What Used to Be at Martha Washington Park?


Click HERE to see a few historical photos of Martha Washington Park.

In 1921 the Parental School For Girls opened at a 9.87 acre parcel carved from Edward A Clarks’s holdings. In 1972 the City of Seattle acquired the site, which by then had been renamed to Martha Washington School for Girls. And in 1989 the buildings were demolished and the site converted to the park we have today.

But what existed here before 1921? What did the ecosystem look like and who lived here?  The evidence is that Martha Washington Park was part of a Garry Oak ecosystem that extended from Pritchard Island to Seward Park and that the ecosystem was maintained by Native Americans.

Oaks Grew From Seward to Pritchard

It is beyond doubt that a highly unusual concentration of Garry Oak trees grew in the area from Seward Park to Pritchard Island:

  1. Early government surveys (see Flora of Seattle in 1850, Ray Larson) noted Garry Oak, a tree which was noted in only one other area in all of Seattle (the Oaktree Village area at N 100th St and Aurora). I recently went thru many of the surveyor’s field notes and found that not all transects thru the area noted oaks. The notes are difficult to access (being scanned copies of hand written notes) and because I couldn’t find all the transects, I don’t believe I have done a complete search. Still, I found 2 transects where oaks were noted and these are shown on the map (click to see map). Its interesting that no oaks were noted for transects thru what is now Seward Park, Martha Washington Park and the Oakhurst Neighborhood yet these areas still have concentrations of Garry Oaks.

  2. AL Jacobson noted several Garry Oaks in the area including a centuries old Garry Oak at Martha Washington Park which fell n 1987. (See Trees of Seattle, p 291. AL Jacobson).

  3. Concentrations of Garry Oaks still exist at Seward Park (20+) and Martha Washington Park (9) and 5 Oaks on properties on Upland Street. Occasional trees on private property indicate the extent of the Oaks, as do street names such as Oakhurst and Oaklawn. Several large oaks are on private property, including

  4. A massive, ancient oak on the corner of 51st and Holly

  5. A huge oak on the corner of Lakeshore Dr and Eddy St, which was within a few vertical feet of the shoreline before 1916.

  6. 5 oaks on Upland Road properties. With one exception these are behind the houses, near the back property line. It’s likely that other oaks were cut to facilitate home building.

  7. In 1852 John Harvey and Edward Clark established adjoining claims in the area between Seward and Martha Washington Parks. The area was known as Clark’s Prairie. They had all of Seattle to choose from, yet they homesteaded far from Elliot Bay.  Why?  Contemporary records (journals) and land grant records document a strong preference for settlers to settle on lands that were open land maintained by First Peoples. These lands were usually named after the settler (e.g. Jenkin’s Prairie in what is now Covington). The Indians thought the land was valuable, too, and Clark and Harvey felt it wise to move closer to town after the Battle of Seattle in 1856. The approximate location of Harvey’s claim, derived from the surveyor’s notes, is shown on the map. Clark’s claim included what is now Martha Washington Park.

  8. The xachua’bsh, or Lake People, were a sub-group of the Duwamish who lived on Lake Washington. They had 13 villages and longhouse sites along the lake shore, including a site to the south of Seward Park and a site on Pritchard Island. It is now well known that Oaks and Native Americans depended on each other. Native Americans used fire to suppress conifers and other unwanted vegetation so that food and medicinal plants would be favored.  Without fire, the ecosystem becomes dominated by conifers within a few decades. (see Patterns and Processes of Indigenous Burning, Linda Storm).  While there is no oral history of maintaining an oak ecosystem in this area, the Lake People had the capability and motivation to maintain an oak ecosystem for hunting, gathering and camas production.

  9. xaxao’łč, or Taboo Container. This is the Duwamish name for what is now Martha Washington Park. It was given this name of mystery and foreboding because of bubbling waters off the shoreline. These bubbling waters were likely due to a spring that emerged just off shore. If so, this would support the idea of a village or seasonal encampment because the area tribes preferred sites with running water, usually a stream. There is still a spring at Martha Washington Park. It bubbles up near the east end of Warsaw Street as you walk towards the water. The spring runs from November or December until May, during most years. There are other spots at MWP that are indicative of possible springs, though this is the most prolific spot, with water bubbling out of the ground at many gallons per minute. Such sources of water would have enabled MWP to have been used as a campsite or even as a permanent residence, which would have enhanced it’s value as a food producing site.

A Question

Before discussing what the oak ecosystem looked like in pre-European times, a question comes up: If the oaks were growing in the area from Seward to Martha Washington, why didn’t the government surveyors note them more frequently?  Several possible reasons come to mind:

  1. Garry Oak is not considered a timber resource tree. The surveyors were looking for economically valuable resources. Its possible that they sometimes ignored the oaks, especially if they were small. Repeated burning or cutting (e.g. for firewood) sometimes forces oaks to regenerate from their rootstock, resulting in a stand of multi-stemmed, smaller oaks, similar to the oaks at Oak Tree Park in Tacoma.

  2. The oaks were not a continuous stand. This would be consistent with the Native American practice of clearing garden areas with fire that was noted in “Keeping It Living”, Deur and Turner.

  3. Some of the oaks had already been cut as settlers cleared land for farming. Harvey and Clark established their claim before the date of the surveyor’s notes, which might explain why no oaks were noted when the survey transected the Harvey claim.

  4. The surveyor’s notes are not the same thing as a species survey. After transecting a section boundary (nominally 1 mile), the surveyor wrote something like “Fir, Cedar and Maple, soil 2nd rate, understory same as before”.  Not exactly a careful survey of the flora. There could easily be several oak trees, even some possible cleared areas, along the mile and the surveyor would not necessarily note them.

  5. I couldn’t find some of the notes for some transects so its possible that additional transects noted oaks.

  6. Smallpox reached the Pacific Northwest in the 1770s. The initial epidemic was followed by secondary epidemics of smallpox and by other European diseases. Overall death estimates range from 60-95%, with the hardest hit ages being those of young, healthy adults. Such destruction would have meant the end of many traditionally maintained oak ecosystems because there would have been hardly anyone left to maintain them. The surveys were conducted 100 years after the epidemic so it is likely that the original oak ecosystem was already invaded by conifers.

In any case, it is clear that by the time the settlers arrived, Garry Oaks were not the dominant tree from Seward Park to Pritchard Island, though it is possible that they were dominant before smallpox arrived. While they appear to still have been represented over that whole area, they were most likely in patches or occasional trees that were still surviving even though conifers had encroached. It is also likely that the entire area from Pritchard to Seward was not completely open nor an oak savannah, but rather a patchwork of open and forested areas. (A good example of this is the prairies on the Olympic Peninsula that were maintained by the Makah, several of these prairies survive today).

What Did the Oak Ecosystem Look Like?

It is, of course, impossible to know exactly what species existed in pre-European times. Surveyor’s field notes indicate that Salal, Ferns (probably Sword, Wood and Lady Fern), Salmonberry, Blackberry and Gooseberry were common and its possible to make some educated guesses based on reference ecosystems and traditional practices.

First, what it wasn’t:

  1. It wasn’t a prairie like those near Olympia. Prairies are characterized by, among other things, specific soil types which have never been noted in the area. Simply being sandy or well drained is not enough. Yes, part of it was called Clark’s Prairie, but that most likely referred to the open nature of the area which might have looked similar to the S. Sound prairies (i.e. camas, wildflowers, grasses).

  2. It wasn’t an oak bald. The surveyor’s notes consistently reported 1st and 2nd rate soils, meaning deep soils, if rocky. No rock outcroppings were reported, no areas of surface rock with soils of a couple inches. Even the top of Graham Hill was reported as 2nd rate soil and no oaks were noted there. The oaks are on the east side of Graham Hill and in the lowlands to the south of it vs the top and west side of the hill.

This basically leaves deep soil oak woodland as the ecotype, which is consistent with other oak woodlands found from Oregon to British Columbia. The Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team has documented 8 reference Garry Oak Ecotypes representing different soil/water conditions and research has shown that many “prairie” species would thrive in mesic, deep soil sites (like this area) as long as fire was regularly applied. Two ecotypes are most likely to apply: Deep Soil Average Moisture G.O. Communities and Deep Soil wetter G.O. Communities.  (See: Restoring British Columbia’s Garry Oak Ecosystems, chapter 8, for descriptions of the ecotypes). If one takes into account the current heavy, clay like nature of most soils at Martha Washington Park, then the second ecotype --  Deep Soil wetter G.O. Communities -- is most likely.

What, besides oaks, would have grown there?

First Peoples were burning to increase food production, so a selection of food bearing (and game attracting) plants would have been favored.

Camas would be at the top of the list. Not only is it tolerant of a wide range of soil and moisture conditions, but there is an oral tradition in the Duwamish tribe of cultivating Camas. Certainly Camas would have been grown. The most likely species would have been Camassia leichtlinii, which does well in deeper soils and part to full deciduous shade, especially oaks. C. quamash is also possible.

It is also likely that other food and medicinal plants such as Balsamroot, Yarrow, Strawberry and Rice Root (Fritilaria affinis). Grasses such as Bromus californica, Elymus glaucus and Deschampsia caespitosa are good possibilities. Carex inops could also have grown as well as many prairie wildflowers such as Delphinium sp., Lillium sp. and Allium sp. These would all have grown in areas where fire was used to eliminate competing shrubs.

Coastal and Puget Sound tribes also used burning to stimulate berry production. These would include Thimbleberry, Salmon Berry, Trailing Blackberry and Gooseberry. The area could have been a patchwork of open and shrub covered areas within an oak woodland (see the above referenced chapter 8 for comments about this possibility).

We can also get some clues from the shrubs that currently grow at Martha Washington, Seward and Beer Sheva Parks:

  1. The dominant native shrub under Martha Washington’s Garry Oaks is Snowberry (Symphorocarpus alba). Snowberry is commonly found in Oak ecosystems when regular burning is terminated. Snowberry is also found at Seward. This, however, is not a strong indicator as snowberry grows in many areas.

  2. There is a small native population of Ceanothus velutinus and of C. sanguineus at Seward Park. Ceanothus is a fire dependent genus because its seeds will only germinate after a fire. Its existence shows both that fire was part of the ecosystem and that fires did not occur every year in every place, since it takes a few years for Ceanothus to produce seed.

  3. Madrones, including the massive Smith Madrone which used to stand at MWP, are indicative of an ecotype that wasn’t dominated by conifers.

  4. Piper’s Willows that are at least 30 years old and are unlikely to have been deliberately planted grow at Beer Sheva wetland. They can be observed at the South end of the old Atlantic City Nursery site. This is a species that is very likely to have grown along the shoreline.

Oak Tree Park -- Tacoma

A similar ecotype exists in Tacoma and we can get some clues from it.  Oak Tree Park, a 25 acre remnant of what was once a much larger Garry Oak community has much in common with Martha Washington Park.  It is hilly vs being a flat, glacial outwash area. The canopy is 50-75% closed and there is a dense shrub middle story.  The ages of the oldest oaks are similar to those at MWP and Seward.

However, unlike MWP, there are many oaks of all ages, showing that oaks have been regenerating. This difference is almost certainly due to the lack of ivy at Oak Tree Park (ivy covered the entire Oak Slope at MWP and only since it has been cleared to we see oak seedlings).

Also, snowberry represents only about 10% of the shrub middle story at Oak Tree Park. Indian Plum and Ocean Spray are far more common and there is a healthy amount of swordfern, honeysuckle and other species.

Oak Tree Park is one possibility of what MWP might have looked like if ivy, privet, blackberries, holly and english hawthorn had not been allowed to take over the site.

A  few photos of Oak Tree Park are HERE.


While we can’t say exactly what Martha Washington Park looked like in pre-European days, we do have many indications of what might have grown here. Our approach will be to use species that are known to have grown in such an ecosystem in our restoration. Due to many factors, including the soil disturbance that has occurred over the decades and the lowering of the lake in 1916, we expect that some of those species will refuse the conditions, but we hope that enough will accept them that we can restore some semblance of the beauty and diversity that once existed.

A History of the Brighton Beach Area. A brief history of the neighborhood from Seward Park to Pritchard Island.

Seward Park History. Including First People’s, Martha Washington School.

Martha Washington School History. Some detail about the school.

Original Oak Extent. A discussion of the original extent of oak woodland in SE Seattle from Ray Larson’s Flora of Seattle in 1850.

Earth Day Presentation.  A presentation given on Earth Day 2013 that goes into the history of oaks and Seattle.

List of Duwamish Villages on Lake Washington.

Article on how to read the land to learn its history. Mentions “the nose”, or Seward Park, as an Oak woodland/prairie that was maintained by Native Americans.  Written by Linda Storm.

Seward Park History. A brochure produced by Friends of Seward Park. Much information on the history of the area.

Seattle’s original flora, a 2006 article about the varied ecotypes of 1851 seattle. A little about oaks, with much about bogs, fens, madrones, prairies and other ecotypes. a good read.

A map of Western WA in 1898 showing the classification of lands. You can zoom in to any area in WA. Take a look at S Seattle. Notice the amount of burned area in the Duwamish valley. The rest of Seattle is marked as “timer cut” or developed, so it’s impossible to see how much burned land there originally was, but this shows that there was a lot in WA and even in Seattle.