All Over The Map: How Columbia, Cowlitz, and Douglas counties were named

Nov 6, 2020, 10:53 AM | Updated: 11:13 am
Dayton is the county seat of Columbia County, which was almost called "Ping County" for early settler Elisha Ping, in southeast Washington. (USGS Archives) In Cowlitz County, Kelso snatched the county seat mantle away from Kalama in 1922 after numerous earlier attempts. (USGS Archives) The origins of Douglas County are sketchy, as original county seat Okanogan had a single canvas tent and just one resident, whose name was Walter; Waterville became county seat in fairly short order. (USGS Archives)

It’s time for the third installment County Countdown, KIRO Radio’s 13-part series about the origins of county names in Washington. Our three counties for this episode are Columbia, Cowlitz and Douglas. Get out your commemorative map to follow along, but please pull over if you’re driving, of course.

Columbia County

Columbia County is way over in the southeast section of the state and is named for the Columbia River. It was established by the Territorial Legislature on November 11, 1875. It was carved from part of Walla Walla County, and was almost called Ping County for Elisha Ping. Ping was born in Kentucky and had arrived in Washington Territory from points east in 1860, and led the effort to create the new county.

The county seat is Dayton – which sits on much of Ping’s old homestead – but which is named for 1871 settler Jesse Day.

When dastardly Oregon tried to annex Walla Walla and Columbia Counties in 1876 and make it part of the Beaver State, it was Columbia County that led the resistance.


Cowlitz County

Cowlitz County is one of the earliest counties in Washington, and was created April 21, 1854. Cowlitz County is on the southern border of the state, with many of its cities situated along what’s now the I-5 corridor.

The county is named after the Cowlitz River, which comes from a Native word, and which was first documented by Lewis & Clark, who spelled it “Cow-e-lisk.” The word is believed to mean “capturing the medicine spirit,” and relates to a rite of passage that young men were said to take part in on a nearby prairie.

The county seat was originally Kalama, which was a key shipping point across the Columbia River, and the southern terminus of that first critical Washington railroad that went from Kalama to Tacoma in the 1870s. Kalama (sometimes spelled “Calama” in earlier years) is thought to be a Native word for “pretty maiden.”

But Kalama’s glory didn’t last. After four or five tries in the early 20th century, nearby Kelso successfully snatched away the county seat mantle in a contentious election in November 1922.  Kelso had been named around 1847 by Peter Crawford for his native Kelso, Scotland.

Douglas County

Douglas County is right about in the center of the state and was carved from Lincoln County on November 28, 1883. This new county came into being just four days after Lincoln County had been established. It’s named for mid-19th century American political figure, U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois.

Some historians say that Douglas County’s creation was a total scam – just real estate speculation – led by a scammer from the Midwest named J.W. Adams. They point to the dubious civic bonafides of the original county seat, the town of Okanogan. When Douglas County was created, Okanogan consisted of a single canvas tent with guy named Walter Mann living in it. There wasn’t even a creek – or a well – for water.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that nearby Waterville became the county seat not long after Douglas County was created. They didn’t have Walter and his tent, but unlike Okanogan, they did have A.T. Greene and his ranch, which included an excellent source for fresh water.

Check out earlier episodes of KIRO Radio’s All Over The Map: County Countdown!

County Countdown Episode One

County Countdown Episode Two

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: How Columbia, Cowlitz, and Douglas counties were named