Ethnic Groups of Washington

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This entry was originally written by Dwight A. Radford for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the Washington Family History Research series.
History of Washington
Washington Vital Records
Census Records for Washington
Background Sources for Washington
Washington Maps
Washington Land Records
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Washington Court Records
Washington Tax Records
Washington Cemetery Records
Washington Church Records
Washington Military Records
Washington Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Washington Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Washington Immigration
Ethnic Groups of Washington
Washington County Resources
Map of Washington


Native American

The history of Washington’s Native American population—Nez Perce, Yakima, and other tribes—is one of conflict with European settlers. However, Washington’s native population suffered less from wars with the European settlers than from European diseases. The destruction of the native population was the greatest in the Columbia Valley; within a few years after settlers arrived, the native population of the lower valley was practically wiped out.

Agencies were organized by the U.S. government to administer the affairs of Washington’s Native American population. These records include genealogically significant materials such as land ownership, school records, correspondence, ledgers, and tribal council records. They are on file at the National Archives—Pacific Alaska Region, and microfilm copies of selected records are available at the The Family History Library (FHL). The agency and the tribes they cover are described below. (For a more detailed explanation of this topic, see Native Americans of Oregon.)

Colville Agency, Nespellem, Washington (1874–1964), was established in 1872 for the Colville Reservation and later the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene reservations.

Puyallup Agency, Tacoma, Washington (1885–1920), was actually established in 1888 by a merger of the Nisqualli and Skokomish Agency and the Quinault Agency. It was responsible for the Quinaielt, Puyallup, Chehalis, Nisqualli, Squaxin Island, Clallam or Skalallam, and other tribes.

Spokane Agency, Spokane, Washington (1885–1950), was established in 1912 for the Spokane on the Spokane Reservation. The agency was responsible for the Kutenai, Kalispell, Wenatchi, and other tribes.

Taholah Agency, Taholah, Washington (1878–1950), was created in 1914 to administer the affairs of tribes west of the Puget Sound. From 1933 to 1950, the Taholah Agency administrated the affairs of the Chehalis, Hoh, Makah, Nisqualli, Ozette, Quileute, Quinaielt, Shoalwater, Skokomish, and Squaxon Island reservations. This agency includes the Neah Bay Agency.

Tulalip Agency, Tulalip, Washington (1854–1950), administered the Tulalip, Lummi, Port Madison, Swinomish, and Mukleshoot reservations. In 1922 the Puyallup Agency, including the Cushman Indian School, passed under the control of the Tulalip Agency.

Yakima Agency, Toppenish, Washington (1859–1964), Western Washington Agency (1950–64), was established in 1859 and administered the affairs of the Bannock, Nez Perce, Paiute, and Yakima tribes.

Other important Native American sources include school records and special compiled collections. The Chemawa School in Chemawa, Oregon, and the Fort Shaw School in Cascade County, Montana, enrolled students from all parts of the Northwest. The collection entitled “Major James McLaughlin Papers” is an important research tool as is the Pacific Northwest Tribes Missions Collection of the Oregon Province Archives of the Society of Jesus (1853–1960). For additional details about these collections, see Native Americans of Montana.

George Gibbs’ Indian Tribes of Washington Territory (Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1978) is an excellent firsthand historical account of the tribes and bands of natives in the territory, written in 1855. Another indispensable aid is Charles E. McChesney’s Rolls of Certain Indian Tribes in Washington and Oregon (Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1969). Supervisor McChesney was commissioned by the Department of the Interior in 1906 to proceed to the reservations of Washington and Oregon to confer with Indian Agents and tribe members. Native American genealogical and historical data are found in this book.


Other Ethnic Groups

The pattern of immigration changed throughout western America with the development of the railroad in the 1870s and 1880s. Railroads were advertising all over the United States and Europe that “free” land was available. This brought many immigrants to Washington. By 1920, there were 250,055 foreign-born whites in Washington, the majority of whom came from Canada, Sweden, Norway, England, and Ireland.

A group of Dutch families who had originally settled in the Dakotas came to the Washington coast in 1894. The Dutch who came in the 1890s and 1900s went to Whidbey Island and other parts of the Puget Sound. Lynden (in Whatcom County) became the largest Dutch community in Washington, and other Dutch communities grew in Moxee City, Prosser, and Zillah. Finns and Italians came to the urban centers of Washington to work as laborers. These two groups quickly merged into the American mainstream.

The Japanese community of Washington was largely employed in truck farming on the coast. The heaviest concentrations were on the outskirts of Seattle and Tacoma. By 1920 only 939 out of 17,387 Japanese residents lived east of the Cascades—mainly working on farms in Yakima County and Spokane.

During World War II, the Japanese minority was singled out and evacuated from the Pacific Coast to relocation centers for the duration of the war. A total of 14,559 Japanese were removed from Washington and sent to Minidoka Center in southern Idaho. About 200 went to Tule Lake Center in northern California. Both areas were suited to truck farming, and many Japanese chose to stay in southern Idaho after the war. The University of Washington Library Archives Manuscript Division has records of Seattle’s Buddhist Church from 1938 to 1942, which predates the relocations. Although African Americans participated in the westward movement in the mid-1800s, it was during World War II that many came to Washington coastal cities to work in the industrial plants. When agricultural workers became scarce during the war, ranchers arranged to bring in groups of Mexicans as transient labor.

The Chinese came to Washington to build the railroads and work in the mining industry, and by 1885 there were 3,000 Chinese in the territory, most of whom were living in the Puget Sound region. Anti-Chinese riots in the territory were set off by the news that a mob in Rock Springs, Wyoming, had driven out 700 Chinese miners on 4 September 1885. This led to violence towards the Chinese community employed in the mines and orchards of Washington. On 3 November 1885, several hundred Chinese were forcibly removed from their homes in Tacoma, and the city’s Chinatown was destroyed. As a result, several hundred persons voluntarily left the city for British Columbia or San Francisco.

After the Seattle fire of 1889 many Chinese returned to the city to establish themselves as permanent residents. Chinese organizations, which became part of the community, included the Chinese Benevolent Society, founded in Seattle in 1929; Chinese Baptist Church, founded in Seattle in 1896; Freemason Hall; and several Chinese family organizations centered in Seattle. The Wing Luke Asian Museum, 407 Seventh Ave. South, Seattle, WA 98104 has materials relating to the Chinese in the Pacific Northwest and principally the Seattle area. The East Asia Library, at the University of Washington, 322 Gowen Hall, Box 353527, Seattle, WA 98195-3527 has holdings consisting of materials from the Chinese Empire Reform Association, a Chinese-American organization with chapters throughout the western United States.

A large community of Germans from Russia settled in Whitman County, Washington. Before the turn of the twentieth century the center of the immigration was Endicott, and many German immigrants from Russia were farming in the St. John and Colfax area.

In 1887 most of the Endicott colonists identified themselves with the Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Columbus, Ohio. Due to the strict doctrinal interpretation of the Ohio Synod, many colonists changed churches. Seventh-day Adventists came to Endicott in 1893, and by 1912 they had built a church. The Adventists as well as most of the Endicott churches of the period held services in German. By World War II, the German-Russian population in the Endicott area had been almost totally absorbed into the American mainstream. Books detailing the history of this German-Russian colony are Richard Dean Scheurmans’ The Historical Development of Whitman County’s German-Russians (Seattle: University of Washington, 1971), and The Volga Germans: Pioneers of the Northwest, also by Richard D. Scheurman and Clifford E. Trafzer (Moscow: University of Idaho, 1980).

Major Scandinavian groups settled in Ballard, Bellingham, Everett, Seattle, Skagit Valley, Stanwood, Stillaguamish Valley, and Tacoma. In Parkland, south of Tacoma, the Pacific Lutheran University was founded and was operated under the Norwegian Lutheran Synod.

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