We acknowledge that this Indigenous land now called Pioneer Square is the ancestral land of the Coast Salish people. We recognize, honor, and respect the Indigenous peoples connected to this land; past, present and future.

Pre-1850 Seattle’s First People

Ancestors of today’s Duwamish and Suquamish people were living here about 10,000 years ago. Until the advent of modern transportation, the region’s many waterways were their primary means of travel. Tribes along the coast traveled to fish, hunt, gather seasonal bounty, and visit family and friends. During the winter months they lived in villages. Scattered strategically throughout the area, permanent   longhouses were erected for shelter, celebration, and trade. Djijila’letc translated as “little crossing-over place”, was one such seasonal village, located amidst a lagoon and a sea of tideflats in what is today Pioneer Square.

Native Americans were present when white settlers came to homestead, resulting in a comingling of the two cultures in the early frontier days. Chief Si’ahl or Chief Seattle, was the leader of both the Duwamish and neighboring Suquamish peoples. He sought alliances for the prosperity of his people, including those with the new settlers. Though the Native Americans helped the early settlers, the American settlement led to uneasy relations after the Battle of Seattle in 1856, a brief skirmish between white settlers and Indians. By 1865, Seattle’s first city council banned Native Americans from entering the city. The Native Americans who helped settlers build their city continued to exist amongst the white settlers, but slowly moved out as the city became more and more urban.


Early Seattle

The Denny Party arrived at Alki Point in 1851 and moved across to the eastern shore of Elliott Bay at Little Crossing-Over Place in the spring of 1852. For the settlers, this was a land of unbelievably large trees adjacent to a magnificent harbor, Elliott Bay. Henry Yesler settled here shortly after the settlers moved to Pioneer Square and started the first steam sawmill in the region. Doc Maynard came to Seattle determined to build a city, starting with the first general store. His friend Chief Seattle helped him homestead in the “little crossing-over place” and in turn Maynard was instrumental in the city being named for Chief Seattle. Seattle was incorporated in 1869 with more than 2,000 residents. The city’s first neighborhood was Pioneer Square.


Cultures shape Pioneer Square

Mixes of cultures and ethnic groups shaped Pioneer Square. In 1861 when William Grose arrived in Seattle he was Seattle’s second black resident. “Big Bill the Cook” Grose opened Our House (located on Mill Street, now Yesler Way) in 1876. In the spring of 1883 he had accumulated enough funds to build a three story hotel for working men located along Seattle’s busiest street on the south side of Mill Street near Yesler’s Wharf. When the 1889 Seattle fire destroyed the hotel Grose retired from the hotel and restaurant business and moved to a 12 acre farm in the Central District.


The Chinese were an integral part of Seattle’s development; railroad construction, Great Fire rebuilding, canneries, mines, and logging camps. Others established restaurants, laundries, and small businesses to start the original Chinatown along South Washington Street between Second and Third Avenues South. Following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883, working class Chinese were prohibited from immigrating to the United States. With Chinese labor shortages and less stringent immigration laws, Japanese immigrants established their community, Nihonmachi, centered on Main Street extending from Pioneer Square up to the Central District. For a half century, Nihonmachi thrived running hotels and businesses. Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, 7,000 ethnic Japanese were forced to leave Seattle and sent to internment camps. After the war, while Japanese residents returned to Seattle, Nihonmachi never reached the population or size of the pre-war community. (Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, A. Curtis 26368)


Great Fire & Rebuilding

In June 1889, the Great Seattle Fire burned a thirty block area, most of the city’s downtown core. The day after the fire, townspeople held an open air meeting amidst the smoldering remains of disaster. They vowed to rise again like a phoenix. Wooden buildings would be prohibited, and only stone and brick exterior buildings would be permitted. This was also an opportunity to build elevated streets to deal with sanitation and constant flooding. Within a year, hundreds of new buildings had been erected. Even today, Pioneer Square is valued for the concentration of Richardsonian Romanesque buildings that were created immediately after the 1889 fire. (Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 6991)



Much to the disappointment of Seattle’s early settlers, the Northern Pacific Railroad picked neighboring Tacoma as the northwestern terminus of its transcontinental rail line in the 1870s. In 1890, the Northern Pacific continental railroad extended its main line from Tacoma to Seattle and in 1893 the Great Northern railway arrived along the waterfront. Citizens waited until 1906 for the Great Northern’s James J. Hill to build them a depot, known as King Street Station, Adjacent to King Street Station is Union Station, which was built in 1911 as a result of disputed between rival railroad companies. Over time, the railroad brought numerous immigrant communities in the city and were also serviced by immigrants and Africa American porters. Union Station’s last passenger services were in 1971, although you can visit the building during open hours. Today, only King Street Station continues to serve passengers. (Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 29610z)


Alaska Gold Rush

The city greatly prospered from a rebuilding boom after the Great Seattle Fire until a national economic panic struck in 1893. In 1897, following a period of bankruptcy and unemployment, gold was discovered in Canada’s Klondike River. On July 17th, 1897, the SS Portland steamed into Seattle carrying a ton of gold, which captured the imagination and spirit of the nation. Seattle became the jumping off point for the Klondike Gold Rush. While few people made their fortune by going to the Klondike, many people profited in Seattle by supplying the stampeders with gear, shelter, and entertainment. (Photographed by LaRoche, courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 1617)


Smith Tower

Smith Tower celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2014. Opening on July 7, 1914, the Smith Tower was Seattle’s first skyscraper. At 42 stories, it was the fourth largest building in the world and remained the tallest building west of Chicago for nearly 50 years. The 35th floor, furnished by the last Empress of China as a gift to Lyman C. Smith. His fortune funded construction of the tower. The room features a hand-carved wood and porcelain-inlay ceiling, ornately carved blackwood furniture, 17th-century works of art with access to the Observation Deck, and commanding views of the city. (Photographed by Todd, CF, courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Todd 12397)


Preservation and the Arts

In the early 1960s, the destruction of the elegant Seattle Hotel and its subsequent replacement with a parking garage known as the ‘Sinking Ship Garage’ spawned a grassroots preservation movement to save Pioneer Square from the wrecking ball. A series of newspaper articles piqued curiosity about underground areaways in Pioneer Square, which led to the creation of a tour of the areaways. The tour was created as a means to engage the public in signing petitions for the preservation of the Square. Later it became a fixture in the neighborhood by drawing tourists to the area. By 1970, Pioneer Square was Seattle’s first Historic District. Eventually, individual buildings, such as the Pioneer Building, received individual historic designations. Artists and other members of the creative workforce ‘discovered’ the beauties of the neighborhood, enlivening and broadening the culture of Pioneer Square. In general, the 1980s saw considerable downtown development, followed in the early 1990s by the boom. By the ’90s, significant cultural institutions moved to downtown and Pioneer Square. An exciting author reading series, started in Pioneer Square, jumpstarted the city’s literary community. Local artists and gallery owners started Seattle’s first Art Walk in 1981. Three major theater companies located themselves in Pioneer Square, as did a new weekly publication. The grunge music scene in Seattle blossomed in Pioneer Square with live music clubs, who featured bands such as Mud Honey, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana.(Photo courtesy of PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, Museum of History & Industry, 1983.10.6827)


Kingdome Opens

Immediately south of Pioneer Square, on the filled-in tidelands where Hooverville was pitched in the Depression, The Kingdome was built. The stadium brought hoards of sports fans to Pioneer Square, reshaping the business district around it. The Kingdome was torn down through implosion in 2000 and replaced by two new stadium. This development created a sports district on the south edge of Pioneer Square. (Photographed by Robert Brittain, courtesy of King County Archives and can be reused under CC License)


Nisqually Earthquake

On Feb. 28, 2001, the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually earthquake rocked the Pacific North West, with some of the strongest trembling felt along Pioneer Square. It was the biggest earthquake in the Puget Sound since 1965 causing property damage to the value of at $3 billion. While some infrastructure repairs extended the following decade, the neighborhood recovered and no buildings were lost due to the quake. Photographed above is the earthquake damage to the Cadillac Hotel which has been repaired and restored, and now serves as the permanent home for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Museum and National Park Service office. (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, Fleets and Facilities Department Imagebank Collection, Record Series 0207-01, Item 113523)