It began with a glacier

The rise and rise of Joint Base Lewis-McChord

By Ken Swarner on January 20, 2017

Joint Base Lewis-McChord was once covered by a mile-thick sheet of ice. Geologists believe the greater Puget Sound basin was carved out by this ice (named the Vashon Glacier), which scraped and drove across the region 30,000 years ago.  It was this process that created the perfect flat terrain for military training that we see here today - which inspired first the Washington National Guard to use the land at the turn of the 20th century, and several years later, by the active Army preparing for World War I.

But first

Prior to the discovery of our training grounds in the South Sound, the Northwest was placed on the map by Capt. George Vancouver's expedition by ship here, followed by the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  Meriwether Lewis, the namesake of our base, and William Clark, arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River at present day Astoria, Oregon, on Tuesday, November 19, 1805, strengthening claim to the NW for the United States. Although they did not come this far north, it was these two captains, their NCOs and soldiers, who ushered the way for industry, settlers and of course, the military, to follow. And after their exploration, they reported to President Thomas Jefferson, "The Northwest ... is a land of sylvan beauty ... a multitude of lakes, rivers and streams.  A huge inland body of water, allowing for ideal seaports, extends north and south for 50 miles; innumerable acres of straight and valuable timber, a rich topsoil, and from the ocean outside, easily accessible."

Army soldiers stand in a kitchen at Fort Steilacoom in 1855. Photo credit: Bill Wood Collection

Pierce County's first fort

At the turn of the 19th century, the U.S. Army's primary function was that of road building, map making and exploring.  Still, the primary incentive to settle the PNW was economics, not military advantage.  The British, or more specifically the Hudson Bay Company, was the first to build forts here to protect those interests.  First south in Vancouver, then Victoria, B.C., and finally Fort Nisqually in present day DuPont, the HBC brought the modern world to the region.

Soon, the HBC found it difficult to attract settlers, so in 1838, its subsidiary, the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, attracted nine families from Canada to start farms here.  They left in 1842, dismayed by the primitive conditions.  The PSAC switched to putting employees here, not settlers, and soon farms were actively producing 15,000 bushels of wheat a year, which also drew settlers from the United States to the region as well.  

The second fort

The Treaty of Oregon was signed in 1846, establishing the border between the U.S. and Canada at the 54th parallel, sending the HBC and PSAC packing.  The need for a new fort to support the flood of American immigrants, worried about Native American attacks, brought five U.S. Army officers and 75 soldiers here in 1849 to establish Fort Steilacoom on the grounds of present day Western State Hospital in Lakewood.  The number of problems with the Native tribes was low, so when the Civil War broke out, the active force moved out.  In its place a voluntary militia of Californians and Washingtonians kept the peace for eight more years, but in 1868, the post was closed.

The National Guard

As the population of the Washington Territory expanded, so did the need for protection.  When the population reached 75,000 in 1880, a group of generals were elected by popular vote to organize a Washington National Guard.  They formed six companies from men across the state, and to test their esprit-de-corps, an encampment was held near present day Olympia in 1885.

Subsequently, several more encampments followed, though the location changed.  At American Lake, near the Olympia branch of the Northern Pacific Railway, 220 acres of land were selected in 1903 for a permanent National Guard training camp.  This camp was named Camp Murray in 1915.

The terrain proved excellent, and in 1906, 1908, 1910 and 1912, similar maneuvers were organized.  These camps were instrumental in convincing Army officials to eventually build a permanent post here.  For decades following Lewis and Clark's journey to the Pacific Northwest, settlers, soldiers and politicians recognized the strategic value of the South Puget Sound area.  From Fort Nisqually to Fort Steilacoom to Camp Murray, the momentum slowly built towards the inevitable - the construction of Camp Lewis.