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How Washington came to be named after the first US president

The Evergreen state was named after George Washington, but it wasn't the preferred choice from settlers looking to break away from the Oregon Territory.

VANCOUVER, Wash. — On November 11, 1889 Washington was admitted as the 42nd state to the union. Its origin began to take shape 38 years earlier in 1851, three years after the Oregon Territory was established.

At the time, the Oregon Territory was huge. It stretched from the border of California and ran north to include British Columbia. Settlers north of the Columbia River wanted separation from the large territory.

"Essentially, the reason why they wanted to split was they lacked representation," said Jennifer Kilmer, director of the Washington State Historical Society. "Settlers wanted services. They wanted postal services. They wanted transportation services and they just weren't getting that from Oregon."

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In the next couple years, two conventions would be held to petition for a new territory to be established. They were called the Cowlitz and Monticello Conventions, which were held near present day Longview.

During the Cowlitz Convention on August 29, 1851, delegates came up with a name.

"They wanted it to be Columbia Territory. I think naturally, that came from the dividing line, with the Columbia River," said Kilmer.

A year later during the Monticello Convention on November 25, 1852, delegates drafted a petition and sent it to Territorial Governor of Oregon Joseph Lane for approval. Lane and the legislature approved the petition and sent that to Congress, but not everyone like the proposed name.

"They say they want 'Columbia' and there's a representative from Kentucky who says that'll be way too confusing, because we already have the District of Columbia, and at that time it was called the Territory of Columbia," said Killmer.

On March 2, 1853 Congress approved and President Millard Fillmore signed off on the new territory, naming it the Territory of Washington instead after the first president of the United States, George Washington.

"I love the fact that the initial 'no that's too confusing' has completely been turned on its head. It's a constant source of confusion," said Killmer. "If you say you're from Washington, they will assume that you're from Washington D.C."

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During the territory's path to statehood, prominent lawyer David Dudley Fields II suggested in a lecture to the American Geographical Society in 1885 that names of places should be named Native names and not that of famous people. So he suggested that it be named the State of Tacoma. Tacoma is the original name for Mount Rainier.

Ultimately, the name of Washington stuck and was approved as the 42nd state admitted to the union on November 11, 1889. And that's what's in a name. 

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