The Naming of Seattle

Along with the story of the naming of Seattle’s downtown streets, here on this blog I have also explored ways to find out the meaning of street names outside of the downtown area.

The origins of the naming of the City of Seattle are still being debated today.  Was Seattle first called “Duwamps?”  I (Valarie) am re-posting here, an excellent article by Seattle historian Rob Ketcherside, which explores the origins of Seattle’s naming.

US topographical map t1406 of Duwamish Bay

This article is by Rob Ketcherside, Seattle historian, which I (Valarie) am reposting here:

There is no evidence that Seattle’s founders first named the city Duwamps. If it was named Duwamps though, Arthur Denny was responsible.

What I’m talking about

Let’s fix the story of Seattle’s first name.

I’m not talking about Alki. West Seattle’s Alki Point got its name from the original settlement, the one prior to Seattle, on that flat point jutting into Puget Sound. It was called New York Alki (New York before long). Arthur Denny and his group landed at Alki November 13, 1851.

Arthur Denny, image from National Archives
Arthur Denny in about 1865, part of Washington Territory’s delegation
to the US Congress. (National Archives 525416)

Instead, I mean the first name of the second settlement. Some of the group gave up on New York Alki after just a few weeks. They checked out nearby bays and then looked carefully throughout Elliott Bay, finally choosing a good spot for a town in February 1852 on the southern part of the east shore near the boundary where sea salt gives way to fresh river water.

I’m talking about Dewampsh, which we’re now told was Seattle’s first name.

What is Dewampsh

Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny told us in his 1888 book Pioneer Days on Puget Sound that native Lushootseed names were mispronounced and written in a misleading way. What sounded like “Dewampsh” was written Dewamps, and then Duwamps and finally Duwamish. 1855 land survey field notes spell it yet other ways: Dwamish or Duwammish..

The Washington Historical Quarterly also related that by 1918 the word was being written Dwamish, although that corruption has now disappeared again.

Naming Dewamps

Created on January 12, 1852, Oregon Territory’s Thurston County included all of the Olympic Peninsula and Puget Sound and further east to the Cascades. Elected in June 1852, all of the officers and two of three commissioners of Thurston County lived in the village of Olympia.

Arthur Denny was the only non-Olympian. He lived at New York Alki at the time Thurston County was formed. But in January he was already looking for a good shipping harbor with fellow settlers William Bell and Carson Boren.

The Denny group decided on the spot we call Pioneer Square on February 15, 1852. It was a good place to land and walk east to now-Lake Washington, so the Duwamish called it “Little Crossing-Over Place”, written sdZéédZul7aleecH by Coll Thrush in Native Seattle and Tsehalalitch or Zechalalitch in older texts. It had been a native village and one building remained. In April 1852, Boren, Bell and newcomer David Maynard moved from Alki to the new settlement. Arthur Denny, recovering from illness, moved over a bit after them on June 12, 1852.

The vote for Dewampsh

On July 6, 1852 the Thurston County Commissioners voted on boundaries and names for voting precincts. One precinct was named Dewamps which included land from the Canadian border south to the Puyallup River, and from the shore to the Cascades; and a piece of the peninsula from the Puyallup River to Hood Canal.

“Dewamps precinct – The territory east of Puget Sound and north of Puyallup river and all south of Hoods canal to the parallel of the Puyallup river, on the west side of the Sound.” (Quote from December 3, 1899 Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

As the only commissioner from this area, Arthur Denny must be the one who named it Dewamps. Denny and Olympian David Shelton were the two commissioners that voted to create the precincts.

It’s odd that you can easily find mention of Arthur Denny as a Thurston County Commissioner, and easily find mention that the Thurston County Commissioners put the name Dewamps on our precinct, but I haven’t yet found a reference attributing the name to Arthur Denny.

The seat of Dewamps precinct was Denny’s settlement. Mail was delivered there, voting took place there, court cases were heard there. Of the four other precincts, three were named after villages (Olympia, Steilacoom, and Port Townsend) and one was the name of a tribe and set of geographical features (“Scadget”, or Skagit). I believe that the Dewamps name was similar to Skagit, not the name of a town like Olympia.

Naming Seattle

Historian and UW professor Edmund Meany consoled his fellows in 1903 that “… At this point the historian finds a little confusion [about when ‘Seattle’ started]…”

The official date of Seattle’s start is remembered as May 23, 1853: when Denny, Boren, and Maynard filed their town plan under the name Seattle.

Working backwards, Seattle was first named in Oregon Territory documents on January 6, 1853. “That the County seat of King County be and the same is hereby located at Seattle, on the land claim of David S. Maynard.”

The name Seattle first appeared in print on October 30, 1852. Twice it was used in The Columbian, in ads for Henry Yesler’s mill and Maynard’s store “Seattle Exchange”.

Yesler’s cookhouse at right, was built in 1853 and photographed here in 1866. Photo courtesy of UW Special Collections, Seattle group 1352.

Arthur Denny in his history of Puget Sound wrote that the name was decided prior to Henry Yesler arriving on October 20. “The policy of laying off a town, and the name, had been discussed and agreed upon by us before Yesler came [in October 1852].”

Maynard arrived on March 31 with Chief Sealth to catch and pack fish, and Maynard took a claim amidst Boren and Denny. Maynard is credited with naming the town, convincing the others to name the settlement after his friend Chief Sealth. So the name was coined sometime between April and October.

The story you should remember

Put briefly, the settlement started in April 1852 at a place called Tsehalalitch, and probably went by that name if any. The Duwamps precinct was created and named by Arthur Denny in July, referring to a broad region on the east side of Puget Sound as well as specific geographic features such as Lake Washington, the White River (now Green River), Duwamish River, and Elliott Bay. And then the name Seattle for the settlement was decided in late summer, sometime before mid-October.

The story today

There is a pervasive myth that Seattle, long before it was a city or even a village, was named Duwamps.

Historians for almost a century have accepted the Duwamps origin myth, and they’ve each incorporated their own jokes about the name into their retelling as well as into the shared civic brand.

HistoryLink has an article by its founder Walt Crowley written in 1999 that includes the straightforward statement, “Seattle founders briefly called their village ‘Duwamps’ or ‘Dewamps’ after the native name for the Duwamish River.”

Sources for the article are Clarence Bagley’s 1916 History of Seattle, his 1929 History of King County, and Murray Morgan’s 1951 Skid Road.

How the story began

Thomas Prosch, image from MOHAI
Thomas Prosch (MOHAI SHS2189)

The first version known to me of the story of Seattle and Duwamps was written by historian Thomas Prosch. It was in his wordily-titled 1906 dual biography of Seattle pioneer Doc Maynard and his wife Catherine (David S. Maynard and Catherine T. Maynard: Biographies of Two of the Oregon Immigrants of 1850). Prosch definitely had a source, but I’m unclear whether it was the Maynards or another history.

He wrote:

“When the people first came to Seattle they found it possessed of a number of names. Parts of the land are said to have borne the Indian names Mukmukum and Tsehalalitch. The bay was called Elliott by Capt. Chas. Wilkes in 1841. Later Capt. James Alden called it Duwamish; the river, Duwamish; the point of land opposite, Duwamish Head; and the lake to the east, Duwamish lake.

“The authorities of Thurston County called the first election precinct Dewamps, or Duwamish.

“The people were not satisfied with these names. They had absolute control of their town name, of course, and after brief deliberation they united in terming it Seattle, after the chief of the neighboring Indians.”  (Quote from Prosch, David S. Maynard and Catherine T. Maynard, page 36.)

Two things stand out to me. First, Prosch did not actually say that proto-Seattle was called Dewamps. He said that there were many names to choose from, and in the end none of the geographical names were chosen.

The other thing is that Prosch indefensibly indicated that Dewamps was an externally applied name. He ignored the fact that “the authorities of Thurston county” were three in number, and one of them was Arthur Denny. Prosch’s description of Seattle’s settlers as victims of poor naming is believed to this day, regularly included since the early histories of Seattle. Surely Denny named Dewamps, and he did it as a founder and resident, not as a nameless bureaucrat.

Passing it on

So Prosch in 1906 said that the Denny, Bell, and Boren settlement had no name until Maynard came in 1852. Then in late summer 1852 they all chose the name Seattle.

Clarence Bagley in volume one of his 1916 History Seattle rewrote Prosch’s story of the name. Bagley’s account is important because he and Morgan are the only two citations for HistoryLink.

“There seems to be no record of the exact time that the name Seattle was chosen by the founders for the new town. However, it had become well known by that name as early as the fall of 1852. The first few settlers realized the importance of selecting a name that would reflect credit on the metropolis they hoped someday to build and various suggestions were made. It was found that some of the land upon which the city now stands already was known by name, the Indian words Mukinkum and Tsehalalitch having been applied to some of it.

“The Thurston County officials, being under the necessity of giving the precinct some name by which it could have a place in the official records, called it Dewamps, from which the modern name Duwamish was evolved.”  (Quote from Bagley, History of Seattle, page 32.)

So Bagley recounts Prosch’s version of events with only a slight rewording. He says the settlement was called Seattle by the fall of 1852, but makes no claim about what it was called prior. The name Dewamps was available, and applied to the region, but he doesn’t say it was used for the few cabins on the east shore of Elliott Bay.

Bagley’s account does not support HistoryLink’s claim that Seattle was named Duwamps, so the source must have been Murray Morgan’s 1951 book Skid Road.

The Seattle Times

Writers in the Seattle Times didn’t discuss Dewampsh much for many years. But at the 50th anniversary of Washington State in 1939 the paper was filled with early remembrances. One article, which lacks a writer’s byline, is the first occurrence I’ve found of someone explicitly saying Seattle was named Dewamps. In fact, the title of the article is “Infant Seattle Named Dewamps”. It says:

“Early in 1852 the settlers abandoned their Alki Point cabins, took up new claims on the east shore of Elliott Bay. A tablet on the Hoge Building marks the spot where Carson D. Boren built the first cabin. And the frontier outpost became Dewamps, Thurston County, Oregon.”  (Quote from article, Infant Seattle Named Dewamps, Seattle Times, June 11, 1939, page 1.)

This became the official history in later Seattle Times articles. For example, State Senator Robert McDonald wrote a history of Seattle published November 14, 1943 that claimed: “While the history of Seattle dates from November 13, 1851, when the founding party landed at Alki Point, it was not until the next summer it became known as Seattle. In fact, the little settlement for some months was called by the Indian name Duwamps.”

Notably, McDonald’s story is the first time that I see the name written Duwamps instead of Dewamps. I think it’s likely that he or Conover was Murray Morgan’s source.

Conover in the Times

C. T. Conover, image from Seattle Times

C.T. Conover photo in newspaper column

The Times’ history columnist Charles Talmadge (C. T.) Conover wrote in the February 2, 1948 issue that, “In 1852 a few venturesome spirits arrived to swell the population of the little settlement then known as Duwamps, and in that year christened Seattle.”

Conover chose his words more carefully in the February 13, 1950 Seattle Times, perhaps drawing from Bagley or Prosch rather than McDonald. He wrote, “Later in [1852] a voting precinct and a school district named Duwamps were established, but when the first plat was filed by Denny and Boren, May 23, 1853, the village was named Seattle…”

Later in 1950, C. T. Conover returned to the topic again in a July 6 article based on the 1943 book Chief Seattle by Eva Greenslit. This time the story used made-up quotes from Denny and Maynard. Greenslit’s book was written with imagined dialog of the participants in Seattle’s founding.

[Maynard speaking:] ‘The appointment has come (he had applied to the Oregon territorial Legislature for a license as justice of the peace) and what do you suppose they call this place – Duwamps! Did you ever hear the like? Do you see they have lumped the whole mess of us together as Du-wamps – The Duwampish River settlement, New-York-Alki and us over here.’

“[Denny speaking:] ‘I never heard of that, Doc. Are you sure?’

“‘Look,’ Maynard said, as he pulled a letter from his pocket. ‘Duwamps, Thurston County, Oregon. The whole thing irks me. Thurston County, indeed! We should have a county of our own…’”   (Quote from article, C. T. Conover, Seattle Christening for Old Indian Chief is Recalled, Seattle Times, July 6, 1950, page 34.)

Surprisingly this made-up dialog is in some ways the most accurate version so far. Dewampsh was definitely a regional name. The book makes the point that it could have referred to the name of the settlement on the river, at later Georgetown (Maple and Van Asselt families), just as easily as the settlement on the bay.

Morgan’s misdirection

Murray Morgan’s book Skid Road was published in 1951, the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Denny party at Alki Point. Morgan is the source for HistoryLink’s description of Dewamps and the naming of Seattle. Indeed, he notes and files that he and his wife Rosa assembled for his books were the starting point for many HistoryLink articles. (For more on Morgan, “the dean of Northwest history” watch the recent Town Hall conversation with his daughter.)

Morgan wrote,

“So [Denny, Boren, Bell, and Maynard] planned a town… For a time their settlement was nameless, but when a clerk in Olympia tentatively called it Duwamps, the pioneers hastily got together to pick a less repulsive name. At Maynard’s suggestion they called their town Seattle, a name they adapted from that of Maynard’s Indian friend Sealth.”  (Quote from Murray Morgan, Skid Road: an Informal Portraits of Seattle, page 28.)

This is not a new concoction. Murray and Rosa Morgan here retell the story as we’ve heard it before. They didn’t notice the flaws in the story that was handed to them, but neither have historians in the seven decades since.

My problems with Morgan

Specifically, I have these problems with Morgan’s story:

  • Dewampsh was not named by a bureaucrat, contrary to the implication. Olympia was a village. Yes, there was a citizen who held the role of county clerk named Daniel Bigelow. But it was perhaps the least of the roles he served as a county citizen: he was a lawyer and elected as the county treasurer. Indeed Thurston County had no money for full time government employees. Also it’s worth noting that Bigelow traveled to Puget Sound on the schooner Exact, on the same trip as Arthur Denny and his group. Perhaps Bigelow was the most well known to Denny of the small group of Thurston County officials. Even if Bigelow were the originator of the name Dewampsh, it would not have been without Denny’s input.
  • There is no contemporary evidence described here, or that I’ve found, which provides a name for Seattle prior to the fall of 1852. Morgan correctly states that the colony was, as far as we know, initially nameless . In my view it is better to say that the colony was built on one of the rare spots that already had a native name. Be cause of that, I propose that they must have used that when talking with Duwamish and other native people in the area. There is a letter addressed to Denny or Maynard in the MOHAI archives addressed to Dewamps, Thurston County, Oregon, but there is stronger evidence that referred to the precinct than to the settlement.

My agreement with Morgan

It’s worth pointing out again as well what I agree with in this story:

  • The settlement was initially nameless
  • Dewampsh was already an administrative name that they could have chosen. No town had claimed it yet. Indeed, none ever would!
  • They instead chose to name the town after Chief Sealth, who lived with them through their first spring and summer.

Again at the end

I’ll repeat myself to leave a clear version of the story.

Not-yet-Seattle started in April 1852 at the spot we call Pioneer Square. Denny, Boren, Bell, and Maynard called it Tsehalalitch when they talked to the native people, like Chief Sealth, who lived with them and those who visited throughout the spring and summer.

The Dewampsh precinct was created and named by Arthur Denny in July, referring to a broad voting precinct on the east side of Puget Sound to the top of the Cascades. Previously it was used for specific geographic features such as Lake Washington, the White (now Green) River, Duwamish River, and Elliott Bay.

The name Seattle for the settlement was decided sometime before mid-October 1852.

Additional resources:

In the above article Rob Ketcherside refers to the book Native Seattle by Coll Thrush.  This is the best book available about place names and events from the viewpoint of the native Americans who witnessed the arrival of the Dennys and other white settlers.  A new book in 2018 also has added much to our understanding:  Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name, by David Buerge.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer writer of neighborhood history in Seattle.
This entry was posted in Land records and surveys, Seattle History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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