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A number of native Indian tribes
lived in this area long before the first white settlers. The 700,000-acre
Colville Indian Reservation is within the county and remains an integral
part of the area. The first settlers came here for furs, shortly thereafter
and silver were discovered. The first area orchard was planted in 1858.
The town of Okanogan began as a trading post near the mouth of Salmon Creek
by Frank "Pard" Cummings in 1886 when the Chief Moses Indian Reservation
was thrown open to white settlement. Okanogan was originally named Alma
for Alma Kahlow, the daughter of a Prussian farmer. The town's name was
changed to Okanogan in 1907. For at least several hundred years prior to
contact with Europeans, the indigenous peoples of The Okanogan consisted
of three major bands of a group called the Northern Okanogans or Sinkaietk,
the Tokoratums, the Kartars, and the Konkonelps. They spoke as many as
seven dialects of the Interior Salishan or Interior Salish language related
to the languages of Puget Sound tribes, but very different from the other
languages of the Columbia basin.
The Okanogans led a semi-nomadic
existence, starting in permanent camps through the winter, then leaving
to hunt bears in the spring, catch salmon in the summer, and hunt deer
in the autumn. One of the most prolific fisheries was at Kettle Falls where
the Columbia dropped as much as 20 feet. Women gathered any of 100 varieties
of nuts, roots, and berries. Permanent camps consisted of teepee-like longhouses
covered with hides, bark, and particularly tules, which grew along water
courses. Each house was 12 to 15 feet wide and as long as 150 feet, housing
a dozen or more people. Summer huts were covered with transportable mats
woven from tules.
The Okanogans traded with other tribes
to the south and across the Cascades to the west. In the late 1700s, the
Okanogans acquired horses from other tribes both for transportation and
for food. In 1782-1783, a smallpox epidemic may have cost the lives of
a third to a half of the people in the Okanogan.
William Clark of the (Lewis and
Clark expedition) Corps of Discovery was the first to map the Okanogan
River based on his interviews of Indians at the mouth of the Snake River
in 1805. David Thomson of the North West Company was the first European
to visit the Okanogan River when his expedition paddled past the mouth
down the Columbia in July 1811. A few months later, David Stuart and Alexander
Ross of the American Pacific Fur Co. built a log cabin at the mouth and
called it Fort Okanogan. This became a base for trading goods for beaver
pelts collected from the north by Indians. Fort Okanogan was taken over
by the North West Co. in 1814, which sold it to the Hudson's Bay Company
in 1821. The paths up the river became the Okanogan Trail.
Territorial Governor Issac Stevens
(1818-1862) signed the Walla Walla Treaty with tribes of the Columbia Basin
in May 1855. He regarded the Yakima Chief Kamiakin as representing the
Okanogan bands to the north, even though Kamiakin did not even speak their
language. Stevens met, but never signed treaties with the northern tribes
before war between the Indians and the whites broke out. The Indian War
of 1855-1856 did not really touch the tribes of The Okanogan.
The honor of being the first American
to settle Okanogan County falls to one of two men, Hiram Francis "Okanogan"
Smith (1829-1893) or John Utz (b. 1824). Utz was a "shadowy backwoodsman"
(Wilson, 67) and moved on, but Smith stayed to became a prominent commercial
and political leader, so Smith is often identified as the county's First
Citizen. In the 1850s and 1860s, few pioneers made their homes in The Okanogan,
but many miners arrived to dig gold and silver. With the departure of the
Hudson's Bay Company, former employees took up farming in the Colville
The Okanogan tribe and other tribes
of north central Washington Territory never signed treaties ceding their
lands to the U.S. Government. In 1871, Congress authorized the president
to establish reservations by executive order and Ulysses Grant created
the Colville Indian Reservation in 1872. This was to be home to about 4,200
Methows, Okanogans, San Poils, Nespelems, Lakes, Colvilles, Calispels,
Spokanes, and Coeur d'Alenes. White settlers whose homes fell within the
vast area protested and had the Colville Valley in the east subtracted.
At one time, all of today's Okanogan County was an Indian Reservation.
But miners and settlers lobbied the government relentlessly until the reservation
was reduced in 1886 to the contemporary Colville Indian Reservation, home
to the Colville Federated Tribes.
Gold strikes in New Caledonia --
the Okanagan (Canadian spelling) and Fraser River valleys of British Columbia
-- in 1858 attracted prospectors from California to the region by way of
the Columbia River. These incursions triggered Okanogan County's one battle
of the Indian wars, an ambush of a 160-member party of miners at a defile
called McLoughlin Canyon (named for the leader of the party) on July 29,
1858. Three miners died and several more were wounded. The U.S. Army launched
a punitive expedition into the valley, but they turned back without finding
anyone to punish. The following spring, the Army established Fort Colville
at Mill Creek in the Colville Valley.
The boundary between the U.S. and
Canada ran through Lake Osoyoos and was marked only with a Canadian customs
station at what would become the town of Osoyoos. As miners discovered
gold and silver, a precise boundary was needed to clarify claims. From
1858 to 1861, surveyors from the Royal Engineers and the U.S. Army established
a boundary starting at Point Roberts and running to Montana. The location
of the border was determined sometimes through scientific calculation and
sometimes through consensus and compromise. The engineers cut a 60-foot
swath through timber and erected stone markers to mark their survey. Since
most of the traffic was northbound in the early years, the U.S. did not
establish a Customs Port of Entry until 1880.
Once Indian title to most of the
Okanogan had been extinguished in 1886, miners were free to exploit the
gold and silver there. The ensuing mining boom saw the founding of Ruby
City (later Ruby), Conconully, Solver, Loop Loop, Oro (later Oroville),
and other camps, and the construction of some substantial mines and stamping
mills. Chesaw comes from the Chinese chee-saw or good farmer and a cordial
host and is the only municipality in the U.S. named after a Chinese. In
1890, the non-Indian population of the county numbered 1,509.
The end of the boom came with the
repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, the drop in the price of silver,
and the Panic of 1893. Mining continued to be an important activity into
the twentieth century, but Okanogan County was never more than fourth in
gold production in the state.
Now days Okanogan
county's main industries include apples, lumber, mineral mining and cattle
Cattle ranching led to The Okanogan's
most notable celebration and athletic event, the Omak Stampede. This annual
rodeo was first held in August 1934. Publicity Chairman Claire F. Pentz
proposed a horse race involving a wild plunge down a sandy bluff and across
the Okanogan River to the arena. Most riders were Native Americans and
the winner received a cash prize, a saddle, and a belt buckle. Winning
was a significant accomplishment for residents of the Colville Reservation.
The 55-second, one-fourth-mile Suicide
Race became the most popular -- and most controversial -- of the county's
annual events. Some horses were injured and a few had to be destroyed.
When two 13-year-old riders were hurt, the minimum age was set at 16. Horses
had to be five years old. Animal protection advocates persuaded some sponsors
to withdraw in the mid-1980s and pressured organizers to stop the event.