The Rising Star

Statehood appeared imminent in 1889—towns boomed and populations swelled. Republicans controlled the federal government, making it easier for the Republican-leaning territory to be admitted as a state. In February, Congress enabled Washington, the Dakotas and Montana to become states. By July, framers were locked in debate at the constitutional convention.

Much of their hard work focused on government structure, legislative powers and controversial topics including women’s suffrage and Prohibition. Fraught with complications, ownership of the valuable tidelands between high and low water sharply divided the delegates. The level land and its position as a gateway for business and navigation appealed to special interests, cities and private citizens alike.

George Turner, a delegate at odds with the railroad moguls who hoped to acquire the tidelands, recalled an encounter with lobbyists. Fire had just gutted his law office in Spokane Falls. Turner claimed lobbyists offered him $25,000 for his upcoming Senate bid to leave the convention and tend to matters at home. His response was “brief, direct, adequate, just, forgivably profane, and legally unprintable,” wrote Turner’s biographer. Turner remained.

Delegate James Moore labeled the settlers and business that had settled on the tidelands “trespassers”: “They tearfully demanded that they be left alone, the poor fellows who have made millions, then they come down here with an army of lobbyists and an open sack. They have the audacity to come to a constitutional convention, supposed to be composed of honest men, and ask us to throw down the bars and step in to grab the peoples’ property. Why, Mr. Chairman, there are more graves of statesmen on these tidelands than we have any idea of.”

In the new constitution, the state asserted perpetual ownership of the harbors and tidelands, and authorized the legislature to take further action to define harbor lines. Tidewater cities received the right to extend streets over certain tidal areas. The convention ended in August and the drafters sang a song by delegate Francis Henry, “Acres of Clams,” later made popular by Seattle restauranteur Ivar Haglund. The constitution was overwhelmingly approved.

On October 1, more than 40,000 male voters of Washington Territory ratified the constitution. U.S. President Benjamin Harrison declared Washington the Union’s 42nd state at 5:27 in the afternoon on November 11.

On November 18, 1889, the city of Olympia was “brilliantly decorated and there was a large procession in honor of the inaugural day.” This photo in the heart of downtown illustrates a festooned city, likely on the day the celebration of statehood took place.

Statehood Celebration

Zerelda McCoy

Zerelda McCoy, daring crusader of women’s suffrage, advocated delaying statehood for equal voting rights if that’s what it took to bring justice. McCoy was a 50-year-old native Midwesterner who ranked among the most renowned suffragists in 1889 Washington Territory. She led the newly formed Equal Suffrage League and openly encouraged supporters to reject constitutional proposals that did not include an Article on women’s suffrage, even if it pushed back the birth of Washington State.

On the eve of the Constitutional Convention, McCoy gathered 50 women in Tacoma Hall where they adopted a resolution that called any constitution that omitted women’s suffrage “repugnant to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.”

Petitions from the suffragists flooded the delegates. Supporters insisted women’s suffrage be guaranteed by the constitution, go before the Legislature or be submitted as a separate issue to the people. While some delegates gave long speeches urging their peers to support democracy and equal rights, others warned suffrage could “do us no good but may do great harm.”

On August 15th, delegates considered a letter written by McCoy demanding that she be exempt from taxes because she’d been denied the right to vote. The convention opted to tack women’s suffrage onto the October ballot as a separate referendum. Voters rejected the measure by a 2-1 margin or some 19,000 votes.

Washington State finally passed women’s suffrage in 1910, more than a half-century after the movement began in the territory.

Zerelda McCoy

One of two telegrams announcing the signed proclamation declaring Washington the 42nd state in the Union. Acknowledging the state’s new sovereignty, the message above was sent collect to the state’s first governor, Elisha Ferry, with a bill for 61 cents. A second message was sent to Miles Moore, the territorial governor. In that case, the federal government accepted Western Union charges recognizing the territory as a component of the federal government. James Blaine, the U.S. Secretary of State, signed both telegrams.