Monday, August 16, 2010

I periodically come across a name of a town or county that makes me wonder who came up with it. Over that last few years, I keep encountering the county in Washington State named Whatcom. Each time I see it, I automatically think dot com and Watcom even though the county existed well before the Internet. Watcom International is a company founded in 1981 by three former employees of the University of Waterloo in Canada.

This past week, I again encountered relatives who lived in Bellingham, Whatcom County, Washington. Curious about how this county got its name, I visited the official web site of the county. Although I was not surprised when I did not find anything about the history of the county, I was disappointed that this web site like so many county web sites does not mention anything of the county's history.

From a visit to Wikipedia, I learned that Whatcom is supposedly derived from a Nooksack word meaning noisy water. Nooksack is a town in Washington in which some of my distant relatives lived in the early part of the 20th Century. That name too peaked my interest. I wondered what a nooksack was. My mind envisioned something like a backpack with lots of pockets and compartments or having nooks and crannies. Now I know that Nooksack was a coastal tribe of native Americans who lived in northwestern Washington.

Scrolling down to see the sources used to support the "facts" on the page, I found a link, Whatcom County History. It turns out that the link took me to the official Whatcom County web site. I guess that I did not look hard enough when I visited.

Whatcom County was established on March 9, 1854 in Washington Territory. So it was one of the earliest counties in the state. However, I came across another source from 1893 that on Page 195 claims the county was established on March 9, 1852.

Although Wikipedia claims that Whatcom is derived from a Nooksack word, the Whatcom County Website says that Whatcom is derived from a Lummi word "what coom," meaning noisy, rumbling water. The Lummi were also a coastal tribe that lived in the area when the Nooksack were there.

I then found another web site, The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, that supported the Wikipedia claim regarding the origin of the name of the county. Only this site claims that Whatcom was the name of the Nooksack chief.

The gold rush in California created a demand for lumber and the rumor that the territory had dense stands of Douglas firs brought Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody to Bellingham Bay. They established a lumber mill on Whatcom Creek. A short distance from the mouth of the creek was a waterfall, hence the reason for the name.

I found an interesting article at the University of Oregon concerning the history of Whatcom County.

Thus, without more research I can only say with certainty the following:

• The name Whatcom is based on a Indian word that means noisy water
• Watcom creek has a waterfall near the mouth
• The gold rush in California contributed to the founding of the county.

Although the Whatcom County web site and the 1893 book on the History of the State of Washington disagree on the date on which the county was established, I believe that the 1893 book is in error.

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