Washington State History Lessons

Lesson 3: Washington – Cultural & Economic Change

League of Women Voters of Washington State

1900-2000: A century of change

This resource was adapted from Chapter 4 of  The State We’re In: Washington (8th edition, 2018) developed by the League of Women Voters of Washington Education Fund.  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original, non openly licensed images were substituted for shareable images.

Economic Change

Boeing airplane
787 Dreamliner” by Daniel T via Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

In 1900, about half a million people were counted in the census in Washington. (A census is a count of how many people live here, conducted by the U.S. government once every ten years.) In the 2010 census, nearly seven million people were counted (6,897,012 people, to be exact). That’s a lot of people – and a lot of change for our state.

Imagine what it was like to live in Washington in the year 1900: People traveled on foot, on horses, on trains, or on boats, because cars were very rare and airplanes hadn’t been invented yet. There was no electricity, so kids did their home- work by candlelight. Most people only went to school through the 8th grade.

When kids got out of school, many worked on their families’ farms. Others got jobs logging forests, milling lumber, mining coal, or working on a fishing boat or in a fish processing plant, or helping to build fast-growing cities and towns. People worked long hours with little time off. And work in the woods, mines, lumber mills and the fishing industry was dangerous. Many workers were hurt or killed in these jobs.

Early in the 20th century, Washington workers began organizing unions to demand better pay and working conditions. Over many years, unions helped improve the lives of working people by winning the eight-hour day, weekends off, and better safety standards. By the end of the 20th century, however, union membership was going down, and fewer and fewer workers were union members.

By the end of the century, life in Washington had changed dramatically. The Seattle area had become a center of medical and technical progress – home to a growing biotech- nology industry, and famous as the hometown of Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft. For much of the 20th century, Washington was also known as the place where the Boeing Company built sleek, fast airplanes. In Eastern Washington, technology had transformed the way people farmed, processed food, and managed livestock. But, at the same time, the new importance of technology – and the decline of fishing, mining, and logging – had created a gap between prosperous urban areas and struggling rural communities.

At the end of the 20th century, even a high school diploma wasn’t usually enough to get a good job; the majority of kids went on to college, vocational or technical training, or an apprenticeship. Many adults also went back to school to learn new skills. And young people from rural areas and small towns often had to move to the cities to find good jobs.

The changes of the 20th century brought new prosperity to many, but by the end of the century, there was a growing gap between rich and poor, not just in Washington, but all over the U.S. Rising medical costs were a growing problem – especially for people whose employers didn’t pay for their health insurance. And fewer and fewer jobs provided pension benefits for people to live on when they were too old to work anymore.

What we do for a living (2016)

Chart of local careers.

Who invented the weekend?

At the beginning of the 20th century, people often worked six or even seven days a week, and they often worked for 10 hours a day or more. Even chil- dren often worked these long hours. In many jobs, people also suffered a lot of injuries because there were hardly any safety measures.

To win better pay and conditions, workers banded together and formed unions – organizations that represent the interests of workers. Unions tried to bargain with business owners, and to get them to sign contracts spelling out how much workers would be paid, how many hours they would work, and under what conditions.

Sometimes, when the union couldn’t get the employer to agree to the pay and conditions they wanted, all the workers would refuse to work.

This is called a strike.

In 1917, loggers in Washington went on strike because they wanted to reduce their work day from ten hours to eight hours. People who worked in the mills where logs were sawed into lumber joined them, and together, the loggers and mill workers shut down the whole industry. Eventually, they won, and the employers signed contracts giving them an eight-hour day and extra pay if they had to work overtime.

Unions eventually created today’s standard work week of 40 hours – eight hours a day, with two days off. Unions also won pensions for people when they get old, paid time off when people are sick, pay for people who are injured at work, health insurance paid by employers, and paid time off for vacations. For many years, the labor movement in Washington was very powerful. But in the last half of the 20th century, the power of unions declined, both in

Washington and across the country. Now only about 15% of American workers are union members. Still, unions play a very important part in national, state, and local politics. Unions endorse candidates, and contribute to their campaigns. Many union members work as volunteers to put up signs and pass out literature for the candidates they support, and encourage people to vote.

In recent years, unions have also sponsored successful initiative campaigns to raise the minimum wage, and to provide better pay and union membership for workers who take care of people with disabilities and the elderly.

Change in Washington’s natural resources

The 20th century also brought dramatic changes to Washington’s natural world. Huge dams were built on our rivers to produce electricity, and to provide irrigation for farms. This made farming a lot more of the land in Eastern Washington possible. But many of these dams blocked salmon from completing their journey from the ocean back to their home streams to lay eggs. The dams also destroyed traditional fishing places that Indians had used for thousands of years.

A logger with a felling axe sits in the undercut of a tree in Washington. The tree was 25 feet in diameter.

In the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century, forests were logged without any thought to the future. At that time, the forests seemed so vast that it was hard to imagine that one day they would all be cut. By the end of the 20th century, scarcely any of Washington’s original forests were left. Foresters had learned to replant the areas they cut, but the replanted areas were not the same as the forests that grew there before, because foresters planted only the trees that were most valuable for timber – not all the other plants and trees that had been part of the original forest. Harvesting trees also disrupted many rivers and streams, which did more harm to salmon.

Even early in the 1900s, some people began to notice that Washington’s industries were damaging fish and streams, and polluting the water and air. Abundant runs of salmon had already started to shrink. But it took a long time for people to face up to these problems. Eventually, laws were passed that required industries to stop dumping wastes into the air and water. But it wasn’t until the last decade of the century, when Washington’s wild salmon were in danger of extinction, that an all-out effort to save them finally began.

Washington’s Changing Population

A century and a half ago, Washington’s population was almost all Native American. Then the population of white settlers became the overwhelming majority, and Indian tribes dwindled. Over the years, waves of immigrants came from other states and from many countries – mostly European, but some from China, Japan, the Philippines, Mexico and other countries.

Today, Washington’s population is still changing and growing. The Hispanic population is growing fastest, and in some counties, Hispanics are or will soon be in the majority. Indian tribes and other populations of people of color are also growing, so that by the end of this century, no single group is likely to comprise a majority of Washington’s people.

Saving Wild Salmon

For thousands of years salmon have lived in Washington’s waters. But now they have disappeared from about half of our rivers and creeks, and wild salmon runs in other rivers and streams are much smaller than they used to be.

There are many reasons why wild salmon are in trouble. Some people blame the problem on too much fishing, but there are other reasons, too. Many of the freshwater rivers and streams where salmon begin and end their lives have been dammed, polluted, or blocked. Some rivers no longer have enough water to support salmon in late summer. And in the winter, floods sometimes destroy salmon eggs or wash young fish out to sea. When it rains, oil from roads, and pesticides from our farms and yards are washed into the streams and rivers.

So many people are worried about salmon that in 1998 the state legislature passed The Salmon Recovery Planning Act. Governor Locke called together the leaders of several state agencies (called the Joint Natural Resources Cabinet) to come up with plans to restore wild salmon. But state government is just one of many partners in this effort. Indian tribes, the federal government, the governments of other states where salmon live, local governments, and citizens’ groups are all involved.

Tribal governments are especially important because of their special relationship with salmon, and because the federal court has declared that their treaty rights make them “co-managers” of salmon, on an equal footing with the state. Today tribal, local, state and federal governments all hire a lot of fish biologists and other scientists to help figure out the best ways to restore wild salmon runs.

We can all do something to help. People can volunteer to help restore salmon habitats, and conserve water in farms, factories and homes. We can stop using harmful pesticides and fertilizers on our lawns. We can let our elected officials know what we think they should do. If everyone works together, there is hope for wild salmon.

To learn more go to:

The invention of the automobile also had a profound impact on our natural world. Cars cause a lot of pollution – air pollution from car exhaust, and water pollution from the oil and other fluids that leak from them, and from the materials in tires and brakes that wear off on roads and get washed into streams. Cars also require a lot of pavement for roads, freeways and parking lots. And where there is pavement, rain can’t soak into the ground. Instead, all that rainwater goes somewhere else – it runs into drains, which often gush into lakes or streams, carrying pollutants and disrupting the natural flow of water. The more people move to our state – and the more we drive – the bigger these problems become.

The way people lived was part of the problem, too. With every passing decade, people used more electricity and gas, and lived in bigger houses that took more lumber to build. People also created more and more garbage. And there were more and more of us. Urban areas sprawled outward, eating up more land, and needing more parking lots and roads.

Citizens who cared about these problems organized to find solutions, and to urge federal, state, tribal, county and city governments to take action. Starting in the 1960s, these organizations won important victories (including the creation of the state’s Department of Ecology) and helped educate people about the problems. Important new laws were passed to reduce the amount of pollution industries could create, and to clean up the most dangerously polluted areas. But governments were hard-pressed to make enough progress to offset continuing population growth, and continuing growth in the number of cars, parking lots, and freeways.

Preserving and restoring the health of the natural world was difficult for other reasons, too. People need jobs, and sometimes this need conflicts with the desire to save wild fish, or preserve forests. Loggers want to cut trees, because their families and communities depend on their income. Fishermen – both Indian and non-Indian – want to fish, for the same reason. And governments have to figure out how to pay for cleaning up pollution and saving salmon at a time when they also need to spend more money on schools and colleges, care for the elderly, and other services for nearly seven million people.

Who made your shoes?

International trade is a big part of both our past and our future. One out of three jobs in our state depends on international trade. Our airplanes, computer software, wheat, apples, cherries, medical technologies, lumber and other services and products are exported to many other countries.

Washington also plays an important role in importing goods from other countries. A lot of the imports come on huge ships to our ports, and are then loaded onto trucks or trains to be transported all over the country. Some of the imports stay in Washington, though – look at the labels on your clothing, shoes, and even the pots and pans in your kitchen, and you will get an idea of just how much we import.

For Washington, the tradition of international trade began a very long time ago. Indian nations traded with each other for thousands of years. Then, in 1825, the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver, and began to trade in furs. Ever since, international trade has grown in importance.

The ports of Tacoma and Seattle together are the third largest in the country, and they are actually closer to Asian ports than those in California.

The State of Washington has an International Trade Division in the Washington State Department of Commerce that helps Washington businesses learn how to export their products. The International Trade Division also organizes visits to other countries to promote trade, and sometimes the governor leads these trade delegations.

Change in relationships between tribal and state/local governments

In the 1850s, when the treaties were signed, the U.S. regarded Indian tribes as nations. Treaties are, by definition, agreements between nations. This made tribes nations within a nation. But tribes didn’t have the power to make the federal or state government respect the terms of the treaties. So many of the promises made to Indians in the treaties were soon broken.

In 1887, the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Act, which said that Indian reservations should be broken up. The federal government assigned each Indian family a plot of land within the reservation, and then sold off some of the remaining land to white settlers. The idea of this policy was to make more land available to white settlers – and to try to make Indians be more like white people. Instead of sharing land, they wanted Indians to adopt the idea of each person or family owning their own land. Instead of hunting, fishing and gathering, they wanted Indians to become farmers. In fact, a lot of people thought Indians should just disappear into the larger society. They didn’t think that Indian culture, history, or languages would survive, because there weren’t very many Indians left. Across the country, millions of


Japanese internment

In the 1940s, when the U. S. was at war with Japan, 14,400 people of Japanese descent lived in Washington. Some were immigrants; about two-thirds were American-born children or grandchildren of immigrants.

Some people feared that some of them might be secretly supporting the Japanese government, though there was no evidence for this. (And no one seemed to worry about German immi- grants, though we were also at war with Germany.) Fear and racism won out, and President Roosevelt signed an execu- tive order that required all the Japanese immigrants and citizens in west coast states to be sent to prison camps until the war was over.

Many people who were sent to the camps lost their homes, farms and jobs.

And they suffered from the trauma and shame of being locked up in spite of their loyalty to the United States.

There is a good essay on this topic at http://www.history- link.org/File/240.

Much later, the Japanese American Citizens’ League won passage of the federal Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which recognized the injustice of internment. President Reagan apologized to those who had been interned, and the federal government paid each of them $20,000 as a token of regret.

For the full story, you can go to: https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/japanese-relocation.

Indian Boarding Schools

Of all the many ways Indians suffered in the decades after the treaties were signed, none was more painful than Indian boarding schools. For many years, Indian children were separated from their families and required to live in these schools, where they were expected to adopt the culture, language, and values of white society. Many children had too little to eat, and many got sick and died. Even now, the memory of families being ripped apart by these experiences is a source of deep anger and sorrow.

Harriette Shelton Dover, a Snohomish tribal member who lived from 1904 to 1991, wrote a book about her life called Tulalip, From My Heart. She describes the years (1912–1922) she was required to live at a boarding school for ten months a year:

We took off our shoes and stockings in the basement playrooms at night, and we marched up two stairways to go to bed. In case we tried to run away, we were separated from our shoes. I consider that like a life in a penitentiary.

I was given a whipping for speaking our own language in school when I was nine years old . . . the matron strapped us from the back of our necks all the way to our ankles for talking our own language. . . . I went sail- ing across the hall and my head crashed into the wall. She said to me, “You get back here.” I did but I couldn’t see very well. . . . Believe me, we never talked “Indian” at the school again.

Harriette Dover also reports constant hunger, fear, cold, and military-style discipline. But the worst trauma was the number of children who didn’t survive. Harriette’s sister got sick with tuberculosis at the school and was sent home to die. Harriette writes:

I stayed home all the time my sister was sick and dying. The superintendent-agent didn’t make me go back to the Tulalip Indian School after my sister died. My father took me to a doctor in Everett. I was all they had then. I was the youngest, and my brother

was gone in the army. I was thirteen years old and thin because I came out of Tulalip School. The only reason I lived was my sister dying, because then I got to come home.

The Tulalip boarding school closed in 1932, but some boarding schools continued for much longer. Eventually, tribes won more control of them and encouraged students to speak their own languages and practice their own culture. Also, more Native kids were allowed to attend public schools. Today, some tribes operate their own schools and their own colleges.

Indians had died of diseases that Europeans brought with them, such as smallpox and measles, and more had died during conflicts with the U.S. military and forced relocations from their land.

After about forty years, the Dawes Act was reversed, but by then it had already done a lot of damage. Instead of being a single, large tract of land, most reservations had become checkerboards of land owned by Indians and by settlers. Some of the land was eventually returned to the tribes, but most of it was not.

During this time, it was nearly impossible for Indians to maintain their traditional forms of government. The federal government basically ran the reservations, through an agency called the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. BIA agents ordered Indian children to go to boarding schools – often far away from their home reservations – where they were not allowed to speak their own language. The BIA also had the power to lease Indian lands to mining companies, to dissolve tribal governments, and to decide if and when Indians could sell their land.

In 1934, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act. This law encouraged the re-formation of tribal governments, and allowed the return of holding land in common for the whole tribe. Many tribes thought this was an important step in the right direction, but there were some problems with the Act. Tribes who chose to form governments under the terms of this legislation were required to adopt tribal constitutions that followed a model set out by the federal govern- ment. They also had to agree to govern by majority rule rather than the tra- ditional way of taking time to reach consensus.

In some respects, the tribal constitutions adopted under this law were really designed more for the convenience of the federal government than   for the benefit of the tribes. Federal agencies wanted to deal with tribal governments that met federal deadlines – not with traditional tribal practices that meant taking the time to make decisions when the members of a tribe came to an agreement.

In traditional Indian societies, spiritual practices were woven into the way people governed themselves. Spiritual and hereditary leaders were very impor- tant. But these traditions were also pushed aside by the new constitutions.

There was another problem, too: to adopt this kind of constitution, and to govern by voting, tribes had to define who was a tribal member. Before settlers came, this wasn’t an issue, because people simply participated in the life of the tribe they lived in. People married across tribes, so it was common for kids to have parents from different tribes, or for a husband to participate in the life of his wife’s tribe if that was who they lived with. But once tribal government became more structured, people had to formally enroll in one tribe, and one tribe only.

In 1953, federal policy towards Indians took another terrible turn: the U.S. Congress adopted the “Termination Policy.” The aim of this policy was “to make Indians . . . subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States, (and) to end their status as wards of the United States.” To do this, reservations were to be abolished, and tribal governments wiped away. Once again, the federal government wanted Indians to give up their culture, their history, and their identity.

This time, they didn’t push for Indians to become farmers; instead, they encouraged Indians to move into cities and towns.

The termination policy was reversed in 1970, and in 1975 a new law called the Indian Self-Determination Act was passed. It gave tribes much more power to govern themselves. For the first time, tribes were able to run some of their own health, education, housing, and social services programs, and to make more decisions in tribal courts.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, a long struggle over Indian fishing rights pitted Indians against the Washington state government. State game wardens arrested and fought with Indians who tried to fish in their usual and accustomed places.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal and state governments had to keep the promise in the treaties that said Indians would always be able to fish in common with settlers. In 1974, Judge George Boldt had ruled that the Indians should get half the salmon harvest; the Supreme Court upheld his decision.

The Indian Self-Determination Act and the Boldt decision were important turning points. The federal government finally recognized that Indians were not going to disappear, and that in spite of everything that had happened to them, Indians retained their own cultures, history, and identity. Indian tribes – and their governments – are a permanent part of the United States. The treaties that the U.S. government signed with tribes are the law of the land.

Since the 1970s, both the federal and state governments have begun to create “government to government” relationships with tribes. This is a return to the idea, embodied in the treaties, that Indian tribes are nations within a nation – that they have a right to govern themselves as they choose, and to protect and preserve their culture and traditions.

The changing challenges of government

As you can imagine, all the changes of the 20th century had a big impact on our governments – state, tribal, and local – not to mention our national government. As you can see, the challenge of governing the state changed a lot in 100 years. During the 20th century, our state went from being a remote, wild place to being a leader in life sciences, technology, agriculture, and inter- national trade. Our governments grew and changed along with our population. There was more for governments to do – and more costs for taxpayers to pay. At the beginning of the century, we only had to pay for educating a few thousand kids through the 8th grade. Only a few of these students ever went to college. By the end of the century, government needed money to pay for schools for nearly a million students in kindergarten through high school and about half of them went on to community and technical colleges or four-year universities. By the end of the century, we also needed more roads, more money for health care, more services for people with disabilities and the elderly, and more jails, police and firefighters.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Washington state government’s annual budget was about $30 million in today’s dollars; by the end of the century, it was about $11 billion a year.

Science and Technology

More and more of Washington’s economy depends on the work of scientists. And in almost every job, scientific advances are affecting what people need to know to use the tools, materials, and technologies in today’s workplaces. But many employers complain that not enough young people are learn- ing math and science and choosing science-based careers.

One of the most exciting areas of growth in Washington’s economy is “green jobs” – that is, jobs in industries like bio- fuels or solar and wind energy that reduce pollution and oil use. There are also “green jobs” in the construction industry, where people are finding ways to use fewer resources and produce houses and buildings that use less energy.

Nearly all of the jobs in the 21st century economy require that people learn more math and science than their parents needed to learn, because new scientific discoveries and new technologies are constantly changing the way we do things.

Being a good citizen also requires more knowledge of science and math than it used to, because new scientific advances present us with important moral questions. Do we want to eat genetically engineered plants and animals? Should there be laws against cloning animals or humans? What should we do to reduce the impact of climate change? To make good decisions about these questions, we have to know enough science to understand what will happen when we choose a course of action.

There are special programs to help and encourage young people who are interested in math and science. These programs try to help kids see that math and science are for everyone, and that you don’t have to be a genius to learn them. There are also special college scholarships for young people who are interested in math and science – and for those who want to teach these subjects in public schools. These opportunities have been created because Washington’s future prosperity will depend on having people with strong math and science skills.



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Lesson 3: Washington – Cultural & Economic Change by League of Women Voters of Washington State is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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