Island County’s original inhabitants were members of the Coast Salish tribes — Skagit, Snohomish and a scattering of Clallam — who lived in communal longhouses and practiced a subsistence lifestyle, dining on fish, shellfish, wild game, roots and berries. Diseases brought by European and American explorers from the late 1700s to the early 1800s decimated this indigenous population (it’s estimated that in some areas diphtheria, smallpox and measles killed 90 percent of them), and by the time settlers came pushing in from the east, the tribes were too depleted to resist.
British sea Capt. George Vancouver, commander of HMS Discovery, ventured into what would become Island County during a 1792 exploratory voyage, along with surveyor and naval engineer Joseph Whidbey. Whidbey circumnavigated the island through Deception Pass, proving to Vancouver that the land to the south was indeed an island. Vancouver, in response, named it after his shipmate.
A Catholic missionary touched shore in 1840, and by 1841 there was a small Catholic mission with a two-acre garden at Penn Cove. The first settler, farmer Thomas W. Glasgow, arrived in 1848. He and wife Julia, daughter of the Snohomish tribe’s chief, selected land for their home and farm, but while Glasgow was filing his land claim in Olympia, about 8,000 Indians from Pacific Northwest tribes gathered at nearby Penn Cove to discuss what to do about settlers seizing their hunting and fishing grounds. By the time Glasgow got home, feelings were running so high that his wife urged him to leave immediately. She joined him in Olympia, where they settled and raised their family, never to return to Whidbey Island.
Two years later, lawyer Isaac Neff Ebey became Whidbey Island’s first known white settler by claiming 640 acres of fertile prairie and shoreline on Admiralty Inlet to grow potatoes, wheat, carrots, peas and other crops. He sent for his wife, two sons and eight other family members to join him on Ebey’s Prairie, where he build a blockhouse to shelter against hostile Native Americans and a commercial dock on the shore for Puget Sound trade. He was named postmaster of Port Townsend, Washington, across the inlet, and rowed to work there every day. He was active in the region’s government and judiciary and was colonel in command of a 100-man unit of the new Washington Territorial Volunteer Militia in 1855. Such was Ebey’s fortune and success that other would-be settlers, hearing about it, flocked to take possession of more Native American lands, to Ebey’s undoing. In 1857, a Native American war party seeking revenge for a Haida chief’s slaying by Americans came looking for the most important American they could find for a proxy killing: Ebey. When he answered the knock at his door, the war party shot him dead, scalped and beheaded him, and escaped by sea.
After the Oregon Territory Legislature carved out Washington Territory’s Island County from the territorial Thurston County on Dec. 22, 1852, more settlers moved in, mostly farmers but lumberjacks as well (ships used wood from the plentiful oak trees for decks and planking, and the tall, straight Douglas firs were ideal for masts and spars), and communities began to dot the pastoral setting.
Coupeville, county seat and oldest town on the island, was founded in the early 1850s by Capt. Thomas Coupe, the only man known to have taken a square-rigged sailing ship through treacherous Deception Pass, and looks today much as it did in the 19th century. Only an hour from downtown Seattle, Coupeville takes pride in its active-life opportunities, such as hiking, biking, kayaking and sailing. The Admiralty Lighthouse is here, as are the Coupeville Arts Center, Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, the Island County Historical Society Museum, art galleries and antique shops, wineries, heritage farms and farmers markets.
Oak Harbor, 10 miles north of Coupeville, was established in the early 1850s as well, by Dr. Richard Landsdale, who named the small bay fringed by Garry oaks after the abundant trees. The Irish moved in within the decade, and in the 1890s, the Dutch followed; the Dutch influence is still visible more than 125 years later, with windmills, Dutch architecture and many, many tulips. The town incorporated in hope in 1915, but was almost wiped out in July 1920 by the “Oak Harbor Fire.” The farming community struggled against the double whammy of business losses and the Great Depression until January 1941, when the U.S. Navy selected a site north of town for a seaplane base to rearm and refuel PBY Catalinas for defending Puget Sound. By November, the Navy’s plans had expanded to include an airport for land-based aircraft, strategically located to guard the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the entrance to Puget Sound, and the military remains a major resource for the island to this day.
Little Freeland, 17 miles south of Coupeville, was platted in 1900 between Holmes Harbor and Mutiny Bay as Whidbey Island’s sole utopian community by a group of South Dakota socialists, the Free Land Association. Their plan was to give away land to members who then would all work together for the common good, but in 1920, the group went bankrupt. Now, Freeland is the banking center for South Whidbey Island as well as the home of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, the Island’s largest private employer. Residents there numbered 1,486 in 2014.
These days often called “Puget Sound’s Largest Artist’s Colony,” Langley, on a South Whidbey Island bluff overlooking the waters of Saratoga Passage and the Cascade Mountains, was laid out in 1890, had a post office by 1891 and incorporated in 1913. It served as central supplier for outlying farmers (then, it styled itself “Hub of the Island”) and was the western terminus for the steamer Camano, which took passengers and goods to Everett and Seattle. By the 1900s, South Whidbey Island had become a popular summertime destination, and a good many Langley households took in summer boarders. Truck farming was common, and fruits and berries were so abundant that a large commercial cannery was built in Langley to supply the whole region. Since 1924, the Island County Fair (now known as the Whidbey Island Fair) has been held in Langley every August. In more recent years, artists have colonized Langley and its environs — painters, sculptors, glass artists, wood and metal workers, photographers, authors, poets, actors and musicians.
The southern end of the island has become a commuter bedroom community for Seattle and for Everett, where Boeing’s Everett Production Facility is located; workers travel to and from their jobs on Washington State Ferries.