Why Is Olympia The Capital Of Washington? (Not Seattle…)

Sharing is caring!

Hey, what’s the capital of Washington? I’ve been doing pub quizzes and bar trivia in different cities for years now and every single time the question is asked, someone says, “Oh, I know this one! It’s Seattle, right?”

Is Seattle the capital of Washington? This may surprise a lot of people, but no, Seattle is not the capital. That honor belongs to the city of Olympia, which lies about 60 miles away.

You may be wondering why Olympia was chosen as the capital and why they have never moved it to Seattle.

I’ll answer those questions and then tell you a little about Olympia since many people I’ve met have never heard of it and I like to tell people about the city when I can.

Why Is Olympia The Capital Of Washington?

There are several reasons why Olympia is the capital of Washington, so I will start with the oldest.

Before it became a state, the city was the center of trade and American settler activity in the Washington territory. Other cities, such as Vancouver, were populated mostly by the British.

Olympia was also home to the US Customs Office, primarily due to its location at the southernmost point of Puget Sound.

For that reason, the first territorial governor, Isaac I. Stevens, proclaimed Olympia the capital on November 28th, 1853. The Territorial Legislature agreed and proclaimed the city to be the permanent capital just over a year later, in January of 1855.

Temporary Move To Vancouver

In 1859, the Washington Territorial Legislature passed a bill asking the people to vote on moving the capital to Vancouver. Olympia won the vote with only a plurality; it may have changed if there had been a unified movement for another city.

Despite the vote, the territorial legislature then passed a bill moving the capital to Vancouver anyway.

The move was short-lived, however, as the state’s Supreme Court ruled 2-1 against the move, which sent the capital back to Olympia.

The ruling cited the wishes of Governor Stevens, the vote of the people, and fears that Vancouver’s location on the Oregon border could result in undue Oregonian influence in state politics.

There were several additional pushes to move the capital to other cities in the state, although once the actual capital building was constructed, the efforts ended.

Why Not Seattle?

Now that we’ve looked at the historical reasons why Olympia was chosen, let’s look at the modern reasons why the capital hasn’t been moved to Seattle.

First, only 17 states have their largest city as the state capital, which is right around one-third.

One of the reasons often cited for this is to prevent something called “tyranny of the majority.”

If the state capitol is in the largest city, it’s easier for citizens of that city to testify in front of the legislature, which results in the city’s wants and needs being prioritized over the rest of the state.

It’s also easier for residents of, say, Spokane or Walla Walla, to testify before the legislature or do other things in the capital if it’s in a smaller city with less traffic.

Another major factor is that keeping the capital in Olympia prevents the state from putting all of its eggs in one basket, so to speak.

Seattle is already the financial and economic center of Washington. If the government was there, too, a single Earthquake or another natural disaster could singlehandedly wipe out a massive portion of the state’s most important buildings and people.

Granted, it’s only 60 miles away, but still, diversifying provides a little bit of a cushion in case of a catastrophe.

More History of Olympia

Before European and American settlers arrived in the area, Olympia was the home of the Lushootseed-speaking peoples of the area.

Its location at the end of Puget Sound provided excellent opportunities to catch salmon during spawning runs and the plentiful shellfish made it a perfect location for gathering food.

Many local tribes used the location for that purpose, including the Duwamish, the Puyallup, the Suquamish, and others. They called it “Schictwoot,” meaning “place of the bear.”

In 1830, the first European settlers arrived in what is now nearby DuPont, mostly made up of members from England’s Hudson Bay Company. A decade later, the neighboring city of Tumwater was established as the first American settlement north of the Columbia River.

Olympia – The Present-Day Capital

These days, Olympia introduces itself as a beautiful city of just over 55,000 people about 60 miles southwest of Seattle. The metropolitan area, however, includes about 250,000 people.

In 1850, a local resident named Colonel Isaac N. Ebey suggested it be named after Mount Olympus, specifically the one in Washington, not the one in Europe where the Greek Gods hang out.

He chose the name because the mountain could easily be seen from the town on a clear day, being only about 70 miles away.

One of the top attractions is the capital building, which has been open since 1928. Located on a hill downtown that overlooks beautiful Capitol Lake.

Just don’t plan on actually going into the water, since the artificial lake is home to an invasive species of mud snail, which led to a 2009 ban on all private water activities at the park, which remains in effect to this day.

What Does Olympia Have To Offer For Tourists?

Heritage Park along Capitol Lake

Other major points of interest in and around the city include Marathon Park and Heritage Park, both of which offer beautiful views and continue the glorious Pacific Northwest tradition of being home to amazing scenery.

The Olympia Farmer’s Market has some of the most delicious produce you’ll ever taste. It is open four days a week in the summer and has varying schedules based on the weather in the other seasons.

If the market isn’t open, you can still stroll outside on the Percival Landing boardwalk, which gives you great views of Budd Inlet. There are also some great restaurants with back patios here if you’re looking for a great meal.

The Capitol Theatre is home to musical performances, galleries featuring local art, and independent films. The theatre opened in 1924 and has operated continually for the past 98 years.

The theatre is also home to the yearly Olympia Film Festival, a ten-day event that features some of the year’s best independent movies.

The city is also the gateway to Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest, two amazing places to enjoy the outdoors and get away from it all.

Recap and Final Thoughts

To sum up, Olympia is the capital of Washington for traditional and practical reasons. It has been the capital for over 150 years and the state doesn’t feel the need to fix what isn’t broken.

More important to many Washingtonians, however, is making sure that Seattle doesn’t completely dominate state politics any more than they already do.

Many residents of smaller towns in states whose largest city also serves as the capital frequently claim that they’re underrepresented and that their state government only cares about the largest city. Another problem that was avoided by having the capital away from Seattle.

Olympia is a beautiful city with many amazing sights and a fraction of Seattle’s population. If you’d like a quieter vacation in the Pacific Northwest, consider Olympia instead of Seattle. We can’t wait to see you soon!