Tumwater: A Rich History Reflected In Its Name

tumwater wa history
“Lower Tumwater Falls” postcard, circa 1910. This key geographical landmark was the source of Tumwater’s name. Photo courtesy private collection.


By Drew Crooks

salish cliffsTumwater is presently a city of over 17,000 inhabitants located in Thurston County. Though now a modern community, the locality’s rich history is reflected in its name. Indeed, Tumwater has long served as a home for people. The first humans in the area were Native American.  Archaeologists have found evidence of their presence that dates back thousands of years. In the local Native language of Lushootseed, the spot that later became Tumwater was known as SpEkwa’L or “Cascade”. This indicates the traditional importance of Tumwater Falls as a geographical landmark. It was at the southern end of Budd Inlet before the creation of Capitol Lake in 1951.

Explorers from Europe appeared on the scene in the late 18th century. A survey party, part of the British exploring expedition led by Captain George Vancouver, mapped Puget Sound (including Budd Inlet) in 1792. The Hudson’s Bay Company, a British corporation, also sent trading parties through the area in the early 19th century.

tumwater wa history
Michael T. Simmons and other pioneers established the town of New Market on Puget Sound in 1845. This community later became known as Tumwater. Photo courtesy Washington State Archives, State Library Photograph Collection.

Later that century the Company, which was becoming more involved in farming, eyed the Tumwater Falls locality as a potential site for a grist mill using water power. Nothing resulted from these plans, but the river that flowed into the Inlet over Tumwater Falls was named Deschutes (“of the falls”) by French-speaking employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Then in the mid-1840s Michael T. Simmons  and other American settlers came to the mouth of the Deschutes River in search of economic prosperity and a new life. One member of the party, the African-American pioneer George Washington Bush, settled with his family nearby on land that was later named Bush Prairie. They established a successful farm and provided food to a number of settlers who were temporarily in need. Part of Bush Prairie today is the home of the Olympia Airport.

Meanwhile, Michael T. Simmons and other pioneers in 1845 founded a community centered on the Deschutes River and Tumwater Falls. It was the first permanent American settlement on Puget Sound. At first the community was called New Market because it provided a new place for businesses that competed with Fort Nisqually, the older Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading post located near the Nisqually River.

The Deschutes River proved crucial to the development of  New Market. This waterway has three waterfalls near Budd Inlet: Upper, Middle, and Tumwater (or Lower) Falls. In the mid-19th century these falls were seen as potential sources of water driven power for industries. The pioneers, led by Michael T. Simmons, quickly went to work. They soon established both a grist mill and a saw mill near Tumwater Falls.

Reflecting the significance of Tumwater Falls, the name of the American community at the bottom of Budd Inlet changed from New Market to Tumwater. However, the name of New Market is not without representation in the area today. New Market Skills Center in Tumwater  provides career and technical education to high school students. It prepares students for post-high school employment and/or helps them get ready for entering college or apprenticeships.

Still the entire community in the 1850s became known as Tumwater. This interesting place name combined Chinook Jargon (“tum”) and English (“water”). The Jargon had developed over the years as a way of communication between Native Americans and Euro-Americans. It consisted of a mixture of words from both groups, and helped bridge the gap between people divided by language

tumwater wa history
“Middle Tumwater Falls” postcard, circa 1910. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries industries used water power from the three falls of the lower Deschutes River. Photo courtesy private collection.

What does the word Tumwater literally mean? It means falling water that sounds like a human heart beat. “Tum” originates from the Chinook Jargon “tumtum” signifying heartbeat while “water” refers to a waterfall. If said entirely in Chinook Jargon, the expression would be “tumchuck.” Many Native Americans and American settlers felt that the noisy water of Tumwater Falls sounded similar to the beating of a heart.

The Deschutes River continued to be of great importance to the community of Tumwater. Businesses exploiting water power sprung up at the Upper, Middle, and Tumwater Falls. The high point of industry occurred in 1874 with two saw mills, two grist mills, two sash and door factories, one water pipe factory, and one furniture factory in operation near or on the river.  A number of residences were also located close to the waterway.

However, in the late 19th century and early 20th century the use of water power decreased in Tumwater as businesses everywhere in the region switched to other forms of power. Industries along the Deschutes River disappeared. There was no simply no more economic motivation to exploit the three waterfalls.

The construction of Interstate 5 in the mid-1950s led to the destruction of most historic housing near the river. Only the Crosby House (built circa 1860) and Henderson House (constructed in 1905) survived. The City of Tumwater expanded away from the Deschutes River and its three waterfalls.

Fortunately, these falls have been preserved in the Tumwater Falls Park, which was created in 1962 by the Olympia-Tumwater Foundation.  It has been maintained since then by the non-profit organization. Interpretive signs in the Park recall the area’s rich history. The mostly natural area attracts thousands of visitors every year to one-half mile of walking trails. Many of the visitors pause by Tumwater Falls, the namesake of an entire community, and listen to the cascading water. Can they hear the beating of a heart?

Further Reading

Lockman, Heather, and Carla Wulfsberg with the City of Tumwater’s Henderson House Museum, Tumwater (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010).

Palmer, Gayle, L., edited, The River Remembers: A History of Tumwater  (Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company/Publishers, 1995).

Weaver, Lanny, and Jill Kangas, Tumwater Historic District: Water Driven Industry 1846-1895 (Tumwater, WA: Tumwater Historic Program, Henderson House Museum, 1995).


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