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Washington is Named for a President who Owned Slaves. Should It Be?

What's behind the name of the state? And who was our first president, really?

DECADES AFTER HIS death, the popular veneration of Washington, really America’s first national celebrity, remained ascendant as settlers relentlessly pushed West. Although plenty of happenstance was involved, the national Cult of Washington would contribute to the naming of what we now know as Washington state in the mid-19th century.

The name wasn’t an issue when Washington became the 42nd state, in 1889 — it already had been decided almost four decades earlier, with the creation of Washington Territory. These events are richly chronicled in a 1988 journal article by the late historian John M. McClelland Jr.

A synopsis: Beginning in the mid-1840s, a relatively small portion of the settlers pushing into space long occupied by Northwest native peoples turned north instead of south upon entering the sprawling Oregon Territory, comprising most of the Northwest. They claimed, often by coercion or force, traditional tribal lands north of the Columbia River that already had attracted settlers by sea, via Puget Sound.

Literally upon arrival, the mostly white settlers launched a secessionist movement, arguing for their own territory with nearer government services and representation than they were likely to receive from the Oregon territorial seat, 300 miles to the south.

They had a distinct preference for the name of their new place: Columbia.

The push to gain federal recognition for Columbia began in the 1840s and was put to paper, officially, in 1851. It was given broader voice by editors of a fledgling newspaper, called … wait for it … The Columbian, which presciently predicted in an editorial: “a legal divorce from the south is inevitable.”

Word of building momentum ultimately reached the territory’s single Congressional representative, Joseph Lane, who begrudgingly introduced legislation in 1853.

Here in this tale arrives the man most deserving credit — or blame — for the big W we wear on our sleeves today: Rep. Richard H. Stanton of Kentucky, a native Virginian, who, as a condition for his vote, insisted on replacing the name “Columbia” with “Washington” to honor the late president. (Bonus reason: He thought people would confuse Columbia with the District of Columbia — ironic, given the constant confusion between his chosen state name, Washington, and Washington, D.C., to this day.)

Another congressman, Rep. Alexander Evans of Maryland, chimed in to back “Columbia.” Surely, he argued, no one objected to honoring George Washington, but countless U.S. towns and counties already bore that name. Affixing it to an area with no logical connection to Washington, the man, would just cause confusion, he contended. Instead, he suggested giving the territory “one of the beautiful Indian names which prevail in that part of the country.”

But Evans’ logic was promptly harrumphed into submission. Lane, just wanting the bill to pass, acquiesced, and the measure sailed through Congress.

Washington, it was. And is.


We are a questioning people; questions will be asked. To wit: Is the name simply settled history, a historical bridge too far to even discuss? Is it a tad troublesome, but not enough to skip lunch over? Or is it a betrayal, wholly unjustified, a historical wrong deserving of righting?