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 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 Island 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.