Seattle. During the Alaska gold rush (1897-1898), this great city grew immensely as it became the chief supply center for the prospectors.
During World War I (1914-1918), Washington supplied lumber, food, and ships. Camp Lewis was established as a military training center. After the war, many workers lost their jobs and unemployment rose sharply. In the “Seattle Revolution of 1919,” over 60,000 workers protested by walking off their jobs. The Great Depression (1929-1939) also caused many industries to decline and unemployment to increase. The federal government provided thousands of jobs through construction of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams.
Many jobs were created as the United States entered World War II in 1941. Washington built airplanes and ships. Railroads and the wood product industry expanded. In 1943, Hanford Works (Hanford Project of the U.S. Department of Energy) was established. The first atomic bombs were made here; then in the 1960s, it began to produce electricity.
After the war, thousands of people that had come to Washington to work on newly built military bases, stayed. Many people continued to move to Washington as its industries expanded and increased. The construction of several federal dams along the Columbia River led to development of many hydroelectric projects by the U.S. and Canada in 1964. The tourist industry was promoted in 1962 at a world's fair held in Seattle. The Space Needle observation tower was built at this time.
During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s the population increase rapidly – especially in the Seattle and Puget Sound areas. State authorities tried to encourage industrial growth while protecting the environment. New industries were expanded. The Boeing Company, a builder of military aircraft, expanded its business into the commercial jet and aerospace industries. Electronic and computer software companies also moved into these cities at this time.
By the mid-20th century, agriculture had made dramatic gains. Construction of huge dams provided irrigation and flood control, as well as cheap electric power, and led to the development of inland ports and increased river shipping. As the gateway to Alaska, Washington has been moving away from dependence on federal contracts and has encouraged new industries to develop and process Alaskan resources.
Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, in southwestern Washington. It killed 57 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. The eruption led to floods and forest fires and spread a thick volcanic ash over a large area.