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Ancient Klickitat Trail served as the early route through South Hill

by Carl Vest

Undoubtedly we’d all agree that South Hill is a very congested place.  However, it hasn’t always been that way.  Settlement on the Hill, as we now know it, is actually a rather recent event.  So, when did it all start?  First, we should never lose sight of the fact that unknown generations of Native Americans were here before the coming of Euro-Americans.  South Hill was in fact at one time a part of a major trail system that connected the eastern and western tribes of this part of North America. It was used for purposes of trade, to communicate, hunt for game, conduct war, and other activities. Historians usually refer to it as the Ancient Klickitat Trail.

By about 1800 explorers had mapped the coastline and major rivers throughout Puget Sound.  Overland parties had also started entering the region by this time.  For example, the Lewis and Clark expedition, while not coming as far north as South Hill, reached the Northwest in 1805.  Further, from about 1800 to 1850 the fur trade flourished throughout the mountains of the west, however there is little evidence that it was a significant undertaking in the Cascade watersheds.

It would appear that the first non-native settlers near South Hill (as opposed to explorers and traders) were the employees of the Hudson Bay Company (HBC).  They arrived around 1833.  Technically speaking HBC did not put settlers onto South Hill.  However, its agricultural activities did reach into the vicinity. 

During the 1840s to 1850s recognized settlements started to appear near South Hill.  The Donation Land Claim Act drew people to Washington Territory but there is no record that any petition for one was ever filed on South Hill.  There are recorded claims along the Puyallup River, in the Spanaway region, and at other points near the Hill, but none on the highland itself. 

Immigrants were headed to the Pacific Northwest in ever increasing numbers by the 1850s.  By then settlement land in Oregon was becoming scarce and more and more people were coming north into Washington Territory.  Most of these groups that have been identified moved onto local river deltas and none have been traced to South Hill.

Government records show that only three cabins existed on South Hill in 1872 when the original map of Township 19 was made.  We don’t know how many people lived in those structures, but probably fewer than a dozen.  So it appears that South Hill was one of the last of the local regions to develop.  It was rugged, covered with old growth trees, and just wasn’t inviting until all other options had been exhausted.

Dozens of farms can be identified on South Hill by the late 1880s.  Thus it can be reasoned that the settlement and development of the Hill started about the middle to late 1870s or early 1880s.  While major growth was still decades away this was the beginning.  It is interesting to note that there are still second and third generation descendents of these early families still living here.

Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.