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History of Yakima


In the grandfather days the Yakamas were a sovereign nation.  Smoke from army camps lifted above the valleys of the Kittitas and Yakima.  From the snowy heights of the Cascade Mountains to the flashing waters of the Enche-wana, the "Big River" which we call the Columbia, everything was theirs.  The animals, berry patches, root ground, the salmon--all belonged to them.

With tribes and bands allied by blood and speech, they controlled a vast area of what is now Central Washington.  Even today, there is but vague distinction between the elements that combined to form it.  In the process of joining together, identities of the smaller groups have long since disappeared.  All the descendants on the Yakima Reservation represent the components of this once powerful Indian Nation.  Other tribes are represented too; Nez Perce, Paloos, Umatilla and Puget Sound.

The Yakamas themselves originated from several groups that occupied the Yakima Valley from the headwaters of the Yakima River, in the Cascades, to the stream's junction with the Columbia.  Important among these tribal stocks were the powerful Pish-wana-pum, (River Rock People) of the Kittitas region; the Skwa-nana, (Whirlpool People) whose main camp stood just below the outlet of the Wenas Creek; the Pah-quy-ti-koot-lema, (People of Mountain Heads Coming Together) at Union Gap.  Next were the Ahtanum-lema who lived on the banks of the Ahtanum Creek; the Pisko-pum, (Sagebrush People) of the Toppenish plains; the Thap-pah-nish of Toppenish Creek; the Setass-lema on Satus Creek and the Chim-na-pum of the lower Yakima to the Columbia and down the latter to where that mighty flow begins bending westward.  A small band, the Kow-was-sa-yee lived on the Columbia, opposite the mouth of the Umatilla River.  West of them were the Pish-quit-pah, and a little further down the north were the Skeen-pah.  Scattered along the Columbia, from the mouth of the Snake up to Priest Rapids roamed the So-kulks, closely related to the Yakamas, who called them Wana-pum or River People.

With the possible exception of the River Rock People and Whirlpool People, who have been classified as Salishan stock tribes, the foregoing divisions were members of the Shahaptian linguistic family.  Both the River Rocks and the Whirlpools have spoken the Shahaptian tongue of the Yakamas since historic times.

Sahaptian Meanings of Yakima and Nearby Cities
Yakima -
Bountiful, beginning of life and runaway waters
Wapato - Edible root
Naches - Roaring, rough or turbulent water
Selah - Still or smooth water
Cowiche - Foot bridge between the valley and the mountains
Moxee - Bog land
Toppenish - Sloping downward and spreading
White Swan - Chief White Swan


In the early 1800's very few explorers, fur traders or missionaries ventured off the heavily traveled, arteries of the Snake and Columbia Rivers to come up the Yakima River. The Catholic missionaries coming to instruct the Yakama People were apparently the first group to really establish themselves in the Yakima Valley, but there is some uncertainty about their first locations.  One historian (Reverend Father O'Hara in his Catholic History of Oregon) refers to Father D'Herbomez as having established the Yakima mission (Oblate order) in 1847, but no mention is made of the exact location.  Another writer (Theodore Winthrope in "Canoe and Saddle") refers to the fact that Fathers Pondosy and D'Herbomez were located on the Atinam (Ahtanum) some five years prior to his journey through the area in 1853.  This mission on the Ahtanum near Tampico became known as the St. Joseph Mission when the original St. Joseph's near Sawyer was abandoned in 1852.

During the Indian Wars of 1855-56 which ranged spasmodically back and forth across central Washington, the priests abandoned the mission to seek protection elsewhere.  The soldiers of the U. S. Regulars and the Oregon and Washington volunteers who were opposing the Yakama people, finding the mission deserted and a keg of powder buried on the premises jumped to the conclusion that the Fathers were aiding the Indians by furnishing them with ammunition and so set fire to the mission.  That was the inglorious end of the first mission on the Ahtanum.

The Fathers spent the following years at Fort Simcoe and from there worked among the Wenatchee, Okanogan and Spokane tribes but not among the Yakima's.  It wasn't until 1867-68 that two of the Fathers undertook the re - establishment of the mission on the Ahtanum.  The buildings were completed in 1870 and dedicated by Bishop Blanchet in 1871.

Two of the Northwest's most notable missionaries, both energetic Jesuits, located at Ahtanum in 1870 and 1872.  The first was Father Caruana and the second was Father Grassi.  It is interesting to note that these two men were among the Valley's first orchardists, setting out an apple orchard near the mission in 1872 which was irrigated by water from the Ahtanum Creek.  Father Grassi left several years later to establish Gonzaga College (now Gonzaga University) at Spokane.  Meanwhile, Father Caruana, whose special task was working among the Indians, in addition undertook the founding of both a church and a school in Yakima City (Union Gap) where a considerable population was gathering.  The school was the beginning of St. Joseph's Academy for Girls which later moved from "Old Town" to North Yakima.

So from their humble beginning among the Yakima Indians the Fathers of the Ahtanum Mission began to spread their teachings to the growing white population in the Yakima Valley.  This transition was hastened by the establishment of a new system of missions on Indian Reservations during President Grant's administration.  In 1870, the Indians of the Yakima Reservation were assigned to Methodists and it was not too many years later that the Catholic missions were practically disbanded.

In October of 1947 the one hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Ahtanum mission was celebrated, focusing the attention of the local Valley residents on this point of interest and historic importance.  Only a short ten mile drive out through Ahtanum and Wiley City, the restored buildings of the Mission in their surroundings of pastoral serenity on the banks of the Ahtanum give little indication of the turbulent life that was their past.

(This article based on material contained in "The History of the Yakima Valley" by Professor W. D. Lyman.)

Yakima Indian War Markers – located south of Union Gap, just beyond the overpass, it commemorates the finale of the Yakima Indian War of 1855 at the Battle of Two Buttes.  The DAR erected one monument in 1917 and the Yakima Indian Nation erected another in 1918.

History records note the first white men to view the Yakima Valley were members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805.  During that period this vast area, lying at the foot of towering Mt. Rainier and its neighbors in the Cascade Range, served as hunting, fishing and agricultural land for the Yakama Indian Tribe.

The early day stories of the Lewis and Clark Expedition enticed trappers, traders and mineral seekers to the area throughout the first half of the 19th century.  As early as 1847, a Catholic mission was established in the Ahtanum area a few miles southwest of the present site of the city of Yakima.

A dozen years later, in the late 1850's and early 1860's, a permanent party of settlers began to arrive.  Some came from the Columbia River while others moved from Lewis and Clark headquarters near Walla Walla.  Military units arrived in the area in 1856 to quell Indian hostilities, and an army garrison was established at Fort Simcoe, 38 miles southwest of Yakima.  This historic fort, abandoned and neglected many years ago, has been restored to allow the public to see it in its original state.

During this settling down period, many Indian skirmishes were recorded, but in a comparatively short time, permanent and honored treaties were signed with the Yakama Nation, and in 1865 Yakima County was officially established.  A census in 1870 accounted for 432 pioneers in the county.  These hardy transplanted easterners and mid-westerners were people of vision and quickly realized the tremendous potential of the rich volcanic soil covering the Yakima Valley floor.  Although rainfall was not great, the Cascade watershed, with its heavy snows, provided an abundance of moisture.

By 1880, nearly 3,000 people were reported in the county.  With agriculture becoming firmly established, the railroads naturally followed.  In 1884, Northern Pacific extended its iron horse service to the valley.  Some of the townspeople of the growing community of Yakima City refused to make certain concessions asked by the railroad.  Northern Pacific then routed its track 4 miles north of the original Yakima City and named its terminal point, North Yakima. The railroad then offered to move any of the Yakima City buildings to its newly established community, and one of the strangest and most colorful periods in Yakima's history was the actual movement of some 50 to 60 buildings from "Old Yakima" to "North Yakima" to surround the railroad terminal.  The courthouse, banks, general store, blacksmith shops, saloons and some homes were moved on log rollers over the 4 mile trail.  Some reported that business never ceased as the buildings were strung out along the route.

On January 27th, 1886, North Yakima was incorporated and was named the county seat.  It was not until 1918 that the prefix "north" was dropped from the name.  At that time, the original Yakima City, four miles to the south, and commonly referred to then as "Old Town" by some and "Union Gap" by others, officially adopted the latter as its name.  Old timers in the area still refer to Union Gap as "Old Town."

On September 27, 1889 a franchise was given to A. G. McIntyre of Helena, Montana, to lay water mains, place fire plugs and hydrants, and sell water to the city and its inhabitants.  Charges for water were based on the size of the house served.  A four room home paid $1.00 per month, over four rooms $1.20, while use of one bathtub was an additional 33 cents.

For the first time on September 4, 1890, electric lights were turned on.  On June 11, 1891 the electric light and water works companies consolidated under the name of Yakima Water, Light and Power Company.  In 1910 the properties of the Yakima Water and Light system were sold to Mr. A. Welch of Portland who operated the Northwestern Corporation.  Subsequently the corporation was taken over by a predecessor of the Pacific Power & Light Company and in 1913 the water and power system were segregated.

The very earliest utility, however, was the telephone system which was named The Sunset Telephone Company.  Operation started on December 15, 1889 organized by Mr. John Lawrence who came to Yakima for that purpose.  The company would give services to forty different subscribers between the hours 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m.  Later the Sunset Telephone Company was taken over by the Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company.

The organization for the first street car system was started in 1907 and was first known as the Yakima Inter-Valley Traction Company.  In 1908 it was reorganized and named the Yakima Valley Transportation Company.  In 1909 it was sold to the North Coast Railroad Company because of the effect of the depression in 1907.

At the turn of the century, nearly 15,000 residents were counted in the area, and the growth continued rapidly as man-made irrigation systems transformed the vast acreage into prosperous farms.  Those seeking crop diversification visualized fruit trees on part of the field crop and pasture lands.  The success of this venture has established Yakima as one of the most important fruit producing and diversified farm areas in the world.

Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce
10 North 9th Street • Yakima WA 98901
Phone (509) 248-2021