All Over The Map: How Grant, Grays Harbor, and Island counties were named

Mar 5, 2021, 9:09 AM | Updated: 11:30 am

It’s time for the fifth installment of County Countdown, KIRO Radio’s 13-part series about the origins of county names and county seat names in the Evergreen State. Our three counties for this episode are Grant, Grays Harbor, and Island.

Unless you’re driving while reading this story, get out your souvenir Washington map to follow along, which are available at all Puget Sound Ernst and Valu-Mart locations. And good luck finding one of those long-gone local retailers, by the way.

Grant County

Grant County, in Central Washington, was created from Douglas County in February 1909 and named for the Republican 18th president and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was first inaugurated 152 years ago this week, on March 4, 1869.

The county seat is Ephrata, and the name is biblical in origin, likely originally spelled Ephratah. It’s a variation of the name for Bethlehem, and indicates either the presence of fruit orchards or water wells, both of which were present in Washington’s Ephrata in the 19th century. Most sources credit railroad workers for choosing the name.

Grays Harbor County

Grays Harbor County, in Southwest Washington, was created by the Washington Territorial Legislature in April 1854 from parts of Lewis and Thurston Counties. It was originally called Chehalis County, for the Chehalis River, which flows into Grays Harbor; the name was changed by the state Legislature in 1915.

As early as 1907, citizens had attempted to split Chehalis County in two, with the western half taking on the Grays Harbor County name. The state Legislature passed a law accomplishing this, but it was struck down by the Washington State Supreme Court, as at least one of the new counties lacked sufficient population as required by state law.

Grays Harbor is named for Robert Gray, the American sea captain who named the Columbia River and explored the harbor on May 7, 1792. Gray named it Bulfinch Harbor after one of the Boston-based owners of his vessel Columbia. It was renamed by Joseph Whidbey of Captain George Vancouver’s expedition in October 1792.

During the 19th century, Grays Harbor was called Puerto de Gray by Spanish explorers; the Hudson’s Bay Company employees operating in the area called it Chihalis Bay; explorer David Douglas called it Whitbey Harbor (an alternate spelling of Whidbey).

“Chehalis” is an indigenous word related to “sand” or “shifting sand,” both of which are found in ample supply at the mouth of the Chehalis River in Grays Harbor. The Chehalis people have lived in the area of what’s now Grays Harbor County for millennia.

The county seat of Montesano was first called “Scammon” by J.L Scammon, a 1852 homesteader. One version of the story is that Mrs. Scammon wanted to call the community Mount Zion; Montesano is a compromise suggested by someone, which, in Italian, means “mountain of health” or maybe “healthy mountain.”

Island County

Island County, which is now mainly Whidbey and Camano Island, was originally created from Thurston County in December 1852 or January 1853 by the Oregon Territorial Legislature. The original Island County was huge. It included Whidbey and Camano, plus the San Juans, and most of what’s now Whatcom, Skagit, and Snohomish Counties.

In addition to Whidbey and Camano, the other islands comprising Island County – which is perhaps the least imaginative name of any county in the state – are Baby Island, Ben Ure Island, Deception Island, Hackney Island, Kalamut Island, Minor Island, Smith Island, and Strawberry Island.

The county seat is Coupeville, which is the oldest town on Whidbey Island, and which is a great place to visit. Coupeville was named in 1851, 1852, or 1853 for a homesteader and sea captain in the Northwest to California timber trade named, not surprisingly, Thomas Coupe. According to maritime names expert and author Richard W. Blumenthal, Captain Coupe was one of the first people to sail through Deception Pass – in his bark called Success – and live to tell about it.

Coupe was not alone in the early years at Coupeville. In fact, so many salty sea-going types settled there, place names expert Robert Hitchman writes, “An early nickname [for Coupeville] was ‘Port of Sea Captains’” – which is certainly evocative, but not exactly chamber of commerce or tourism bureau-friendly.

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

County Countdown Episode One

County Countdown Episode Two

County Countdown Episode Three

County Countdown Episode Four

In the next installment in April: Jefferson, King, and Kitsap.

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.

Feliks Banel

Danville Washington...
Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: Tiny Washington town of Danville eagerly awaits reopening of border

Point Roberts has gotten much of the attention during the extended border closure, but it’s not the only town that’s been suffering economically.
1 day ago
Memorial Stadium...
Feliks Banel

Could landmark designation save Seattle’s Memorial Stadium from demolition?

As it turns out, saving Seattle's Memorial Stadium from demolition may not be just some pedantic argument or splitting of historic preservation hairs.
3 days ago
Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: How – and why – did Microsoft ‘Name That Zune’?

We know now it couldn’t beat the iPod, but where and how did Microsoft get the name for its gone-but-not-forgotten Zune media player?
8 days ago
Feliks Banel

Priceless archive keeps the history of Pacific Northwest trains running

A unique partnership devoted to Northwest railroad history means an incredible archive of photos and documents is being preserved and made accessible.
10 days ago
Roosevelt Highway...
Feliks Banel

All Over The Map: Ghosts of the Roosevelt Highway in Washington state

For most of the 1920s and well into the 1930s, part of the long-forgotten Roosevelt Highway traveled through the Evergreen State.
15 days ago
MJ McDermott...
Feliks Banel

Beloved kids’ show host turned meteorologist M.J. McDermott hangs up her barometer

When meteorologist M.J. McDermott retires this week from Channel 13, not many people will remember her early years hosting a kids' show.
17 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Medicare open enrollment for 2022 starts Oct. 15 and SHIBA can help!

Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner SPONSORED — Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, also called the Annual Election Period, is Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. During this time, people enrolled in Medicare can: Switch from Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan and vice versa. Join, drop or switch a Part D prescription drug plan, […]

How to Have a Stress-Free Real Estate Experience

The real estate industry has adapted and sellers are taking full advantage of new real estate models. One of which is Every Door Real Estate.
IQ Air

How Poor Air Quality Is Affecting Our Future Athletes

You cannot control your child’s breathing environment 100% of the time, but you can make a huge impact.
Swedish Health Services

Special Coverage: National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

There are a wide variety of treatment options available for men with prostate cancer. The most technologically advanced treatment option in the Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform.
Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for both lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.

Small, Minority-Owned Businesses in King County and Pierce County Can Now Apply For $10,000 Relief Grants Through Comcast RISE

Businesses in King County and Pierce County can apply beginning on October 1, 2021, at www.ComcastRISE.com for a chance to receive a $10,000 relief grant.
All Over The Map: How Grant, Grays Harbor, and Island counties were named