How were Pacific, Pend Oreille and Pierce counties named?

Jan 19, 2023, 6:47 AM | Updated: 9:46 am
Detail from 1940 topographic map shows South Bend, county seat of Pacific County in southwest Washington. (USGS Archives) Pacific County is in the southwest corner of Washington and is named for the Pacific Ocean; detail is from a 1953 topographic map. (USGS Archives) Topographic map from 1897 shows Tacoma, county seat of Pierce County; note boundary with King County just north of Tacoma - several miles south of the current boundary. (USGS Archives) Detail from 1958 topographic map shows much of Pierce County. (USGS Archives) Newport, seen in this detail from a 1936 topographic map, is county seat of Pend Oreille County in northeast Washington. (USGS Archives) Ponderay, Idaho is situated on Lake Pend Oreille. The town's name was spelled phonetically to differentiate from a nearby community of Pend Oreille; this detail from a 1958 topographic map also shows Lake Pend Oreille. (USGS Archives)

This is the ‘Minding Your Ps’ edition (and ninth overall episode) of “County Countdown,” our series examining the names of counties and county seats around the Evergreen State. Given that we are a few years into this epic 13-part saga and still not quite finished, you may be forgiven if you think ‘p’ stands for “protracted.” Whether this is true or not, ‘p’ also stands Pacific, Pend Oreille, and Pierce.

One minor advance warning: for this installment, we are not going strictly in alphabetical order.

Pacific County

Pacific County is located in the southwest corner of the state and is named after, you guessed it, the Pacific Ocean, which forms the western boundary of the county (and which was named by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519). The county seat is South Bend, which is home to a lovely courthouse on the hill overlooking the town. South Bend is named for a bend (to the south) in the Willapa River.

The county was created Feb. 4, 1851 – when Washington Territory was not yet its own entity and when what’s now the Evergreen State was contained within Oregon Territory. The new county was carved from the giant Lewis County, one of the “mother counties” of early Oregon Territory. Some sources suggest the community of Chinook was the first county seat. It then moved to Oysterville until South Bend stole it away in anything but pacific fashion in 1893.

Pierce County

Pierce County, on the east side of South Puget Sound, is named for President Franklin Pierce – who was president-elect when the new county was carved from Oregon Territory’s Thurston County Dec. 22, 1852. The county seat is Tacoma, also known as Commencement City (for Commencement Bay, where the 1841 Wilkes’ survey of Puget Sound “commenced”). Tacoma is an Indigenous word, an alternate pronunciation of Tahoma, the once and perhaps future name of Mount Rainier. The city of Tacoma was founded in fits and starts, ultimately being established as part of a speculative real estate project of the Northern Pacific Railroad who designated the city the terminus of the NP’s transcontinental route in 1873 (though construction to complete the route would take nearly two decades).

Pierce’s vice president was William Rufus King, original namesake for King County. King served as VP for only six weeks before he died in April 1853 (inauguration was held on March 4 in those days). His death also came before he could return to Washington, DC from where he’d been remotely inaugurated in Cuba. King County’s namesake was legally changed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2005.

Pend Oreille

Pend Oreille, most reasonable history and geography folks agree, is one of the two most mispronounced county names in the Evergreen State (the other being Wahkiakum.) The correct pronunciation, those same reasonable folks agree, sounds something like “Ponderay.”

Pend Oreille, in the extreme northeast corner of Washington, was carved by the legislature from part of Stevens County March 1, 1911 – which makes it the youngest county in the state. The county seat is Newport, which was named for its role on the steamboat route on the Pend Oreille River. Place-name expert and author Robert Hitchman writes, “The name was suggested by an early resident, M.C. Kelly, when a new river landing was built on the Pend Oreille [River] to accommodate the first sternwheelers.”

Pend Oreille is a variation (something like a ‘near-Anglicization’) of the French phrase for “hangs on the ear,” believed to be descriptive of ornamentation worn by Indigenous people in that area as seen and described by non-Native settlers in the 19th century.

Regarding the pronunciation, KIRO Newsradio’s All Over The Map staff made some calls to ask local experts how badly and how often the pronunciation of “Pend Oreille” gets mangled by outsiders.

“So our county is [spelled] ‘Pend Oreille,’ but we hear ‘penned oriole’ a lot,” said Celene Thomas at the public library in Newport.

“The only one I’ve ever heard on the mispronunciation is ‘penned oriole,’” said Lynette King at the visitor’s center, also in Newport. “Because that’s the way it’s spelled.”

“I think the most typical pronunciation is ‘pond o-RYE-ull,’” said Crystal Zieske, Clerk of the Board for Pend Oreille County government.

Pond o-RYE-ull?!?

Zieske quickly apologized. “‘Penned oriole,’” she then corrected herself. “It’s hard for me to mispronounce it. I’ve been here so long,” Zieske said.

Further complicating the local spelling and pronunciation struggles is the fact that right next door in Idaho, there’s a town on Lake Pend Oreille called (and spelled) “Ponderay.”

Eric Brubaker is the Parks and Community Development Director there. He told KIRO Newsradio that the phonetic spelling was created by the railroad a hundred years ago as a strategic move while in competition with another nearby townsite already called Pend Oreille.

But wait, Brubaker said, there’s more. As if two spellings of Pend Oreille/Ponderay weren’t enough, there’s a non-profit group working to create a trail along the lake that’s found a way to complicate things even further.

“Friends of the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail is the non-profit that spells it the old way, with the lowercase d [and] apostrophe,” Brubaker explained. That old way, Brubaker says, is the actual French spelling.

“It’s also a pain,” Brubaker continued, describing writing grant applications to far-away potential donors, where the narrative confusingly mentions Pend Oreille, Ponderay, and Pend d’Oreille.

“So there’s three spellings,” Brubaker continued, clearly pleased to have flummoxed the big city history radio folks. “You thought there were two,” he chuckled.

But perhaps this whole spelling and pronunciation kerfuffle is only something worried about by those big city history radio folks in Seattle, and not something that anyone in Pend Oreille County, the city of Ponderay or along the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail gives much thought to these days.

Sure enough, that’s pretty much exactly what Celene Thomas at the Newport Library says.

“You’re probably reading too much into it,” Thomas said. “We’re pretty low-brow, we’re pretty chill out here.”

But what about when a visitor or new arrival says it wrong? Do the chill Pend Oreilleians/Ponderanians (good luck pronouncing that) just ignore it?

“We just take 15 seconds to correct them, and move on most of the time,” Thomas said.

Thanks to all the good sports in Pend Oreille County, Washington and Ponderay, Idaho.

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

County Countdown Episode One

County Countdown Episode Two

County Countdown Episode Three

County Countdown Episode Four

County Countdown Episode Five

County Countdown Episode Six

County Countdown Episode Seven

County Countdown Episode Eight 

In the next exciting episode: San Juan, Skagit and Skamania!

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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How were Pacific, Pend Oreille and Pierce counties named?