Why Is Olympia the Capital of Washington?

(Last Updated On: February 12, 2019)
Why Is Olympia the Capital of Washington?

Why is Olympia the capital of Washington, when cities like Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane are more well known? The answer lies in the fact that rarely are capital cities chosen based on size or population alone. In fact, it is often location within a state that bears the most weight when deciding upon a capital city. Back in the 19th century this was especially true, as transportation options in those days were much more limited. So capitals were often situated in places were farmers and others throughout the state could have a direct route to access the government.

The Capital of Washington: History of Olympia

The city of Olympia is located near the southern tip of Puget Sound. For thousands of years, the area had been home to various indigenous peoples. Tribes like the Nisqually, Puyallup, and Chehalis shared access to the many resources the land offered, like an abundance of shellfish and plenty of salmon streams.

In 1792, Peter Puget and his crew were the first recorded Europeans to visit the area. Eventually, the Hudson’s Bay Company would establish Fort Nisqually nearby. More settlers would come to the region in the 1840s, and in 1846, Edmund Sylvester and Levi Lathrop Smith jointly claimed the land that is now downtown Olympia. They would set up a settlement, officially named “Olympia” in 1853, after the Olympic Mountains. Olympia’s prime location on Puget Sound would lead to the city becoming a crossroads for regional trade.

Olympia became the county seat of Thurston County, which was still a part of Oregon Territory. However, by the 1850s, many settlers in the territory were beginning to differentiate between the lands north and south of the Columbia River, leading to the creation of Washington Territory. Isaac I. Stevens was the first governor of this new territory, and he designated Olympia as the capital in 1853.

Washington became a state in 1889, and Olympia continued as the state’s capital. Construction of the current Washington State Capitol building began in 1912, and was finished in 1928.

Why Is Olympia the Capital of Washington?

Seattle might get all the attention, and Spokane and Tacoma might be bigger, but there has never really been any question about what city should be capital of Washington state. The reason for this can be seen in the settlement history of Washington.

Olympia had the advantage of being the first of Washington’s major cities to gain importance. Remember that by the early 1850s, when Olympia was made territorial capital, the city was already a trading hub. At this time, the famous Denny Party of Seattle had just barley founded their community on Elliot Bay. Tacoma was nothing more than a small settlement with a sawmill. Spokane a mere trading post. Ultimately, there were just more people living in the southern Puget Sound at the time, and Olympia served as a nice central location for all these people.

Olympia Today

Olympia has long served as the seat of Washington’s government, but the city itself is not all that different from other Pacific Northwest towns. It’s early history is marked by booms in the logging and shellfish industries. In the 20th century, the city’s economy became more industrial, with a rise in sawmilling and fruit canning. It’s location on the deepwater Budd Inlet positioned Olympia as an important shipping port from the start.

Today, Olympia is home to just over 51,000 citizens. While its main purpose is serving as Washington’s capital, the city also has a thriving arts and culture industry, with regular performances at various theaters throughout the downtown area, as well as a bi-annual Arts Walk Celebration. Olympia is also a great starting point for outdoor enthusiasts looking to take advantage of all the state has to offer.

Did you like this post? Want to read about more capitals? Check out the following links. Or, test your trivia knowledge with some fun Washington State quizzes on Sporcle, like the one below!

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