All Over The Map: How Jefferson, King and Kitsap counties were named
It’s time for the sixth installment of County Countdown, KIRO Radio’s seemingly neverending 13-part series about the origins of county names and county seat names in the Evergreen State. That’s right, we are nearly – but not quite – half way through, and our three counties for this episode are Jefferson, King and Kitsap.
Unless you’re driving while reading this story, please follow along on your commemorative Washington map, copies of which are available on jars of Sunny Jim Peanut Butter and bags of Nalley’s Potato Chips. Just be sure and check the “Best By” dates on the packaging of these phantom local products.
Jefferson County on the Olympic Peninsula was created from Thurston County in December 1852, and was named for President Thomas Jefferson, who gets credit for sending Lewis & Clark to explore what’s now the Pacific Northwest. The legislation that created Jefferson County was adopted not by the Washington Territorial Legislature, but instead by the Oregon Territorial Legislature; December 1852 was still a few months before the creation of Washington Territory.
The county seat is Port Townsend. That name – with a silent “h” in the second syllable – was first applied to the adjacent body of water by Captain Vancouver in May 1792 in honor of the Marquess of Townshend or, as his friends likely called him, “George.” In the United Kingdom’s peerage system of hereditary titles, “marquess” is considered below a duke but above an earl. Townshend had fought for Great Britain in the French & Indian Wars in what’s now Canada.
It was near “Port Townshend” where Captain Vancouver and members of his expedition came into contact with Indigenous people who had been living in that area for thousands of years. The non-native settlement of Port Townsend name wasn’t created until the 1850s. The first land claim was filed by Alfred Plummer on April 24, 1851; the post office was assigned to Plummer’s cabin in September 1852 – just a few months before Port Townsend became the county seat.
King County was created at the same time as Jefferson County in December 1852, and was also carved from the previously very large Thurston County. King County was originally named for newly elected American vice-president and longtime former Alabama Senator William Rufus de Vane King. By the time of the presidential election of 1852 that saw King’s running mate Franklin Pierce win the race, King was not feeling very well. He traveled to Cuba to try to recuperate, and was inaugurated there in March 1853. Not long after, Vice President King returned to the United States, and died in Mobile, Alabama, on April 18, 1853. Incidentally, prior to statehood, American residents of Oregon Territory were not allowed to vote in the presidential election.
The namesake of King County was legally changed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2005 after a nearly two-decade effort, though the civil rights leader, who was assassinated in 1968, was honored here in the 1980s through the renaming of what had been Empire Way.
Vice President King owned enslaved people, and even his contemporary colleagues seemed to have mixed feelings about him as a politician. In his official United States Senate biography, it’s written that he was “far from a genius and he had little talent as an orator.” The biography continues, “One scholar of the period, mindful of King’s practice of wearing a wig long after such coverings had gone out of fashion, dismissed him as a ‘tall, prim, wigtopped mediocrity.’”
Seattle – named for the Indigenous leader who was instrumental in the city’s early success, but who didn’t want the burdensome “honor” of being the city’s namesake – was the original county seat of King County, though there wasn’t much to the town in December 1852. The post office had been secured for Seattle just a few months earlier, in October 1852.
Kitsap County was formed from portions of Jefferson County and King County – yes, King County once stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean – in January 1857. It was originally known as Slaughter County, named for Lt. William Slaughter of the U.S. Army who died in the Treaty War in 1855. What’s now the King County community of Auburn was also originally named for Slaughter – but both the county and the community shed the name, likely for its somewhat unsettling meaning.
County and peninsula namesake Kitsap was a respected Indigenous leader in the late 18th century and early 19th century, though there has been some confusion among various sources over another Indigenous leader with the same (or a similar) name who was involved in the Treaty Wars of the 1850s.
The county seat was originally at Port Madison – a lumber mill community on the bay, named in 1841 by the U.S. Navy’s Charles Wilkes for President Madison – from 1857 to the early 1890s. The county seat was moved to Sidney – named by developer Sidney Stephens after himself – which in 1903 was renamed Port Orchard after the body of water north of there that was named in 1792 for H.M. Orchard. Orchard was, you guessed it, a member of Captain Vancouver’s crew who, according to various sources, was either first to spot Port Orchard or first to determine that it was a passage and not merely a bay.
Check out earlier episodes of KIRO Radio’s All Over The Map: County Countdown!
Get your souvenir maps ready for the next installment in May: Kittitas, Klickitat, and Lewis!
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.