was excerpted from two sources, A History of Whidbey's Island by
George Albert Kellogg and South Whidbey and Its People by the South
Whidbey Historical Society.
Before the advent of white exploration and settlement, Native Americans
moved throughout what is now Island County. The principal tribes were the
Snohomish, Skagit, and Kikialos. The Snohomish were mostly in the southern
parts of Whidbey and Camano Islands; the Skagit in the central and northern
parts of Whidbey Island; the Kikialos in the northern half of Camano Island.
The small Clallam tribe lived near Penn Cove on Whidbey Island.
Each tribe maintained several permanent villages on the islands. The villages
typically included a potlatch structure (the social and political center
of tribal life) surrounded by several large longhouses (multi-family quarters).
Most villages were enclosed by a wall of cedar poles. The tribes maintained
temporary summer dwellings near the shore in addition to their permanent
Not surprisingly, the mainstay of local tribal economies was fishing. This
year-round pursuit was performed mainly by trolling offshore with handmade
nets. The tribes supplemented their diet by gathering a variety of roots,
berries, and nuts. The spring brought cattails, salmonberries, and sprouts
in abundance. By summer, the harvest included strawberries, blackberries,
salal berries, service berries, thimble berries, huckleberries, wood fern,
bracken, wild carrots, rose hips, tiger lilies, hazelnuts, acorns, and
crab apples. Shellfish, especially clams, were an equally important part
of their diet harvested during the spring and summer. Deer, duck, and seal
accounted for the game caught now and then during the spring and summer.
The chief item of tribal trade and commerce, however, was the blanket.
Used as both bedding and decoration, blankets were traded frequently between
neighboring Island County tribes (and later with white trappers and traders).
Native Americans are thus established as having engaged in the region's
earliest forms of commerce. In 1792, an expeditionary party led by Captain
George Vancouver of the British Navy discovered Puget Sound, thus signalling
the advent of white exploration in the region. In June of that year, Ship's
Master Joseph Whidbey of the HMS Discovery (the other ship was the HMS
Chatham) charted a recently discovered island -- which Captain Vancouver
later named "Whidbey" in his honor. Contact was made with local Indian
tribes, but the party quickly continued on its voyage down the Sound.
White presence in the islands was not recorded again until 1830 (perhaps
as early as 1820), when scouts and trappers for the Hudson's Bay Company
were known to have explored the islands in search of potential fur trapping
grounds. Finding little, they moved on. There is also some evidence that
Catholic missionaries ventured ashore around the same time.
In June 1841, the U.S. Exploring Expedition under the command of Captain
Charles Wilkes sailed into Penn's Cove (Whidbey Island). The expedition
was there to chart this part of Oregon Territory -- which at the time was
still under joint U.S.-British occupation -- in anticipation of future
American settlement. After naming a number of landmarks, Wilkes and his
party left as they came -- as observers.
American settlement of Island County got more or less underway in 1850,
primarily around the Oak Harbor and Penn's Cove areas. Central Whidbey
Island seemed to be the destination of choice; the south end was paid little
attention. Many of the claims were filed by sailors and the like who happened
across the islands on past voyages. Most, however, did not stay long. Island
County got its first permanent white settlers -- Colonel Isaac N. Ebey
and his wife -- in 1852. Other permanent settlers followed and by early
1853 the county numbered six families and 18 bachelors.
With the emergence of permanent settlements came local commerce and industry.
In 1853, B.P. Barstow & Co. opened for business at Coveland (at the
head of Penn's Cove), thus becoming the first trading post or store in
the county. Other trading posts soon followed -- including one established
by Isaac Ebey himself. By the mid-1850s, the range of businesses included
harness makers, coopers, and dock operators, among others. Island County
got its first grist or flour mill in 1868. Before that time, flour (including
many other provisions) was obtained directly from trade vessels anchored
in the harbor. The mill was operated by James Buzby near Penn's Cove until
1870. In 1877 or 1878, Friend Wilson re-established grist mill operations
at Penn's Cove. Other settlers attempted to establish sawmills as early
as 1853, but were unsuccessful.
Additional settlement of Island County commenced in the 1860s. With their
arrival on south Whidbey Island came early logging operations. Most arose
out of necessity as the newly-arrived homesteaders found their property
covered by virgin timber. The timber harvesting usually involved several
men and a team of oxen. The hand-felled timber was yarded (or pulled) to
the water by ox-teams, the path having been laid with greased skids. The
logs were then rafted to mills in Port Ludlow or Port Townsend to be sold
for cash or traded for supplies. By the 1880s, though, organized logging
companies such as Puget Sound Pulp and Timber Company (later Pope and Talbot)
had purchased much of the uncut timberland from homesteaders.
South Whidbey Island thus became the site of large-scale logging operations
in the 1880s. During the spring and summer, logging camps provided seasonal
employment to large numbers of men. Most of the timber was converted into
cordwood used to fuel steamers that plied Puget Sound. Completion of the
Great Northern Railway to Bellingham in 1894 made virtually obsolete the
steamers which for 20 years had depended on Whidbey Island cordwood. As
steamer runs faded, so did the county's logging and lumber industry.
Once cleared, an individual's property was, more often than not, converted
to any of a number of farmland uses. Of the wide variety of items produced,
the most prevalent were hay, grains, and potatoes. As farms became larger
and more sophisticated, the pressure to employ cheap labor grew. From the
mid-1880s through 1900, Island County farmers found this labor in the form
of the Chinese sojourner. Chinese were hired for labor-intensive tasks
such as cultivating and digging up potato crops. By the 1890s, however,
local sentiment turned violently against the visiting workers. An anti-Chinese
race riot in Tacoma served as the final straw. In 1900, the Chinese were
forced out of Island County.
By 1910, the county population was 4,700. As farm families and town entrepreneurs
settled into defined communities, a fledgling newspaper industry emerged.
Island County Sun, established in 1890, became the county's first paper.
Island County Times emerged within the year to compete with the Sun.
The two merged under the latter's banner in 1894. The Whidby Islander
(1900) and Oak Harbor News (1911) followed in due course.
The post-World War I period brought renewed prosperity to Island County
as local farmers saw new foreign markets open up to their agricultural
products. Construction of the Deception Pass Bridge in 1935 provided a
highway link to the mainland and fostered more economic development within
And then there was the military. The military played a vital role in Island
County's economy long before plans for Whidbey Island Naval Air Station
were conceived. In 1860, the War Department commissioned a study for the
defense of Puget Sound. President Andrew Johnson -- impressed by the study
-- set aside 24 parcels of land as Puget Sound military reservations in
1866. In 1896, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of a triangular
system of fortresses to defend Admiralty Inlet -- the entrance to Puget
Sound. One position -- Fort Casey -- was sited at Admiralty Head on Whidbey
Island (the others were Fort Worden and Fort Flagler in Jefferson County).
Fort Casey was heavily fortified and manned during the First and Second
World Wars and the Korean Conflict. It was also used to a limited extent
for troop induction and training. Personnel stationed there contributed
tremendously to the local economy, particularly in Coupeville and Keystone.
Another defense post -- Fort Ebey -- was established near Oak Harbor during
World War II as an artillery bunker. Fort Casey was deactivated in 1953
when airpower proved a more effective means of defending the Sound. It
is now a state park. Fort Ebey is a state recreation area.
Whidbey Island Naval Air Station was established in late 1942 at the height
of World War II. It was the site of sea-plane patrol operations, rocket
firing training, torpedo overhaul, and recruit and officer training. In
late 1949, work began to upgrade it to an all-weather airfield. The conversion
was accompanied by more personnel. As a result, Island County's population
soared from 6,029 in 1940 to 11,000 by 1950 -- an 82 percent increase.
This far eclipsed the 7 to 10 percent growth rates usually experienced
over the course of a decade. To be sure, the tremendous influx of military
personnel also boosted local commerce.
Today, the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is home to all the Navy's electronic
warfare squadrons that fly the EA-6B Prowler -- a carrier-based tactical
jamming aircraft. It is also the west coast training and operations center
for the A-6 Intruder attack bomber squadrons and the northwest site for
Naval and Air Reserve Training.
Island County's economy is based largely on government jobs -- principally
military -- as well as a large retail sector, a fast growing services sector,