History & Culture
When the first Euro-American settlers came to Central Whidbey Island, they found a land tempered by centuries of human habitation. As early as 1300, the Skagit Indians had established permanent villages on the shores of Penn Cove. The island provided an abundance of natural resources for their sustenance—salmon, bottom fish, shellfish, berries, small game, deer, and water fowl. The Indians cultivated the prairies with selective burning, transplanting, and mulching to encourage the growth of favored root crops like bracken fern and camas. more than 1500 American Indians were recorded in the area in 1790. By 1904, the Indian population around Coupeville was reduced to a few small families.
Whidbey Island was named by explorer Captain George Vancouver in honor of his Lieutenant, Joseph Whidbey, who explored the island in a ship's launch in 1792. Vancouver's well-publicized exploration of Puget Sound helped prepare the way for settlers to the area. A more important inducement was the Donation Land Law of 1850, which offered free land in Oregon Territory to any citizen who would homestead the land for four years. Newcomers flocked to the fertile prairies of Central Whidbey and, within three short years, had carved out irregularly-shaped claims that followed the lay of the best land. Today, this early settlement pattern can still be seen by the fence lines, roads, and ridges of the Reserve.
Colonel Isaac Neff Ebey was among the first of the permanent settlers to the island. Upon the advice of his friend Samuel Crockett, Ebey came west from his home in Missouri in search of land. Both men had filed donation claims on Central Whidbey by the spring of 1851. Ebey wrote home, enthusiastically urging his family to join him.
"My dear brother— I scarcely know how I shall write or what I shall write . . . the great desire of heart is to get my own and father's family to this country. I think it would be a great move. I have always thought so . . . To the north down along Admiralty Inlet . . . the cultivating land is generally found confined to the valleys of streams with the exception of Whidbey's Island . . . which is almost a paradise of nature. Good land for cultivation is abundant on this island. I have taken a claim on it and am now living on the same in order to avail myself of the provisions of the Donation Law. If Rebecca, the children, and you all were here, I think I could live and die here content."
Ebey's family soon emigrated to the island. The simple home of Isaac's father Jacob, and a blockhouse he erected to defend his claim against Indians, still stand today overlooking the prairie that bears the family name. As for Isaac, he became a leading figure in public affairs, but his life was cut short in 1857, when he was slain by northern coastal Indians seeking revenge for the killing of one of their own chieftains.
Today some farmers of Central Whidbey still plow donation land claims established by their families in the 1850s. Their stewardship of the rich alluvial soil preserves a historic pattern of land use centuries old.
Fertile farmland was not the only incentive to settlement. Sea captains and merchants from New England were drawn to the protected harbor of Penn Cove and the stands of tall timber valued for shipbuilding. Many brought their families and took up donation claims along the shoreline. One colorful seafaring man was Captain Thomas Coupe, who startled his peers by sailing a full-rigged ship through treacherous Deception Pass on the north end of the island. In 1852, Coupe claimed 320 acres which later became the town of Coupeville on the south shore of the cove.
The early success of Central Whidbey's farming and maritime trade transformed Coupeville into a dominant seaport. The past remains apparent in Coupeville today, with its many 19th-century false-fronted commercial buildings on Front Street, its historic wharf and blockhouse, and its rich collection of Victorian residential architecture.
The military introduced another layer of history to the landscape of Central Whidbey, with the construction of Fort Casey Military Reservation in the late 1890s. Built on the bluff above Admiralty Head, Fort Casey was part of a three-fort defense system designed to protect the entrance to Puget Sound.
The first contingent of U.S. Army troops reported for duty in 1900, and eventually numbered 400. The fort became a social center for the surrounding community, hosting ball games, dances, and other social events. Today, the handsome wood-framed officers' quarters, the gun escarpments, Admiralty Head Lighthouse, and other remnants of military history still stand at old Fort Casey.
Near the north boundary of the Reserve is Fort Ebey, a remnant of the defensive build-up of World War Two. To the south, the 1943 Coupeville Outlying Landing Field is still used today, providing aircraft carrier landing practice for Navy pilots.