All Over The Map: Collect the stories of all 39 Washington counties!

Aug 7, 2020, 5:14 PM | Updated: Aug 10, 2020, 9:31 am
Washington Counties, Asotin...
Asotin is the seat of Asotin County in the southeast corner of Washington on the Snake River across from Idaho; in the Nez Perce language, "Asotin" translates to "Eel Creek." (USGS Archives)
(USGS Archives)

There are 39 counties in Washington, and each county has a county seat — or the town where the courthouse is located and where other official county business takes place.

Each county and county seat in the Evergreen State is named for someone or something, and each name represents some aspect of the time and place when and where each county was first organized.

Washington Territory was created from Oregon Territory in 1853, and initially had just a handful of enormous counties in its earliest incarnation. As more non-Natives arrived, and more parts of what’s now Washington state became home to the new arrivals and their homesteads, those larger counties were partitioned and had their boundaries reshaped to create new smaller counties.

The idea was to organize counties as geographic units where a resident could make it to the county seat with no more than a day’s travel — at 19th century speed – on horseback, in a boat or by foot. Becoming the county seat of a new county was always seen as plum for any community, for the jobs and other economic associated with even the basic number of employees required to administer basic government functions.

Over the next several months, KIRO Radio’s All Over The Map will explore the origins of the names of all 39 counties and county seats in Washington, in alphabetical order.

Adams County

Adams County was carved from already-existing Whitman County and officially created by the Territorial Legislature in December 1883. Anyone who’s driven I-90 through Eastern Washington between Moses Lake and Sprague has driven through Adams County.

It’s named for the second U.S. President John Adams. Several counties in that area around the “Big Bend” of the Columbia River are named for what one historian described as the “most patriotic statesmen of the past” – including Ben Franklin, Ulysses Grant, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

An Adams County booster named Samuel A. Wells, who grabbed one of those county seat plum jobs when he became the first Adams County auditor, gets credit for choosing the name.

And what is the county seat of Adams County?

In 1881, the Northern Pacific Railroad came through, building a line to Tacoma.

A homesteader named Philip Ritz was hired by the Northern Pacific to grade 10 miles of track right-of-way. When it came to time to name the train station on that section of track, the railroad told Ritz he could choose it. Thus, Ritzville was born.

One crackpot theory posited by a certain unreliable radio historian wonders if Philip Ritz knew that saying his last name followed by the short version of his first name would sound like “Ritz Phil” (which is pretty darned close to sounding like “Ritzville”). It’s a theory likely to never be proven or, unfortunately, disproven.

Asotin County

Asotin County was almost named “Lincoln” as the Territorial Legislature was preparing to carve it from Garfield County in October 1883.

Asotin County is way down in the southeast corner of the state on the Snake River – across from Idaho — six miles upriver from Clarkston, Wash. The area was settled by European Americans beginning in the 1860s.

The name comes from the Native Nez Perce term “heesutin,” which translates to “Eel Creek.” There were variations on the spelling, including Assotin and Hashotin, before the present spelling became the accepted standard.

The county seat is also named Asotin, formerly known as Asotin City. It’s here where the creek once known for its eels enters the Snake River.

Benton County

Benton County, in the Yakima River Valley southeast of Ellensburg, was carved from Yakima County in 1905.

The new county was named for that promoter of “Manifest Destiny” and sponsor of legislation to create Oregon Territory in 1848, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Benton died in 1858; though he owned enslaved people, historians will point out that his views on slavery evolved in the 1850s. When the new county was first proposed in 1902, plans were to name it for William McKinley, the recently assassinated president.

Prosser was named the county seat of Benton County in 1905, though Kennewick and Benton City also vied for the prize in at least one inconclusive ballot. A history published around 1918 said the county seat designation was still up in the air, which meant delays in siting and building the Benton County Courthouse. That courthouse, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was finally built in 1926.

Prosser, which was also known as Prosser Falls for a water feature on the Yakima River, was formally founded and then named in 1885 by William F. Prosser, a Civil War hero who later became an author and historian. The paperwork shows that the town was owned and named by Mr. Prosser and for himself and for his wife Flora Louise Thornton Prosser, which appears to be different from other townsites of that era.

One theory: Perhaps the couple figured that Mrs. Prosser would outlive Mr. Prosser. When they married in 1880, Flora was 18 or 19 and William Prosser was 45 or 46.

Collect all 39 Washington Counties!

In the next installment in September: Chelan, Clallam, and Clark counties.

In the meantime, it’s fun to pretend that we’ve issued a limited edition printed map of Washington, and a series of 39 colorful stickers to collect — one for each magical county in the Evergreen Playground. Look for your copy at Pay-n-Save, SportsWest, Ernst Hardware, Lamont’s, Valu-Mart, JAFCO or any other favorite but long-since out-of-business Northwest companies!

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Collect the stories of all 39 Washington counties!