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Coupeville's History

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Coupeville is one of Washington's oldest towns and the seat of Island County. Situated on Whidbey Island, at Penn Cove, the town was once the site of three permanent Lower Skagit tribal villages.

British Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) made journal entries of his visit to the island in the summer of 1792. He named it in honor of Joseph Whidbey (1755-1833), master of the HMS Discovery, and Penn Cove in remembrance of a friend. The native word for the island was Tscha-kole-chy. Vancouver met a small number of Skagit Indians and wrote that their tribes had once flourished but had been decimated by disease.coupeville 1920s

Coupeville was named for sea captain Thomas Coupe, who arrived on Puget Sound on the bark Success. Scouting the area, Coupe settled at Penn Cove in 1852. His wife, Maria, and their family joined him there in 1853 and Captain Coupe worked as a coastal trader, sailing both the Success and the Jeff Davis, the first revenue cutter on Puget Sound (part of the armed maritime law enforcement service). He also built and operated a number of small schooners as well as a steamer that he also named Success. The Coupes did not initially file for their property and settler C. H. Ivans claimed the same piece of land. On April 3, 1854 Coupe filed his claim and eventually paid Ivans to clear the title. It was not until September of 1865 that Coupe was granted the property, the west half assigned to him and the east 160 acres to Maria.

The Coupe and Alexander properties on Penn Cove eventually comprised the town of Coupeville.

While Whidbey’s sea captains conducted coastal trading, most of the settlers were drawn to the island’s rich prairie land. Here they farmed, planting and selling wheat, oats, barley, fruit, and potatoes, and even raising sheep. Settlers soon found that logging was their best cash crop. Using primitive tools, they began cutting the forest. It took the changes in logging technology that would come in the twentieth century to enable the massive removal and marketing of most of Whidbey’s trees.

Skagit-Indians-on-Penn-Cove-005Indian unrest following the Point Elliott Treaty signing in January 1855 led Whidbey settlers to build four blockhouses for protection. Colonel Isaac Ebey had taken the earliest Donation Land Claim near Ebey’s Landing and in 1852 served as a representative from Thurston County in the Oregon Territory Legislative Assembly. During his time of political service, Ebey helped to form Island, Jefferson, Pierce, and King Counties. In 1853, Ebey was appointed as Island County’s first Justice of the Peace and also served as a probate judge. This same year, President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) appointed Ebey as Collector of Customs for the Puget Sound District. Ebey promptly moved the Customs House from Olympia to Port Townsend. During the Indian Wars (1855-1856), he commanded a company of Washington Territorial Volunteers.

On August 11, 1857, Ebey was shot and beheaded at his home on Whidbey Island by southeast Alaskan Kake (Tlingit) Indians in retaliation for the killing of 27 Kake tribal members during relocation talks aboard the US Navy steamer Massachusetts the previous year. Ebey’s murder spurred residents to build three more blockhouses. Four of these seven remain and over the years have been rebuilt and restored.

In 1881 Coupeville became the Island County seat and began to look like a real town, with an increasing number of homes, stores and churches. Water routes were the main avenues of transportation until 1900 and their efficiency actually slowed the progress of road development. “Mosquito Fleet” steamers operated out of Coupeville, running to Bellingham in the 1890s. The town prospered from shipbuilding and from shipping fish, produce, lumber, and timber.

Coupeville Incorporation
By 1900 Coupeville’s population was around 300 but the opening of Fort Casey in 1901 quickly added a floating population of more than 300 men to Central Whidbey and residents began pushing for town incorporation. Coupeville needed better roads, utilities, dock improvements and city fire and police services.

In February 1910 the Island County Board of Commissioners called for a vote on Coupeville incorporation and town boundaries were accepted according to a filed plat of Coupeville. Thomas and Maria Coupe’s property formed the eastern portion of the town, with John Alexander’s property making up the western portion.

Not all residents were supportive of city incorporation, many expecting the loss of good island farmland and a rise in taxes, but on April 2, 1910, Coupeville residents voted 41 to 36 in favor of incorporation and approved a roster of candidates. Charles H. Lyon (b. 1862) was elected as mayor with J. Straub, A. D. Hallock, Albert R. Kineth, Edward O. Lovejoy, and H. W. Libbey elected to city council. Articles of Incorporation were filed with Island County commissioners on April 4, 1910, and recorded with the state of Washington on April 13.

Sections Taken from: Essay 9587

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