Early History of the Area

First Residents
The first residents of Whatcom County were North Coast Indians, who enjoyed the bountiful seafood in local rivers and tidelands. The Lummi, Nooksack, Samish, and Semiahmoo Indians were coastal, Salish-speaking tribes primarily living around the Nooksack and Lummi Rivers. They had inhabited Bellingham and its vicinity for thousands of years. Fishing, especially salmon and shellfish, was a huge part of native life and survival. As such, the Whatcom Creek estuary, although never permanently settled by the Lummis, functioned as an important seasonal fishing encampment, where they could harvest the fish that congregated at the bottom of the falls.

Explorers Arrive
European explorers arrived by ship on the northwest coast in the 1700s, starting with the Spaniards in 1775. The area was then claimed in turn by Russia, England, and finally, the United States. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy named Bellingham Bay for Sir William Bellingham.

Roeder & Peabody's Mill
The first Europeans to stay were fur traders with the Hudson’s Bay Company. As more white settlers arrived in 1852, lumber became currency, with Roeder and Peabody’s Mill constructed at the falls on the Whatcom Creek Estuary. Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody, Bellingham’s first white settlers, arrived from California in 1852 and traveled to the large Lummi village on the Nooksack River. There, Chief Chowitzit (now often spelled Chowitsut) not only gave them the falls and the land surrounding it, but promised to send some of his men to help raise the mill. The impressive and strategically located waterfall, referred to by the Lummi Indians as "What-Coom," meaning "noisy, rumbling water," provided Roeder and Peabody an ideal lumber mill site, and a name for the area's first permanent town - Whatcom. Although relations with the natives soon deteriorated, Chief Chowitsut joined a number of other chiefs from western Washington tribes in signing the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, which consolidated the Lummi Indians into a new reservation on Lummi peninsula.

Population Growth
By 1853, coal mining had begun in the new city of Sehome, and the Fraser River gold rush of 1858 brought over 75,000 people through the growing area. The population expanded slowly until the 1880s and 1890s, when fortune seekers hoping for a railroad terminus descended on the little towns around the bay, becoming workers for the mills, shipyards, and fish canneries. The four towns that had sprung up around Bellingham Bay included Whatcom, Sehome, Bellingham, and Fairhaven. In 1903, all four were consolidated into the city of Bellingham.

Next: Claiming the Waterfront