Established by the Oregon Provisional Government on December 19th, 1845, Lewis County originally covered all the territory north of the Cowlitz River and west of a north-south straight line drawn roughly through the Cascade Mountains. In other words, it took in the Olympic Peninsula, the Puget Sound area, and Vancouver Island, at least until the Oregon Treaty set the international border at the 49th Parallel in 1846. It lost its southwestern corner to the newly established Pacific County in 1851, then its northern extent to Thurston County in 1852. Historic maps differ, but most sources say that Lewis County reached its current size in 1854.
The original inhabitants of what is now Lewis County included the Chehalis and the Meshell (Nisqually) Indian tribes. The Chehalis were a Salish-speaking people known as traders, and the Meshell were, at least linguistically, related to tribes further east, including the Yakama, the Umatilla, and the Nez Perce. Nisqually lore says that the people migrated to the southern flanks of Mount Rainier, a mountain they called To-Co-Bet (compare the Yakama name To-Ho-Ma) from the Great Basin. Today, they are centered in Thurston County and have a casino in the town of Yelm. Prolific fishermen, the Nisqually relied on the salmon who swam up the rivers to spawn.
The Chehalis, also great fishers, lived downstream. The 1855 Quinault Treaty was designed to take land from various tribes, including the Chehalis, but the Chehalis people refused to sign. They lived peacefully with the new settlers for many years, but in 1864, a Chehalis reservation was created in what is now Grays Harbor County.
As to “white” history of Lewis County, in 1827, Simon Plamondon staked his claim along the Cowlitz River. He married the daughter of a Cowlitz chief. In 1838, the Hudsons Bay Company (HBC) set up a subsidiary called the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, and created a 4,000 acre Cowlitz Farm near today’s Toledo, Washington. HBC hired Plamondon to run the farm. This was the first “white” settlement in what is now Lewis County. Also in 1838, Roman Catholic priests, Fr. Blanchet and Fr. Demers, built the first Roman Catholic mission in the area, also near Toledo, and in 1845, a butcher named John R. Jackson made the first land claim in “North Oregon” on land that would take his name and be called Jackson Prairie. On October 4th, 1847, the first meeting of the Lewis County Commissioners took place in Jackson’s home, making it the de facto “county seat” for Lewis County. In 1851, Stuart Schuyler Saunders settled in the area, and later platted Saundersville, which in time became Chehalis. In 1855, a courthouse building was built in Claquato, but when the railroad built its north-south line east of the hill separating Claquato and Saundersville, the town of Claquato died and Saundersville, renamed Chehalis in 1879, became County Seat, a title it retains today.
While fishing had been the chief industry of the Native peoples in the area, logging and agriculture are what drew white settlers. As the Old Settler’s Song (Acres of Clams) puts it, the land was “covered all over with timber thick as hairs on the back of a dog.” Jenny Tenlen, writing in her Lewis County genealogy blog, notes ninety-eight logging, lumber and milling companies located in the County, many of which show up in the 1901 Business Directory. The Lewis County Genealogy Trails History Group counts seventy-three “populated places in Lewis County,” but Ms. Tenlen’s research notes an additional one hundred five place names, quite a few in an area roughly twenty-six miles by ninety-six miles in extent (2,436 square miles).
Of all those populated places, today Lewis County has eight cities, one town, and a variety of “Census Designated Places” and unincorporated communities. As for Claquato, where the County Courthouse was built in 1855, today it is known primarily for its Methodist Church (now inactive, but available for rent) and its cemetery. 1850 saw the arrival of Schuyler and Eliza Saunders who built a farm in marshy ground that became known as Saunders’ Bottom. In 1859, Obadiah and Margaret McFadden bought the southern half of the Saunders’ farm and in 1864, William and Elizabeth West moved into the area. Saunders had operated a post office out of his home under the name Saundersville, and in 1870, after Schuyler Saunders’ death, McFadden took over the post office, renaming it Chehalis. When the Northern Pacific came through the area, the residents of Saundersville/Chehalis offered a free warehouse and the railroad accepted the offer, laying their tracks east of the hill separating Claquato from Saundersville. This was the death knell for the older community as commerce and government both moved east. The Northern Pacific built their Chehalis depot in 1873. With the completion of the rail line linking the Columbia River to Puget Sound, Chehalis grew, albeit sporadically, and in 1874, after a fight with the residents of Claquato, Chehalis became the County Seat, a distinction it holds today. The city was incorporated in 1883, and the 1890 Census counted 1,309 residents. As of 2010, that number had grown to 7,259, and the estimated population in 2017 was 7,533. A significant increase from the early days, but not nearly as significant a growth as either its Columbia River or Puget Sound neighbors. Chehalis isn’t even the largest city in Lewis County. That distinction goes to Centralia.
George Washington was born in Virginia in 1817. His father was a slave and his mother a white woman. When Washington’s father was sold and forcibly moved to another area, his mother gave her son to a white couple, James and Anna Cochran who raised him, moving him west from Virginia to Ohio, then Missouri, and eventually to Oregon Country. In 1852, Washington started farming at the confluence of the Skookumchuk and Chehalis Rivers, but because the Oregon Donation Land Act did not allow Blacks to own land, the Cochrans filed the claim. In 1853, Washington Territory was created, and as it had no law against non-whites owning land, the Cochrans deeded the claim to Washington. Washington lived until 1905 and during that period he filed a plat for a city which he named Centerville, and sold lots at a reasonable rate to anyone willing to settle in his new town. Unfortunately, a Centerville, Washington already existed east of the Cascades, so in 1883 the town name was changed to Centralia after the similarly named town in Illinois, and in 1886, Centralia, Washington was incorporated. The name is appropriate as the community is roughly half way—the center point—between the Columbia River and Puget Sound. Over the years, Washington had become a very wealthy man and in many ways was the father, and indeed a very kind father, to the city he founded. At his death, Centralia’s mayor declared a day of mourning, asking businesses to close, and Washington’s funeral may well have been the largest Centralia ever held.
By the early 1900s, Centralia was becoming an industrial center. Not only timber, including wood shingles and wooden gutters made by the Wooden Eave Gutter Factory, but iron and brass fixtures, dairy products, and mining operations led to the growth of the town. The Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) had a presence in town and in 1919, following the Armistice (now Veteran’s Day) Celebration, the Wobblies and the Veterans got into a fight, leaving four Veterans dead. The Wobblies were jailed and Vigilantes broke into the jail and took one of the Wobblies out to be hanged. This is now known as the Centralia Massacre and is one of the darkest times in Centralia history. Today, Centralia is a city of 16.336 residents (2010 US Census), and thrives as a tourist venue at its mid-point between the great waterways of western Washington. It’s history is recent enough that should you take the Historic Centralia Walking Tour, you can still find George Washington’s home among others, and just a short distance away the remains of Fort Borst and the Borst home which dates from the 1850s and the fear of Indian wars (which never happened in this region).
Other cities in Lewis County include Toledo, 2010 population 725, named not for the Ohio or Spanish cities, but rather for a side-wheel paddle steamer that operated in the area. Today, a mural in the center of Toledo proudly claims that the city is the Gateway to Mount St. Helens, not the only place to make such a claim. Like Toledo, Morton, Mossyrock, Napavine, Vader and Winlock all have fewer than 2,000 residents, but all are incorporated as cities. Winlock is home to the “World’s Largest Egg,” as certified by Ripley, a 1200 pound sculpture located directly across the railroad tracks from the Washington Egg & Poultry Co-operative Association Warehouse. Pe Ell, the only incorporated “town” in Lewis County, lies near the western edge of the county and has almost as many residents as many of the County’s cities. There are several explanations for the town’s unusual name, most of which seem to center on the difficulty the native people had pronouncing the names of various white settlers.