Steilacoom Area

A History of the Steilacoom area
Territorial Towns and Settlements
Lafayette Balch's brother
Nathaniel Orr
Steilacoom’s firsts

This information is provided courtesy of Joan Curtis from the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association.

A History of the Steilacoom area

Steilacoom's history is as long as that of the Washington Territory. The town’s name is derived from an Indian word meaning “little pink flower.” The pink flowers covered the hillsides of the area and are still found flowering today. In the early 1850’s descendents of the Indians in the area around Chamber’s Creek were known as "Steilakumahmish."

The oldest incorporated town in Washington was founded in January of 1851 by Lafayette Balch, a Maine sea captain. He called his new town Port Steilacoom, after the Native Americans in the area and created the beginnings of Steilacoom’s economy. Balch started a brisk coastal trade of shipping lumber to San Francisco and selling goods to the settlers arriving to the area.

Lafayette Balch

Shortly after Balch founded his town, John Chapman, a lawyer from Indiana, founded another town, Steilacoom City, adjacent to Balch’s. Chapman was a lawyer from Indiana, and his eloquent oratory on July 4, 1851 in Olympia set in motion the agitation to form a new government for the Oregon territory north of the Columbia River. With their close proximity, the towns developed an intense rivalry which ended only when the Washington Territorial Legislature incorporated the two towns into one in March 1854.

John Chapman

Besides being the first incorporated city, Steilacoom also has many other firsts from the territorial period.

Steilacoom boasts several territorial corporations. One is the Oberlin Congregational Church, incorporated on April 27, 1883 with eight members.

Oberlin Church, a Presbyterian Church, purchased by the Congregationalists where services were held form 1883-1903

Steilacoom has continued to be proud of its rich heritage. Recognizing the need to preserve and protect the structures of the past, an historic district was established in 1974 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. The pride of its past is evident today as its residents and town officials work to conserve the historic structures and maintain the uniqueness of this small town.

Territorial Towns and Settlements

Steilacoom—founded in 1851 by Maine sea captain Lafayette Balch, originally called Port Steilacoom

Steilacoom City—set up by John Chapman, merged with Steilacoom in 1854

Lafayette Balch's brother

Lafayette Balch had a brother named Albert, a storekeeper in Steilacoom, who suffered from a lunacy caused by the moon being in a certain stage. Charles Prosch, the editor of the Puget Sound Herald (1858-1864) described Albert’s lunacy in his book Reminiscences of Washington Territory.

At first Albert’s family dealt with the lunacy, but eventually his condition worsened and they decided an insane asylum was the only place for Albert. When his appeared again, he was shipped to an insane asylum at Stockton. Yet, when the vessel reached San Francisco, Albert was normal since the moon had changed stages. Physicians pronounced him mentally fit and sent him back to Steilacoom.

Albert returned to Steilacoom in perfect health. Yet "[o]ne morning he was found dead in the woods near town, after having wandered by the light of the moon for hours through the timber with an ax in his hand. He was in his night shirt, and had apparently killed himself by running, as his person contains no wounds.'

This information was taken from Reminiscences of Washington Territory by Charles Prosch, page 88. Used with permission by Ye Galleon Press Farfield, Washington, 1969.

Nathaniel Orr

A view into the territorial period is available by touring the Nathaniel Orr Pioneer Site which has been on the Register of Historic Places since 1973.

Nathaniel Orr was a Virginian who came to Steilacoom in September 1852. Some of his various professions included being a carpenter, coffin maker, wagonmaker and orchardist. Nathaniel was one of the original members of the Steilaocom Library Association, school clerk and served in Company D, First Regiment of the Washington Volunteers during the Indian uprisings.

Current view of the Nathaniel Orr Home

The Nathaniel Orr Home was first constructed as a wagon shop but was then converted into a home in 1868 when Nathaniel married Emma Thompson of Victoria. His son Glenn sold the house to the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association in 1974. The orchard that Nathaniel planted over a century ago still produces cherries, apples, pears and plums as it did during territorial times.

The Nathaniel Orr Pioneer Site is open on Saturday and Sunday from April to October for tours.

Steilacoom’s firsts

    Methodist Episcopal Church
  • First Territorial Court held at Fort Steilacoom in 1849
  • First Port in 1851
  • First Post Office in 1852
  • First Pierce County Seat in 1853
  • First Protestant Church (Methodist Episcopal) North of the Columbia River
    The Methodist Episcopal Church was organized and held services on August 28, 1853. The building was constructed in March 1854. The upper story was used for church purposes and the lower floor was used for a school and gathering place for social and political activities.
  • First Incorporated Town in 1854 Courthouse
  • First School in 1854
    The first public school in the county was held in this building during the summer of 1854. Lydia Bonney, wife of Sherwood Bonney, taught 27 children in her living room.
  • First Court House in 1858
    The Pierce County Courthouse was built in 1858 on land donated by John B. Chapman. Court was held upstairs in this building, and the county offices were downstairs in one large room. Between the circuit riding judges’ visits, the town used the courtroom as a social hall. The court house was later turned into a school in 1887. Constitution/By-Laws Steilacoom Library Association
  • First Jail in 1858
    The Territorial Jail was built in 1858 on land donated by Lafayette Balch. The jail housed local, territorial, and federal prisoners until the McNeil Penitentiary was opened in 1875.
  • First Public Library in 1858
    The Steilacoom Library Association was incorporated by a special act of the Territorial Legislature in February 1858. It was the first civic organization in the county. Funds were collected locally and Philip Keach sailed to San Francisco to buy books for the new institution. The historic Steilacoom library books are now housed in the Steilacoom Museum in the Town Hall building.
  • First Brewery in 1858