Rename Thurston County? Why not?


Recently giving Washington state places new names has been getting attention.

For example, the federal Department of the Interior is proposing renaming geographical sites in Washington that currently have offensive names. A State board is considering changing the name of a waterway in the San Juan Islands from an 1800’s general who “committed reprehensible acts against humanity” to the name of a highly respected historical indigenous leader.

So… how about renaming Thurston County?

Pop Quiz: Who was Thurston County named after? Most likely you don’t know, but many of you likely know that our County was named after Samuel Thurston. And do you know what he did? Some of you, probably fewer than those familiar with his name, might know that he was the delegate to the U.S. Congress from the Oregon Territory.

So how did we get the name Thurston County? Local history tells us that when the territorial legislature was naming counties, the delegation from Washington wanted to name the county after Michael T. Simmons, one of the first pioneers in the County. But Simmons declined the honor and the legislature picked Thurston because of his work promoting Oregon in the other Washington.

(Side trivia: Thurston County originally was almost all of western Washington, but other counties were sawed off until all that was left is the modest-sized county left today.)

So what’s so bad about Samuel Thurston? Oregon historian Elizabeth McLagan reports in “Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon,” that Thurston presented a proposal to Congress for free land to settlers, but only for white men and their wives. The author notes that in a letter to Congress, Thurston argued for the exclusion of blacks and other minorities from Oregon:

The negroes associate with the Indians and intermarry, and, if their free ingress is encouraged or allowed, there would be a relationship sprung up between them and the different tribes, and a mixed race would ensure inimical to the whites; and the Indians being led on by the negro who is better acquainted with the customs, language, and manners of the whites, than the Indian, these savages would become much more formidable  than they otherwise would, and long and bloody wars would be the fruits of the comingling of the races.

A good summary of the history behind Thurston County’s name and the problems with Samuel Thurston can be found in Emmett O’Connell’s 2011 Olympia Time blog post titled, “Why do we still call it Thurston County?” The interest in changing the name has grown with time. FOX-13 Seattle published a story about the idea of a name change earlier this year, with a headline typical of Fox News: “Should Thurston County be 'cancelled?'” It notes the Change.org petition created by activist Ben Corey titled “Thurston County Must Be Renamed”, which currently has more 1,000 signatures.

I talked to Ben Corey about his petition. He said he was motivated by Thurston’s advocacy of black exclusion laws, but also by a history of the Chinook people that credited Thurston with blocking any federal recognition of the Chinook Tribe. He’s been happy with the response to his petition, and said the FOX-13 story added a couple hundred more signatures. I asked him where he saw this headed. “I’ve reached out to Nisqually Tribes, reached out to legislative district organizations. I’ve had conversations, but it didn’t go anywhere. I talked to a Tumwater City Council person who was receptive. People might want to do a ballot measure, or do some canvassing.”

So should Thurston County change its name? Why not? I argue that it should be seriously considered.

Place names are an expression of our values. Many names come from obscure origins and don’t mean much (look up how Oregon and California got named, for example). But many are named for someone that people wanted to honor at the time. As can be seen from history, the Oregon Territory legislature felt it had reasons to honor Samuel Thurston.

But values change. And to change the name of a place is an expression of those changing values. And I believe most Thurston County residents do not subscribe to the values of racism and white supremacy that clearly characterized Samuel Thurston.

So … why not? One argument is simply that “everyone back then was like that”. This is certainly not true – there were objections to black exclusion laws at the time. Thurston’s letter was a response to objections from other members of Congress. So that’s really no excuse.

One might argue that he was our first Congressman, and therefore worthy of honor. But we’ve had a lot of Congressional representatives since then, and surely many represented our values better than Thurston. In fact, Washington as a separate territory and state has never had a black exclusion law. So Thurston represents very little about our region.

Perhaps you have heard a story or two of the pioneer George Bush. He was of Irish-African descent, and his family came with Michael T. Simmons up the Oregon Trail. They discovered African-Americans weren’t welcome in Oregon so he moved to Tumwater where he would be left alone. Bush was renowned for his successful enterprise and generosity. Eventually, he was given the right to own land by a special Act of Congress. So it’s incredibly ironic that one of Thurston County’s earliest and most renowned pioneers settled here to escape the exclusion laws espoused by the County’s namesake.

So…why not? At this point, many people would say that changing the name is a good idea, but it’s a waste of money. The problem with that argument is first, how much is it worth to expunge the name of an infamous racist? Second, we don’t know how much money it would cost and who would pay. So maybe the first step is to say it’s time to consider a name change, and then figure out how the County might do that.

Some more historical notes: several counties have changed their names. Kitsap County was originally called Slaughter County, named after an army officer killed in the Indian Wars. Citizens immediately opted to change the name to an honored chief of the Suquamish Indians. Also Grays Harbor County was Chehalis County until 1915. The name was changed by a single sentence passed by the legislature (page 256 of 804, if you’re curious). And of course, King County didn’t change its name but changed who it was named after – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , instead of Rufus King, a senator from the 1800s.

What could a new name be? I think that should be left up to the citizens of Thurston County. Many suggestions have been made, and there are lots of good choices. There are certainly many historical leaders who represent the values we currently cherish.

One whimsical side thought. Many of you might be thinking “I don’t know who Thurston is, so who cares?” That inspired the thought of fixing the county name. Have a contest for people to nominate someone who was named “Thurston” who was a really nice person. Then the county can keep the same name, and it’s genuinely someone no one knows, but at least it’s a good person.

But seriously, if you, dear reader, and other citizens of Thurston County want to change the name, here’s how I’d go about it:

  1. Start talking to each other. Create an organization dedicated to the name change.
  2. Go to the County and ask them to create an Advisory Committee. The charge of the Advisory Committee would be to document the reasons for a name change, solicit potential names from the community, and determine the cost of a name change.
  3. Educate the public with the findings of the Advisory Committee, and especially educate the legislators representing Thurston County.
  4. With the reasons, potential new names, and costs now documented, go back to the County Commission and ask them to petition the legislature for the name change and the funds for the change.

If the reasons are good, and the citizens of the County want it, maybe through the democratic process the legislature will make the change and help pay for it. But it all starts with you. And … why not?

Paul Pickett enjoyed a long career as an environmental engineer, retiring in 2019 after 30 years with the Department of Ecology.  Since then, he’s been a consultant with the Squaxin Island and Chehalis Tribes. He has served in two elected positions, as a Thurston Public Utility District Commissioner and a Thurston Conservation District Supervisor. Paul taught water management and climate change at The Evergreen State College and has written articles for local and national publications. He serves on The JOLT's Advisory Board. 

Got an opinion on a local topic?   Write it up and send it to us for publication.  The opinions in this piece are those of the writer and not the staff or board of The JOLT News Organization.



9 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • JulesJames

    There is the Howell House on Quince Street. Why don't we pretend Thurston grew up there? Went on to great success, until he got stranded on that uninhabited island.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2022 Report this

  • SheriB

    Although I genuinely agree with this idea, I don’t agree with the change.

    Our tax dollars are much needed elsewhere. So many things would need to be changed, and that takes lots of money. Letterheads, building names, and signs are just a very few examples.

    Let’s focus on cleaning up our county instead.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2022 Report this

  • Honestyandrealityguy

    Institutional knowledge as to exactly why the gentleman was recognized at the time. We all may have flaws. Black racism seems to be taking over.

    Traditionally, we had indentured servants (predominantly white from the Barbary Coast and black from Africa). After working off his servitude, one of the black former indentured servants Anthony Johnson, went to court, and won, for the right to own a person. First he acquired black slaves for himself, then sold to his black friends, then to the native Americans and others, including whites.

    It tok the north about 10 years to do away with slavery. In 1860, when a white Republican freed the slaves, THOUSANDS of black families owned at least one slave, the natives owned TENS OF THOUSANDS.

    We all have burdens to carry. Let's try to be fair to all, including Johnson and Thurston.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2022 Report this

  • Southsoundguy

    Another dumb idea to change a name because they think it will make someone feel better. You can’t rewrite history, just deal with it.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2022 Report this

  • psterry

    Well, we'd have to rename Seattle also. The chief owned at least 8 slaves.

    Perhaps it would be better to rename, not after people, who inevitably become 'non grata' in due time, to name places after non-humans.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2022 Report this

  • burkemeister

    George Orwell said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” All the renaming efforts proposed and those that have been accomplished are part of an effort to cleanse our culture of the past. Slavery is an undeniable fact of our history, it will not go away through cultural cleansing, or reaming our places. If the Samuel Thurston excluded blacks from his proposals, then we should know and learn from that, but "canceling" him is the wrong answer.

    Wednesday, June 1, 2022 Report this

  • AugieH

    George Washington owned slaves. Yet, I don't see any movement to change the name of our state (or the WASHINGTON Monument or WASHINGTON, District of Columbia) to anything else. Oh, puhleeze, Governor Inslee, make my day one of hilarity and suggest it! (When Inslee holds a press conference with the state seal in the background, has it occurred to anyone besides me that Jay would look just like George if he took off his glasses and wore a wig? LOL)

    Wednesday, June 1, 2022 Report this

  • Guccarelli

    I see Honestyandreality guy is sharing his usual "whiny white victim" agenda on here: "Black racism seems to be taking over." Really? Utter nonsense. To quote your lord and master (and we both know who that is),"sad."

    By the way, I'm white, also, just so you don't think I'm engaging in the so-called "black racism" that you're whining about.

    Sunday, June 19, 2022 Report this

  • SandiToeze

    It's one thing to change the name of a river, mountain, or similar places or things, but to rename a county would cause stress and distress to everyone living or doing business here, for starters. A monumental task that would take untold amounts of time and money for every one of us. The actually changing is nothing compared to the cost to all those affected by it.

    Do you happen to know a direct descendant of Samual Royal Thurston? I do. This person lives in western WA and, like their ancestor, is an attorney.

    Not mentioned in this "editorial" is that SRT died on a return trip from the east coast as representative of this Territory and he was only 35 years old.

    How many young people mature in their thinking of the world's ways as they grow up? We all do. I'm sure there's not one of us who has the same opinions and viewpoints today that we had X number of years ago. As has already been stated, political and personal thinking also matures with age. We can't change history by changing a place name. We must make the most of our own time on this earth by admirable accomplishments, creations, and additions to society and our country. And right now we're not doing a very good job of that with all the strife, 'canceling,' name-calling, fighting, etc. that are going on, are we?

    Thursday, July 7, 2022 Report this