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.
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.
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.
(Excerpts from Ebey's Landing Historical Reserve website)
The Ebey's Landing Historical Reserve
More than 30 years ago local residents and committed citzens came together to protect Ebey's Prairie from development. Their efforts helped to establish Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve, our nation's first historical reserve.
Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve is America’s first historical reserve. A unit of the National Park Service. The Reserve was established in 1978 by Congress to preserve and protect a rural community which provides an unbroken and vivid historical record of Pacific Northwest history, from 19th century exploration and settlement to the present time.
Ebey’s Landing includes 25 square miles of a cultural landscape in the heart of Whidbey Island. Within the Reserve boundaries is the historic town of Coupeville, working farms, scenic open space, hiking trails, and two state parks. The Trust Board of Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve is charged with management of the Reserve. The Trust Board is a partnership of local, state and federal governments working collaboratively to ensure the historic and natural resources of the reserve are protected for future generations. Changes in the cultural landscape will continue but in a way that respects the past.
Within the fast-growing Puget Sound region, Ebey’s Reserve has quickly become the only remaining area where a broad spectrum of Northwest history is still clearly visible and intact within a large-scale and partially protected landscape.
This pioneer spirit and vision continues to be a part of the working rural community we have today. The Ebey's Forever Conference held every November, features lectures, workshops and field trips presented, hosted and facilitated by the leading and compelling voices in sustainability, historic preservation, agriculture, education, interpretation, and other disciplines.